by Stephen Burt | Feb-01-2011
Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Stephen Burt discusses poetry finalist Terrance Hayes's Lighthead (Penguin Poets).
If you are looking for virtuoso technique, for fierce games played at the highest possible level on the field of the English language, for invention within existing forms and for poetic forms brand new to English, 2010 brought no better place to look than Terrance Hayes's Lighthead. Take (for example) the English language debut of the form Hayes calls the pecha kucha. Originally a Japanese business presentation comprising short talks about slides, in Hayes's hands the pecha kucha become a set of four- and five-line riffs on pictures we had to imagine, commentary on events we could not see, adding up in each case to the ghost of a story—about Hayes's brother and his long-estranged father, for example, or about the Nigerian bandleader and political activist Fela Kuti, in whose voice (as if over a slide of a concert) Hayes says:
I was born in the year of the war between wars.
I was born to a religion I thought could not hold me
ransom, to sermons walking on the back of the wind.
I was pulled from death's pocket and cradled in its hand.
Then there are Hayes's sonnets, some flaunting their form, others keeping it nearly inaudible. There are the ironized litanies (two pages of riffs on the slogan "Support the Troops": "I'm sorry I will not be able to support any soldiers/ at this time"). There are the poems reassembled within the shells of famous poems by earlier poets, with Hayes as a kind of linguistic hermit crab: "The Golden Shovel," for example, where each line ends with one of the words from Gwendolyn Brooks’s "We Real Cool." Best of all there are the couplets and quatrains, the outrageous or tantalizingly subtle rhymes: those on the opening page connect "teenage" to "outraged," "Harvard" to "hoorayed" and then to the "lady ward-/ Robes" of black students who dressed up in drag on "the night we sprayed NEGROPHOBIA all over the statue of Robert/ E. Lee guarding the county courthouse." Elaborate, even comic disguises and tricks, in Lighthead as in Hayes's earlier books, do not prevent but enable political, social and amorous passion: the poet, his friends and his characters go to the trouble of dressing up, making contrivances, assembling schemes, so that they can imagine what it would be like to exercise real control over the patterns of their real lives.
Those lives are often harsh. Hayes’s father (if we can trust the poems, which sometimes warn us not to trust them) had little to do with the family growing up—they had a rough reunion, in a motel, as adults. Hayes looked up when he could to other men. "Step-Daddy, half of me belongs to you"; another part, perhaps, once belonged to "My silk slick black muscular back-/ talking uncle," who turned violent when Hayes’s cousin dated a white boy. The wider world of the poems’ youth is comic when the poet is in school (middle school, high school, college) but raw when he gets outdoors, to small Southern towns whose landscapes still hold memories of lynchings. Black identity, in these poems, involves a reinvention that does not forget, even when it turns its back: "However else fiction functions," another pecha kucha protests, "it fills you with the sound/ of running away."
But the poet has much to run toward: not only the delights of rearranged language but the promise of family, of marital love, the pleasures of a complicated kiss, as in "The Elegant Tongue." That poem starts as Hayes kisses his wife and digresses into a magnificent description of (believe it or not) the trunks, tusks, and rooting behavior of elephants. It works as a love poem, but no summary can say why.
A book of terrific and challenging gamesmanship, a book about fathers and families, a book about love and sex and even marriage, a book about stereotypes and solidarity: Lighthead is all these things. It is a "heady" book too, intellectual (though never coldly cerebral) as well as exciting. The poems can sport shocking, or funny, talking heads—"Fish Head for Katrina" (Hurricane Katrina), "Bullethead for Earthell" (for a Vietnam vet), or the title character, the Lighthead who gives fathers impossible advice in "Lighthead's Guide to Parenting."
Lighthead is a book with a lot to say. Finally, though, it is a book that you have to hear. "The rain might scat were it not for the sunlight," "Lighthead's Guide to Parenting" warns, "The light might solo were it not for the rain." Too often African-American poets get likened only to other African-American poets, as if their repertoire had nothing in common with other contemporary work. Hayes stands in black traditions, in jazz traditions, and he uses some hip-hop rhythms, but he also bears comparison with Paul Muldoon: for both poets, as for W. H. Auden before them, tricky forms and borrowed identities construct what Auden called an "antimythological myth." And both poets write for the ear. Hayes's "Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist" (reminiscent of, but weirder than, Muldoon's "Sleeve Notes") yield superb poetic takes on sub-sub-genres of African-American music ("'The DJ’s PJs’ by SGP [the Stank Gangsta Pranksters]"), surely the year’s best music writing in verse. Hayes also presents the tricky findings of "the African-American/ Acoustic and Audiological Accident Insurance Institute," where one of Hayes’s alter egos comes to learn "the difference between hearing and listening," "the ardor in our anger," the signifying disguises in Hayes’s sounds.
Click here to see Hayes read from Lighthead; here for Hayes’s Carnegie Mellon University page; here for a review of Lighthead by Ray McManus in the Free-Times newspaper of Columbia, SC (the town where Hayes grew up); here for an article by Greg Cowles in the New York Times’s “Paper Cuts” (with a link to Stephen Burt’s original review); and here for a review by Andrew Mulvania in Weave.
About the Critical Mass Blog
Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).
Categories & Archives
- 30 Books |
- Adventures in E-Reading |
- Awards |
- 2007 Awards |
- 2008 Awards |
- 2011 Finalists: 30 Books in 30 Days |
- 2012 Finalists Interviewed at New School |
- 30 Books in 30 Days |
- Live announcement of NBCC Awards finalists |
- 2009 Awards |
- 2010 Awards |
- 2010 Finalists: 31 Books in 30 Days |
- 2011 Awards |
- Articles |
- Craft |
- Celebrating Philip Roth |
- Conversations with Literary Websites |
- Critical Library |
- Critical Outtakes: Discussions With Writers |
- Criticism |
- In Retrospect |
- Industry News |
- Interviews |
- NBCC 35th Anniversary |
- NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviews |
- NBCC Featured Review |
- NBCC News |
- NBCC Reads |
- Roundups |
- Q&A |
- Remembrances |
- Small Press Spotlight |
- The Critical I: Conversations With Critics and Review Editors |
- The Next Decade in Book Culture |
- The Rest of the Best |
- Thinking About New Orleans: A Series About New Orleans Writers Post Katrina |
- Videos |
- What I'm Looking Forward to Reading