Tongo Eisen-Martin

Heaven is All Goodbyes

Griffin Poetry Prize 2018
International Shortlist

Book: Heaven is All Goodbyes

Poet: Tongo Eisen-Martin

Publisher: City Lights

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.

Tongo Eisen-Martin


Tongo Eisen-Martin’s previous book, the critically acclaimed someone’s dead already (2015) was nominated for a California Book Award, and his poetry has been featured in Harper’s Magazine. He is also a movement worker and educator who has taught in detention centres from New York’s Rikers Island to California county jails. He has been a faculty member at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, and his curriculum on the extrajudicial killing of Black People, “We Charge Genocide Again!”, has been used as an educational and organizing tool throughout America. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Judges’ Citation

“Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes moves between trenchant political critique and dreamlike association, demonstrating how, in the right hands, one mode might energize the other—keeping alternative orders of meaning alive in the face of radical injustice. Eisen-Martin’s voice is a chorus of other voices, many arising from prisons and landscapes of engineered poverty; his poems are places where discourses and vernaculars collide and recombine into new configurations capable of expressing outrage and sorrow and love. This unpredictable volume is equally a work of commitment and of wonder; no false consolation, no settling for despair. Its music makes a clearing in the dominant logic of the day. “When a drummer is present, he or she is God // “I am not an I. / I am a black commons.”

Tongo Eisen-Martin reads Four Walls

Four Walls

A lot of God can happen in three seconds
                             Not much heaven though

Here is a man before a fight: A leave-me-alone type of character
emerging from the penniless death
of a one-way-street fiction
                    I mean I’m going to make it
                    even if I have to drive backwards

All I have is chord changes and a thousand backhands
               Driving a street like I’m choking it

Car full of nephews
There hasn’t been a son since November
And there hasn’t been a street I can’t choke to death

This city better back down

See this gun on the table
And something about staring until it all feels stable

Why wouldn’t I protect everyone

All my deaths sleep late
And I name them all

My son better be quick
My daughter better shoot first

Because we fold for no one
We fold for nothing

Ok, the first thing you’ll feel is a heat
     This lady would tell me
     Telling me about possession
Drink life neat is what I’d mostly hear
And most of the world leaves me alone

               To breathe like a giant
             To go to jail every once in a while

When the genocide kicks up in late May
When politicians have too easy a time:

I’m gassing backwards out of a one-way street
In honor of myself
And in honor of you (if you understand the nature of the world)

                             How long have I been
                             just like my father
                             One hell of a
                             resemblance says the
                             anxiety of five men
                             This is crossroads
                             Crossroads narrative
                             So much crossroad that
                             they got in the habit of
                             turning back
                             Turn back only to
                             find themselves
                             remembering me
                             But not my last words
                             A man before a fight

You will feel a heat
But there’s nothing to keep in mind
Nothing to remember
Really nothing to be
Just this moment
Then another
Then stare
Then it all becomes stable
Then the table legs go fuzzy
And Friday is an unfamiliar face peeking through the window

It’s cool to panic for a second
Composure is wasted on your worst enemies

     People are marked on that sidewalk
     You are the only thing life-sized
     Everybody knows this
     In a wire hanger empire
     When the blood stops walking
     This feeling isn’t father enough to be permission to fold
     You better swing one more time

That father of yours
Rose from the grave and said, just give me five more minutes
Said, running water is a myth
It’s us who run up, down, and along side of this water

And people don’t rise from the grave
They are not laid down neither
It’s us who flip all round their body

So beware when the people around you look like they are about to jump
It might be your time

You’ll feel a heat

And when four walls demand to be four walls
And the earth outside mutes
Do not panic

Do not recreate the earth outside
Do not tell jokes to yourself
Do not talk disrespectfully to the four walls
Instead, unclench your fist and walk away

There might be heaven
if you understand the nature of the world

From Heaven is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin
Copyright © 2017 by Tongo Eisen-Martin

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Photo credit:
Tongo Eisen-Martin, by Shalom Bower