Terence Hayes: Master of Form

When it comes to form, nobody does it like Terence Hayes: he understands the larger view of form as a Force that can drive a point right into your heart. In this New Yorker article, author Dan Chiasson says that the sonnet, a form Hayes calls “part music box, part meat grinder,” became the poet’s vehicle of choice for his recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin , because for him,

the sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.

In the book, the American sonnet both contains and assaults his assassins: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” The form itself being the brainchild of “the L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013 and who coined the term American sonnet. Who considered the term as referring to a more “improvised” sonnet that used jazz techniques and musical patterns.

The language is powerful and immediate, exuding worlds and threats. This is what sets Hayes apart: the combination of power, poetic skill (unique use of craft), unrelenting content, and an intensity of heart that drives all this into a tour de force of words closing in on flesh.

All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lilies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.

A list that also serves as ammunition, a kind of automatic fire that thrills with its sheer brilliance and expanse of imagination. And also with its truth, how he disgorges the racist and white supremacist attitudes made flesh in the form of Donald Trump and his followers. To which this collection is addressed, among other things.

This word can be the difference between knowing / And thinking. It’s the name people of color call / Themselves on weekends & the name colorful / People call their enemies & friends.” 

Trump is a palpable undercurrent throughout the book, and occasionally Hayes addresses the President directly, calling him “Mr. Trumpet”:

. . . You ain’t allowed to deride
Women when you’ve never wept in front of a woman
That wasn’t your mother. America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it. You can’t
Grasp your own hustle, your blackness, you can’t grasp
Your own pussy, your black pussy dies for touch.

These poems all happen in the mind, which has been portioned into zones called “I” and “you.” Both assume countless different roles, but what remains constant is their reliance upon each other and their tendency to flip positions. This makes the work morally ambiguous in ways some readers will resist: I suspect that not everybody will recognize “blackness” as any part, even a rejected part, of Trump, a man whose loathing of black people seems unabashed.

Yes, “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse. “You are beautiful because of your sadness,” Hayes admits. And yet: “You would be more beautiful without your fear.” 

In the form he invented:

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should diebefore I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
II. 1991
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
——————-
The Blue Terrance
If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,
the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:
this match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,
and the lyrics asking: How long has your door 
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows
of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song
in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why
the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love
watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit
and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No 
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-
house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic
than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
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My Book To Love the River Now Available!!

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My first full-length poetry collection, To Love the River, is now on sale at the publisher Kelsay Books’ website! This is much sooner than I had imagined, months earlier than its projected publishing date, so this is a huge and happy surprise. The book is the culmination of many years’ work, the subject matter spanning a river’s worth of emotions and experience condensed into the craft of both formal and free verse poetry.

The cover art is by the Swedish artist — a pioneer of abstract art pre-Kandinsky! — and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) whose séance-inspired (and later simply inspired) paintings are finally getting recognition in her first solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Like her work, my poetry also reflects a subtly spiritual perspective on life.

Here is one sample poem from the book, which echoes the “dawn” theme woven through some of these poems, “The Word for Dawn,” first published in Sukoon journal.

The Word for Dawn

Fajr: the j a mere mirage, light on the tongue,
just melting into r, no vowel between,
bluing into nothing but a turning of the lips.
I hear it like a distant motorcycle,
its street lost in a cricket’s heartbeat,
and I find it leaking tiny drumbeats from
my son’s earbuds fallen from his ear,
buzzing in his sleep. Newborn wasps,
tinny, revving j’s straight through the r’s
that rise and thread their little lights
where teeth touch lips and feel the furry f’s
a darkness, void, a space of hairy night.
A single hair-edge turning from the deep.

My Review of Neely’s Passing Through Blue Earth in WRR


The Whale Road Review has published my review of Cynthia Neely’s chapbook Passing Through Blue Earth. Please check it out, as well as the fine poetry and reviews in this truly excellent site. Well worth your time. Also here is a link to where you can buy a copy of Neely’s award-winning chapbook, selected by the fantastic and illustrious Kwame Dawes, one of my favorite poets too.

