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on April 14, 2011
Let me say right away that I have enjoyed Terrance Hayes's work in the past, and think he's a talented poet, with a sensitive ear and keen sensibilities. He was also sassy and fun, if I remember right. Here he's very glum indeed.
The previous reviewer is right, saying that the world in these poems is distinctly uncomfortable. Lighthead is a voice that introduces itself at the beginning of the book, and returns to deliver some deeply conflicted advice that more than anything evoke the hurt and difficulty of our lives. In fact, the whole book is quite raw, bruised with all kind of hurt. Wallace Stevens was a racist ("the emperor of whiteness / blue as a body made of snow"), the poet's uncle was a racist who beat up his daughter for seeing a white boy ("He went to work / beating a prayer out of her skin" - which is as horrifying as poetry gets), Americans are scary, we're all going to die, etc. Even the poems that riff on or pay tribute to black music only conjure up hurt and pain. There are poems that speak very frankly of uneasiness and solitude in the household, "when the scent of another of those full-boned marital truths / hovers in the air above us" and when "the joke knock around and expand / in my gut, pushing all the good air out."
Seems like all the new poetry I've encountered recently can be divided into three camps: bucolic idylls that have nothing to do with our current lives; theory-laden stuff that have nothing to do with non-academic life; and poetry like this, which does show us our lives, but are so darkened with politics and despair that I'm left exhausted, wondering if there isn't more to poetry than various kinds of outrage. It's probably too old-fashioned to insist on the self-composed lyric, whose formal accomplishment offers some kind of reward or respite from the difficulty of its subjects (Montale, for example) - we can write no more, it seems. The world races out of hand, and poets too are caught in a spiral of anger and doubt. I don't know what to do with a poem like "Support the Troops!" (i.e. "I will not support war and murder!") or "Carp Poem" (which equates prisoners coming to a talk about poetry with carps in a Japanese garden pond, who would "have eaten each other had there been nothing / to eat"; or with lines like these:
... When I asked
God if anyone born to slaves would die
a slave, He said, "Sure as a rock descending
a hillside." That's why I'm not a Christian.
Are there good poems in this collection? I think so. "New Folk" is kind of funny and touching - a black "new" Folk band launches on a career (so to speak), but only manages to attract "well-meaning alabaster post-adolescents." The poet exhorts his bandmates to keep up faith that black sisters like (Tracy) Chapman would come round eventually. "God is an American" is actually kind of a sweet love poem (though of course very troubled). A couple of others struck me as enjoyable lyrics in their own right.
A character at the end of the book (neatly chiming with the character at the beginning of the book) declares, "I have no form because / I have no allegiance / to form" - which characterizes this book well. The little images of a flame ringed with ellipses - some kind of Heracleitean fire - that divide the sections of the book further punch home the point. That's not the problem. I think the problem, which I have alluded to before, is that within their own spaces, these poems do not fulfill any substantial formal or lyrical promises. It seems that poetry is almost beyond the point.
I had to write this, because the book made me so depressed. I'm depressed writing this and I don't know how to cheer myself up. I don't doubt that these poems are true to the poet's experience, but as poetry, I would have to rate it as a failure. "It must give pleasure," that racist Stevens said, whose own poetry often left much (in the way of human warmth) to be desired, it's true, but did also often please with its music and imagery.