When the books are closed, I have the idea Terrance Hayes’s more memorable poems use lust as an engine; when I actually look at his poems, though, something weirder and shyer is animated there. “Woofer (When I Consider the African American),” from 2006’s Wind in a Box, relates a bus stop seduction completed in “the basement of her father’s four story Victorian,” with her father upstairs and the whole place covered with “feathers left after the Thanksgiving slaughter / executed by a 3-D witchdoctor houseguest.” The removal of clothes is exciting, but the obliteration of expectations is what really gets his poems moving; “Woofer” ends with the image of the human race as “linked by a blood filled baton in one great historical relay.” And though it’s set at a gay bar and it ends with the question, “How could I not find them / beautiful, the way they dive & spill / into each other, // the way the dance floor / takes them, wet & holy in its mouth,” his 1999 poem “At Pegasus” has only one line of dialogue, and that’s to tell a man hitting on him that he’s “just here for the music.” This bait and counter maneuver figures in one of the better poems in Lighthead, “A House Is Not a Home,” which shades into his other major mode, situation-comic:
It was the night I embraced Ron’s wife a bit too long
because he’d refused to kiss me good-bye
that I realized the essential nature of sound.
When she slapped me across one ear
and he punched me in the other, I recalled,
almost instantly, the purr of liquor sliding
along the neck of the bottle a few hours earlier
as the three of us took turns imitating the croon
of the recently deceased Luther Vandross.
One theory of poetry has it that a poet tells an audience a story about a recognizable subject, starting from the familiar then switching back and forth between the known and the unknown. You don’t have to live by that theory to enjoy reading poets who appear to do so. Hayes has a commanding sense of character and narrative, and if the trouble his narrators get into ever feels formulaic, it’s usually a tell that he’s about to switch codes. In “Not a Home,” the broad set-up fades to the speaker revealing that he’s actually applying for a job at “the African-American Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute.” AAA AAII, pronounced “aaaaah aieeee.” It’s on the cute side, but there’s a sharp edge; the high-sounding culture rescue reasons he gives for wanting to work for the institute boil down to capturing “the sound particular to one / returning to his feet after a friend has knocked him down.”
The poets who come to mind while I’m reading Hayes’s best work share his antic sense of situation and his edgy decency: Tony Hoagland, for example, or Paul Beatty. They don’t fritter the reader’s attention with extra examples of whatever, and when Hayes is on point, neither does he. In “The Avocado,” the speaker is at a black history month event playing along while another speaker retails the names of Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman:
“In 1971, drunk on the sweet, sweet juice of revolution,
a crew of us marched into the president’s office with a list
of demands,” the black man tells us at the February luncheon,
and I’m pretending I haven’t heard this one before as I eye
black tortillas on a red plate beside a big green bowl
of guacamole made from the whipped, battered remains
of several harmless former avocados. If abolitionists had a flag
it would no doubt feature the avocado, also known as the alligator
pear, for obvious reasons. “Number one, reparations!”
If you think this is prose, maybe you’ve heard avocados called alligator pears before; I haven’t. I also haven’t heard this particular mixture of reverence for and irritation and identification with a historical figure; the poem ends with neither the lecturer nor the eating speaker, but with Tubman:
pointing a finger black enough to be her pistol barrel
toward the future or pointing a pistol barrel black enough
to be her finger at the mouth of some starved, stammering slave
and then lifting her head to listen for something no one but her could hear.
The critical question with this book isn’t is it good or should you read it (yes and of course), the question is: how do we praise work when it works, without accidentally ruining the promise of future good work. I like his poems best when they only risk being silly or direct to the brink of cruelty, but this probably falls under the heading of criticism of limited practical value. Perhaps it’s enough to express a curiosity about what the reserved character who keeps turning up would do if he weren’t a character. Maybe nothing.
The usual way a poet comes to nothing, of course, is being ignored. Hayes is safe from this danger. Sometimes he’s part of the brigade of poets offering therapy for survivors of the trenches of stupidity of American race relations, and sometimes he’s on a one-man mission to rescue desire for its place at the heart of poetry. His first book was so good that every book of his since has had to live through comparisons to its elder brother. His fourth book, Lighthead, is no different, except that it won the National Book Award. As with his other books, it’s a mixture of anthology pieces and exercises performed with high spirits, nerve, and indifference to the usual categories.
I’m not wild about his formal innovations; the book includes several twenty-section pieces, a form he calls pecha kucha after an updated chalk-circle format. Invented by architects to defeat an occupational tendency toward long-windedness, pecha kucha has speakers improvise twenty-second long speeches about twenty slides one after the other. It might be a good fit for a plodder, or someone in need of Wallace Stevens’s kaleidoscope, minus Stevens’s unfortunate interest in cemetery decorations. Hayes is not a plodder, and the form encourages a miscellaneous show-offiness in him. His homages to Gwendolyn Brooks and James Dickey, too, strike me more as signals to potential constituencies than as poems where he shows up. I’d be surprised to see them in a future selection of his work. There hasn’t been a moment since I’ve first read him when I’ve doubted that there would be a future selection of his work, though, or that I would look forward to reading that book.