My Review of Ladin’s Fireworks in the Graveyard at The Rumpus!

The Rumpus has published my review of Joy Ladin’s transformative poetry collection Fireworks in the Graveyard” today here. Joy Ladin is quite an amazing person herself, and enlightened me, in the process of reading her work and about her struggles, about the deep connection between transexuality and religious faith. The review explores this and so much more. Please check it out!

Review of In No Man’s Ear in Tupelo Quarterly


My review of R. Nemo Hill’s latest book, In No Man’s Ear, has been published on Tupelo Quarterlyhere. The book, available at Dos Madres Press, is a must-read, in a visionary class by iself, so please check out the review, published along with two fascinating reviews well worth your time, by Sara Rauch and Okla Elliott. I’m thrilled this review is in TQ, thanks to editor Kristina Darling.

Review of Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar on ABR

American Book Review has published my review of Quincy Lehr’s recent poetry collection, Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar.

Check out the review link above which is a significant sample, but for the full review you’ll need to get the print version or subscribe.

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My Review of On Loving a Saudi Girl on The Rumpus

imageCheck out my review of Carina Yun’s award-winning chapbook On Loving a Saudi Girl on The Rumpus.net site (a fantastic site for book and poetry lovers) today!!

My Review of Lababidi’s Balancing Acts Published

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Thethepoetry, a fine site for all things poetry, including reviews, essays and interviews, has published my review of the inimitable Yahia Lababidi’s new book, a “collected poems” with an intro by H.L. Hix (says something right there) that will simply blow you away (the book, of course). Who says poetry can’t be enlightening? Check it out.

My Review of The Lillian Trilogy published!!

Autostraddle has published my review of Mary Meriam’s comprehensive poetry collection The Lillian Trilogy here! It’s a fantastic book for anyone to read, a delight. Feminist, Lesbian, Sensual, full of subtle and penetrating rhyme and rhythm, seething in its exposure of injustice and moving in its declarations of pain and sorrow. Check it out!

Review: Gail White’s Asperity Street

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Asperity Street
By Gail White
With a forward by Rhina P. Espillat
Ablemuse Press
$18.95

Reading Gail White’s new book, Asperity Street, aside from its infectious tone that had me by the end thinking in rhyming quatrains, led me to the conclusion that poetry books such as this need an entirely different form of recognition: the patent. In this case, for total mood-altering. More effective than St. John’s wort (trust me on this), White’s poems get into you, usually “cat-quick and scalpel-sharp,” like the “Brother and Sister” of the poem by that title, with a certain “love that wields a hunting knife.” Getting out of an emotional slump, it seems, is best done with a sharp eye for truth in all its irony, mitigated only by that “thing” called poetry, and of course, a sense of humor.

The usual reader will generally respond to and recall those poems that they can relate to in some way. I was surprised to find so much in this book that resonated, my life having taken quite different turns. This, of course, is my ad hoc litmus test for universality, which is the natural result of straight-up honesty. For example, my life has been as far from “well-planned” as one could imagine. Yet this poem resonated, and brought me to appreciate what I actually do have.

Sudden Euphoria of a Middle-Aged Southerner

Youth gone and beauty never having come
nor money either, where’s it springing from,
this sudden joy? Fine weather and the slope
of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape
of heron fishing on the bank, is part
of it. The rest is books and art,
good health, two cats, a marriage going strong
for twenty years, a friendship just as long,
plus writing, and the love of what I write.

Summing up joys, I savor my delight:
this is as close as I will ever get
to the mystic’s peak of holy self forget-
fulness, the warrior in his savage bliss,
the lover’s ecstasy. I’ll stop at this—
a sense of living in a world well-planned.
Is this contentment? Yes. Well, I’ll be damned.

Well, who hasn’t experienced “sudden euphoria,” unexplainable in conventional terms? We look around us and occasionally are reminded of the good things: if not the same ones listed here, then other ones. But certainly “the slope/ of green lawn on the bayou, snow-white shape/ of heron fishing on the bank” are simple pleasures with universal access. But the clincher here, and in many of her poems, is that last line. A very typical Southern response, but here with a subtle twist of both “what people think be damned” and the surprise of sudden realization, in a word whose meaning is the opposite of its appearance.

