In 2010 Terrance Hayes won the National Book Award for his fourth poetry collection, Lighthead. His first book, Muscular Music, won both a Whiting Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Hayes has also received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation as well as a Pushcart Prize. Now Hayes has given us his fifth collection of poetry, How to Be Drawn, a three-part exploration of sight and seeing.
“Never mistake what it is for what it looks like,” Hayes writes, a few lines into the first section’s opening poem, aptly titled “What It Look Like.” Profound moments of understanding such as this permeate this poem—and the book as a whole—as we see the wisdom Hayes has amassed in his years of “looking” echo out from the page.
Hayes’ use of poetic-craft elements is equally masterful, crafting a vivid narrative persona that becomes the voice of many of the poems.
This narrative aspect pulls the reader in from the first line of the book, when the narrator proclaims:
Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard I too like it raw
I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington
at a birthday party.
The narrator’s mother, uncle and brother haunt these pages, meeting a host of other characters whom the narrator has also seen. We have iconographic subjects, too: James Brown, Kid ’n Play and other celebrities, and Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. There are pimps, hos, fatherless children and places such as Detroit, Mississippi and New York City. Each of these locales serves a very specific purpose: The cultural memory loaded onto these sites shapes how they are seen. Detroit is the “thought of jumping/through a window on a hotel’s thirteenth floor.” New York City is a “girl with a bar code tattooed/on the side of your face, and everyone/writing poems about and inside and outside/the subways.” Mississippi, as is so much of the South to a certain generation of African-American survivors, is “a man born/but not buried.”
Hayes writes in long, rather than short, lines but still manages to create a strong tension of line. This, combined with Hayes’ use of enjambment, works well to do justice to the narrative aspect of his poems; clarity is sustained, while well-chosen line breaks add further depth. Consider the use of line breaks in “The Carpenter Ant”:
the small brown aunt who, before she went mad,
taught herself to carpenter and unhinged,
in her madness, the walls she claimed
were bugged with tiny red-eyed devices.
Here, Hayes sustains his entire narrative meaning through the stanza, but the line breaks also highlight the double meaning of “unhinged” and “claimed.” The aunt both unhinged the walls and became unhinged in her madness; the aunt both claimed the walls as her own carpentry work and claimed that the walls were bugged with listening devices.
In his poem “The Deer,” Hayes explores how the act of “seeing” actually happens—the mental connections of sight, stimulus and memory. The aforementioned deer on the side of the road calls forth the memory of the narrator’s mother and the berries she …
Sundays from the roadside where fumes toughened
the speckled skin and seeds slept suspended in a mucus
thick as the sleep of an embryo.
Hayes juxtaposes the innocence of birth with the hardness of life, encapsulated by the image of the deer, struck, frozen in the headlights.
Hayes delves into both the prose poem and visual poetry—often in the same piece—by using different boldfaces and striking lines through the text to note the act of erasure. In “The Tribes,” this occurs as an homage to the tribes of people who have been enslaved or exterminated or otherwise had their lives “stricken through” with oppressive violence.
Poems build upon one another to add meaning in conversation, too: In “Barberism,” the narrator details cutting his father-in law’s hair after the man swore never to get another haircut following the death of his daughter, the narrator’s wife. A few pages later, in “Like Mercy,” the only prayer the narrator is able to make at church is “Shedeadshedeadshedead.”
With “Elegy With Zombie for Life,” a meditation on abortion in which the narrator’s “unborn child” is still “here pushing a cry out of me,” the rest of the poems in this section slide into an exploration of how we see grief and the dead, ending with the more experimental, essayistic “Instructions for a Séance With Vladimirs.”
“Circling the Mind,” the third section of poems, begins with the haunting “Antebellum House Party,” a gut-wrenching depiction of how the black body was seen as object during slavery. The ensuing poems also reflect upon the perception of the black body, with “Self-Portrait as the Mind of a Camera” opening outward into an epic examination of the act of seeing. In this, the penultimate poem of the collection, Hayes gives us his clearest instructions on how to see, on how to be drawn: “You must look without looking” to truly see, he tells us. “The line, the mind, must be a blind continuous liquid.”
Reading How to Be Drawn becomes an exercise in questioning our operating paradigm for how we see and understand things. How do we process memory? What cultural frame of reference do we bring? What emotional memory is attached? Where is our bias? What is our blind spot? How can we truly, clearly see?
And yet, to truly see may well be impossible, Hayes admits. From the very first poem he tells us:
I care less and less
about the shapes of shapes because forms
change and nothing is more durable than feeling.
But we can try.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.