Wear Your Wig
Jun 9, 2016
11 Min read time
Terrance Hayes riffs on pop culture to explore black identity.
Ellen Gallagher, Wiglette from DeLuxe (2004). Photogravure and plasticine. © Ellen Gallagher. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
How to Be Drawn
Penguin Books, $20 (paper)
Terrance Hayes is taking us farther out. His early books grounded us on mostly recognizable earth. Muscular Music (1999), his debut, opened “At Pegasus,” a (sadly fictional) Greek-mythology-themed gay bar. His next collection, Hip Logic (2002), reintroduced Hayes as an “emcee,” with “triple X / Jeans” and a “grin of gold-plated windows.” But with the first poem of Lighthead (2010), “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Hayes launched into space and out of time: “Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state, / I am here because I could never get the hang of Time.” His latest, How to Be Drawn (2015), starts, with the poem “What It Look Like,” by addressing the dead:
Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard: I too like it raw,
I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington
at a birthday party. I care less and less
about the shapes of shapes because forms
change and nothing is more durable than feeling.
Growing old (or ol’), disputing or welcoming a stereotype of dirtiness, feeling in any sense like a “bastard”: these are familiar themes for lyric poetry, but Hayes is unmistakably the first to take on all three by way of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (“Ooh baby I like it raw”) crossfaded with Marianne Moore’s prickly manifesto on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it.” For Hayes, this is characteristic fun: he is known for his high-low reference-dropping, his prankish renditions of African American icons (Sir Duke, meet Dirt McGirt), and his sleight of syntax—imagine the kick he got out of superimposing Moore’s “it” (poetry) onto ODB’s “it” (you know, “it”). Even more characteristic, though far less discussed, is Hayes’s abiding emphasis on feeling—the durable, formless substance that his shape-shifting style darts around and obliquely discloses.
For almost two decades, Hayes has been a dependable reason to like it—“it,” this time, meaning poetry, from the tenderly raw to the molecular-gastronomically cooked. Increasingly, he has been lauded for it: a National Book Award for Lighthead, a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” People magazine’s “Sexiest Writer.” But at least since his third collection, Wind in a Box (2006), Hayes has boasted a distinction far rarer than those awards: a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts style that starts with distinctive, likeable elements, elements only ever combined in a Terrance Hayes poem. There’s pop-cultural reference or irreverence, for ODB, or for early James Brown, “no longer a headwind of hot grease // And squealing for ladies with leopard-skinned intentions, / Stoned on horns and money.” Then there are spur-of-the-moment aphorisms, half braininess, half BS: “Being a doll / is as close as a toy can come to slavery.” Elsewhere, his audacity comes out in unanswerable counterfactuals: “What if, in your previous life, // You were born a black man’s camera?” Hardship is abstracted into algebraic equations of feeling: “A man can be / so overwhelmed it becomes a mode of being, / a flavor indistinguishable from spit.” But every so often that steady voice cracks, with a Romantic straining towards impossibilities: “I want to enter someone else’s hide and hide / I want to sleep enough to never need sleep again.”
A wig can be camouflage or a draft at self-revision.
Hayes sequences these elements into “muscular music”: athletic leaps of thought and storytelling are smoothed out by elastic syntax and conversational cool. A Hayes poem is a harmonic progression of small dissonances—belly laughs drown out whimpers, the same breath brings levelheaded assessment and ludicrous instigation. Tune out his hypnotic music and you might notice how weird Hayes is, line after line—how his narratives are less arcs than curlicued doodles; how his chatty speakers gab their way into self-contradiction; how his free-associating mind can hop from any thought to any other, except whatever trauma is actually weighing him down. Professional-grade wordplay, know-it-all litanies of trivia, belly-flops into slang or flippancy: these are not substitutes for emotion but defenses against it, Hayes’s evasive maneuvers around melodrama and confession.
In “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” Hayes distracts himself with blind contour drawing—tracing, without looking at his paper, “the spheres of the model’s body, her head, / Her mouth, the chin.” Meanwhile, his preoccupied mind reels off variations on the theme of circles—the letter O, the number zero, the sound Oh, and a dozen round objects:
At the center of God looms an O, the devil believes justice is shaped
Like a zero, a militant helmet or war drum, a fist or gun barrel,
A barrel of ruined eggs or skulls. To lift anything from a field
The lifter bends like a broken O. The weight of the body
Lowered into a hole can make anyone say Oh: the onlookers,
The mother, the brothers and sisters. Omen begins with an O.