Among those listed pleasures are two cats. Which figure in White’s poetry almost as archetype for the poet’s attitude: strongly independent, unpretentious, sharply observant yet soft at the same time, taking the time to luxuriate. In “Passion Spent,” a villanelle in tetrameter, she puts it in a different way:

My heart, an old and tired cat,
surveying age’s box of toys,
will not uncurl itself for that.

A hundred arks on Ararat,
the horses of a thousand Troys—
my heart, an old and tired cat

spurns hero’s crown and cardinal’s hat,
and whether love’s for girls or boys,
will not uncurl itself for that…”

Like a cat, the poet here is supremely unimpressed. She says “old and tired,” but one suspects it’s more a matter of having other priorities. Of which, gardening is not one. Now here’s something I can really identify with from “I Come to the Garden”:

I can name so few flowers. This is why/ I’m not a better poet…

Now finally, someone who’ll actually own up to this possible poetic deficit I also have, which comes down to this:

Mine is a gravel garden, where the rake
is all the cultivation I can take.

Those who tire of the conventional deification of infancy and its caretakers will find relief here in “Looking Through the Nursery Window:”

The babies seem alike as geese.
I hardly know which one’s my niece
until a nurselet points her out.

White manages to cut through the niceties with enough humor to get away with it. I mean, “nurselet!” Let’s hear it for Gail.

In “Postcard to Miss Dickinson,” she takes another icon to task:

I’m somebody? Well, no,
Perhaps a half one, though,
While you’ve been somebody for years—
Perhaps you didn’t know?

How dreary to be Nobody!
How fetid, like the Bog
Where chortling frogs exult above
The stifled Pollywog!

Did I say I needed that? Now for the biggest takedown we humans will have to face, White’s poems do not disappoint. As Rhina Espillat said in her lovely forward to the book (which I’ve scrupulously avoided copying), the book’s sections and their progression are based on Shakespeare’s stages of life (or anyone else’s for that matter), and we all know where that leads. Here’s an observation that puts an element of disarray into even that seemingly inevitable progression, from “The Way It Ended,” a sort of synopsis of life’s stages:

A golden anniversary came around
where toasts were made and laughing stories told.
The lovers found the laugh, but not themselves, was growing old…

She started losing and forgetting things…
Daily he visited the nursing home
to make her smile and keep her in the game.
Death came at last. But old age never came.

I’ve heard much wisdom in my life, but that nugget has never come my way. Downright astute! And beautiful. (Bear in mind I’m giving you only snippets of poems much better enjoyed whole.) And it changes entirely what death means. What else but poetry could do that? And do it honestly?

Finally she faces her own diagnosis: “a single cell has gone berserk./ And now my death begins its work.” Yet our work has its triumph, and it is neither in fame nor fortune, nor any lasting legacy. (Thus also undercutting the supposed takedown of scientific fact.)

The work of all our lifetime lets
us look on death with no regrets:
we vanish as the snow forgets.

Here is a book whose calling card is its style (deftly done formal), but whose prize is content. It’s always good when the reader identifies with the author in some way, and here White has succeeded. There is a certain practical and unpretentious transcendence to be found here. It’s right there in the very first poem quoted above.

With so much more than I can include—poems about everything from not being asked to the prom, a speech for Juliet’s nurse, fish mating, women who become trees, Pompeii, the mysterious tragedy of Mesa Verde, different “old maids,” and money, to family relations, religion and the larger Questions…and more. One outstanding feature of the poems in this book is the last line, most frequently taking the reader off-guard. Sometimes humorous, sometimes quite serious, but the surprise is one of the joys in reading this. The overall effect has entirely taken me out of my self-absorption and bad moods into a much better outlook. I will keep this book handy when times get rough. My advice to you: unless you are a cyborg, you probably need this book. My advice to Gail White: patent it. (And without ever using the word “wry,” I rest my case.)