Opening Terrance Hayes' new book of poetry is like being drawn into whirling tornadoes of emotions, words and poetic styles, revealing a poet not afraid to take chances or take on any subject, no matter how fraught with cultural land mines.
By Terrance Hayes
Penguin ($17 paperback)
The first poem, "Wind In a Box," begins, "This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder," and continues in a series of nouns characterizing both the poet and his readers as "This blood / in the body. This wind in the blood."
This bedrock concept of our unity as human beings becomes the foundation for Hayes to explore the deep divides of race and class in contemporary America.
The second poem, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)," is the stylistic opposite of the first, cascading language like the breath blown through a jazz saxophone. In this long-lined, far-ranging poem, Hayes states that his dilemma as an African-American is best summed up not in the general cultural terms of his separation from what "tether fisted Nationalists commonly call Mother / Africa."
What he thinks of is a first love, the child of "a black-skinned Ghanaian beauty and Jewish-American," whom he passionately wooed in the basement of his father's house among
and chicken feathers left after the Thanksgiving slaughter
executed by a 3-D witchdoctor houseguest,
while drums played upstairs above them.
Amid this amazing cultural variety, Hayes develops new shades of meaning for the word, "African-American":
by madness, . . . I think of a string of people connected to one another
linked by a hyphen filled with blood.
These first two word-tornadoes blend into many other dazzling styles, prose poems, narrative poems, blues poems based on literary predecessors such as Langston Hughes and Etheridge Knight, and tributes to musicians like the rapper Kool Keith.
Another poem has half the words crossed out but still legible, reminding us that some things always go unsaid when we discuss such sensitive topics as race and gender.
Hayes, who was born in Columbia, S.C., and currently teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, always returns to the ravages of racial prejudice. Based on a photograph, he presents the shameful legacy of lynching in "A Postcard From Okemah."
Delicate and mournful, the poem describes a young mother and son hanging from a bridge above a river. Hayes does not sermonize, but just presents the shocking image:
like a hooked fish, his pants hanging
from his ankles like a tail fin.
Haunting and restrained as Billie Holiday's famous song, "Strange Fruit" (a grueling and moving lament about lynching), Hayes describes white onlookers dressed in bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, "sixty-seven citizens & children," and ends with a stark indictment:
"I cannot ask who is left more disfigured, / ... the ones who are hung or the ones who hang."
Hayes' ease and sure-handedness enthralls us as we move from poem to poem. In "Root," he asks himself "what it means to be black."
This narrative poem describes his "wild backyard" as a child where his "parents would have had [him] believe / there was no such thing as race," even though whites owned the house. There, he could dream of his white neighbors and believe that we were all "made of dirt or shadows: / something not held or given."
One comes away from this book with a burgeoning understanding of race as Hayes takes us into other poems that reflect his appreciation of black cinema and the island of Daufuskie's Gullah culture. A surrealistic list poem with numbered sections is rife with brilliant word play:
"'The Short Age' followed by 'The Us Age' followed by 'The Bond Age' followed by 'The Volt (or Re-volt) Age.' "
The word play is part of a jazz-like improvisation that links diverse ideas and sparks moments of self-discovery.
Yet Hayes' project is always to bring together, to heal, to protect with his words, seemingly just splashes of ink on a page, yet powerful as a strong wind to move us to be better people and take action against injustice.
In this way, the last poem of the collection (and last of six poems titled "Wind In a Box"), is split down the middle, alternating 14 lines on each side of the page which barely overlap in the middle. A visual word-image of our differences, it ends:
here. And the wrongs done here, you right.
The poem and the book itself leave us still split. Yet through the mysterious wind in the breath and voice of a wonderful poet like Terrance Hayes, we are also left poised on the edge of being made right.
Peter Blair's latest poetry collection is "The Divine Salt." He lives in Charlotte, N.C.