When I looked into my past I saw the boy I had not seen in years
Do a standing backflip so daring onlookers called him crazy.
After circling his subject every way imaginable—Sesame Street–style spelling exercises, a montage of match-cuts of weaponry and wreckage—Hayes has nowhere to look but the past, at that “crazy” boy, his cousin. As the poem reluctantly reveals, that “crazy” boy grows up to join the “loved ones who go crazy,” an “assailant” who “stabs a black transit cop in the face” and is shot and killed. The “onlookers” at the funeral (doubling the “onlookers” of the violence), the lifted and lowered body that elicits an Oh, the life hollowed out into a zero: a tragic backstory has been fractured by denial and bewilderment, but it’s all there. Hayes’s drifting mind gathers all the pieces; his broken heart asks us to put them together.
• • •
How to Be Drawn refines, without drastically rewiring, Hayes’s aesthetic, and pursues longstanding obsessions: race and gender performed quietly or extravagantly, absent fathers and emptied masculinities, showboating singers from Orpheus to Marvin Gaye. Its new questions are how to draw and be drawn by visual arts and stereotypes, how to talk about and to the dead, and how to handle one’s ghosts. Ghosts of a sort have always surrounded Hayes, whose poems make one-way conversation with absent artistic forebears, and with equally intangible family members. But Hayes’s newest poems feature campy, campfire poltergeists alongside the historical haunting of slavery, an aborted child still “pushing a cry out” of its mother next to a séanceful of disagreeable phantoms, all named Vladimir.
Hayes’s suspicious respect for the ghosts orbiting him makes him a terrific poet of ambivalence, of two roads diverging and neither one taken. “I can no longer grasp the logic // Of conflicts,” he admits in “Elegy with Zombies for Life”: “In the pro-life versus pro-choice debate, for instance, / It’s the versus that’s of interest to me.” “Versus,” the political-debate-as-mano-a-mano-boxing-match, is of interest, and so is the very word: more than any living American poet, Hayes is enamored with English’s tiny tokens of qualification, with “or,” “almost,” “maybe,” a “like” that’s both “similar” and “not quite the same,” a “may be” missing the assurance of “is.” He is similarly fluent with repetition and chiasmus, with slight torques of sound that generate upheavals of meaning. (In this transposition of uncertainty into style, and so much else, Hayes’s closest companion is nobody in his own generation but that congenital skeptic, Paul Muldoon.)
A self-professed “gray-area, between-area person,” Hayes invented a style that can air every opinion but support none wholeheartedly, and submit every multifaceted thing, from a word to a metropolis, to scrutiny. In “New York Poem,” Hayes is marooned at a subpar rooftop party in Chinatown, “where there are more miles / of shortcuts and alternate takes than / there are Miles Davis alternate takes,” and where the conversations are just as convoluted. Hayes stands aloofly aside, bottling thoughts: “I am so / fucking vain I cannot believe anyone / is threatened by me. In New York / not everyone is forgiven.” As the poem winds down, as words’ meanings double up and double back, Hayes receives a reassuring reminder that everything can be seen and said anew:
. . . someone is telling me about contranyms,
how “cleave” and “cleave” are the same word
looking in opposite directions, I now know
“bolt” is to lock and “bolt” is to run away.
That’s how I think of New York. Someone
jonesing for Grace Jones at the party,
and someone jonesing for grace.
Not many poets have lines you can both jump rope to and write a term paper about, but Hayes has around a dozen in “Wigphrastic,” his most didactic and show-off-y poem—listen to this: “If you like ‘like’ like I like ‘like,’ you should wear a hairpiece.” For Hayes, being “like” but only “like,” sustaining contradictory meanings (“bolt” and “bolt”), applies to pretty much everything, and especially to our self-presentation. Whether we’re disguising ourselves, imitating others, or simply accessorizing our outfits, we wander through gray, in-between areas.
