Chances Are Few

Buy this book from Amazon.comLorenzo Thomas
Blue Wind Press ($19.95)

by Christopher Luna

In his introduction to this expanded second edition of his first major poetry collection (originally published in 1979), Lorenzo Thomas provides an extremely pragmatic statement of his poetics:

Always it has seemed sensible to me to accept the proposition that the poet is the man who suffers; that to speak of that suffering helps us to understand how such experiences shape people and the world. Understanding such things might teach us how to make life less painful, our relationships less brutal. As our nightly entertainments and the watchman's alarums both reveal, ours is a society full of brutalities decked out in excuses. True civility would show us how to install intelligence and wisdom in the place now haughtily occupied by destructive sophistication.

Chances Are Few is a thoughtful collection of plainly spoken and unpretentious observations, some which underscore the brutality of society, and others that are more subtle. There is a specific "I" present in many of these poems, but "he" is never intrusive or self-aggrandizing. The immediacy of his social commentary is compelling, as in the final two stanzas of "Security," which describes the increasingly "crazy" behavior of Thomas's fellow Americans:

All Americans are going going
"Those honkies" hissed
The protestants at the pier

And "I, too, am an American"
Dreamed a lovely desirable gone white girl
Marvelously sedated in a chair

Similarly, "Broadway-Lafayette Espadrille" captures the particular rhythm of the inner monologue that often accompanies travel in the city, as well as the anxiety created by both the close quarters and lingering tension between persons of different ethnic backgrounds.

Another standout piece is "The Rule of Thumb," a poem dedicated to Ron Padgett which follows the mind's meanderings in a Tulsa motel room, as the narrator watches TV and drinks Coors. In "Sketches of Susan," Thomas admits the difficulty of capturing the essence of a person in words, and contrasts the work of other artists, such as Mary Cassatt and Frank O'Hara, to his own perceived inability. "Hiccups" is a vibrant and sometimes humorous poem that consists of sketches of a "typical West Indian childhood."

"Class Action" makes effective use of movie-going customs to illuminate racial and socio-economic disparity. The futility of both defiance and indifference in response to segregated theaters is debated. As Thomas states, the former solution, "hurling Jujubes" from the balcony onto the heads of the white folks below,

Does as little good as the pleasure of being ignored
Being stolen away from yourself
One casual phrase at a time, or suddenly
A traumatic abduction from your own protection
Anxious yes and easeful as your "own"
Or after slackening of care by days
Being looked at as if you were wallpaper;
As strategy, it isn't logical a bit
But if it works, it's a breakthrough to logic.

Unlettered negroes called this logic Jazz
Relating thought to life, love to projection
Spirit entertained by spirit
as in life
And when the movies chose to speak
The voice was Jazz

Thomas is as skilled at evoking the power of speech ("Discovering America Again") as he is at providing unflinching scenes of race relations ("Art for Nothing," "Souvenir of The Manassah Ball") that are both shocking and poignant.

The ambience of many of the poems is provided by geographical setting, and the book closes in Houston, Texas, the "Liquid City" that provides the final section with its title. Thomas leaves us with an image of hope, discovered in the reflection of the sun upon the glass windows of the tall buildings that may help to correct the "gulf between us and ourselves":

We need a song that all of us can sing
A true reflecting. A moody, bright, expansive song.
In all this glass, when every face is seen,
These mirrors will hold conversations with the sun.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004