Nominally a riff on Ellen Gallagher’s DeLuxe—itself a portfolio of riffs, sixty nutty pastiches of magazine ads, targeted at African American consumers, for beauty and haircare products—“Wigphrastic” is effectively a primer on performing race and gender, terse as an encyclopedia entry but incomparably more fun to read out loud: “A lady places her bow about-face to place her face in place. / Which is a placebo of place, her face is a placebo!” Wigs, like identities, can be “a form of camouflage,” or a draft at self-revision—take “Louis XIV small and bald / as a boiled egg making himself taller by means / of a towering hairpiece resembling a Corinthian column.” At their worst, they promote caricature, conformity, or thoughtless appropriation, as with “a skyscraping Kid with no Play wig / worn by someone playing N.W.A / at a penthouse party with no black people.” But wigs (like poems) satisfy basic imaginative desires: to imagine our lives being otherwise (“The wish to slide / for a while inside another human, it is not inhuman”), or to unglue our miseries, peeling off “A colored despair wig / for your colored despair.” Plus, they look so damn good: “Where’s your wig? Wear your wig. Your wig is terrific.”
The wig closet that Hayes finds behind each of us is a convenient emblem for his own poetry, which sports traditional forms at askew angles—sonnets, slant-rhymed couplets, self-one-upping lists—as well as new genres of contemporary existence—the grant letter, the diss track, the Q&A. The boldest experiments in How to Be Drawn flaunt Excel-spreadsheet formatting, emoji, and titles upon sub-titles upon sub-sub-titles daring us to reduce these poems to elevator pitches (“Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report”) or superficial subjects (“New Jersey Poem”). These experiments fail not when they are overburdened by conceits but when they neglect Hayes’s honed talents. For readers fond of Hayes’s versatile cadences, of hearing his verse flip from smooth-talking legatos to snare-drum crispness and back, this book’s several prose poems might recall James Brown, minus the rhythm section.
If something remains unbroken for long enough, it becomes an antique.
Hayes’s most memorable formal experiments remind us that we too are formal experiments, best expressed with reinvented traditions and solo improvisations. The illogic puzzle “Who Are the Tribes,” Hayes’s send-off of Einstein’s Puzzle, argues over thirteen sections that there is no one right answer to the question of contemporary African American identity, but countless answers between and within the sequence’s five “tribes.” Section six, “Tribe Sentence Completion,” finds tragicomic correspondences between fill-in-the-blanks quizzes, inner emptiness, and historical erasures:
“When I have nothing to think about I like to think about BL _ _ _ _ _ SS, which, as you probably know, is like thinking of nothing because it was thought of as nothing for many years.”
If you are a Bill it’s BLANKNESS.
If you are a Spike it’s BLANDNESS.
If you are a Quixote it’s BLACKNESS.
If you are a SixFour it’s BLEAKNESS.
If you are an Antler it’s BLACK ASS.
Does that “Answer key” resolve anything? Hayes’s best games, “Who Are the Tribes” included, play out not on stable boards but over deep confusions.
• • •
Hayes’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic is impossible to miss: what has escaped notice is how his aesthetic is an expression of a predisposition for gray areas, that it is always a matter of ethics, politics, race. These poems second-guess everything, from stereotypes to familial bonds, first impressions to formative loves. “As Traffic” reconsiders Hayes’s estranged half-brother and an early love for hip-hop’s sharpest edges: “Foolishly, I did not think the worst of the music / I adore had anything to do with having power / Over anyone else.” Other poems ventriloquize victimizers: in “Gentle Measures,” Hayes inverts a favorite theme, fatherlessness, by playing absent father to a United Nations of children: “I would like to have with 196 women from the world’s / 196 nations 196 children, then I would like to abandon them. / I know it’s not that easy.” And in the alarmingly matter-of-fact “Antebellum House Party,” Hayes speaks through unspeakable atrocity, compiling a slave owner’s how-to in dehumanization: “To make the servant in the corner unobjectionable / Furniture, we must first make her a bundle of tree parts / Axed and worked to confidence.” Mutinous line breaks do little to diminish the legacy of slavery, the national “antique”: “The best furniture / Can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty. / If it remains unbroken, it lives long enough to become antique.”
Hayes has been misunderstood, will continue to be misunderstood, as a virtuosic technician who only has heart for art’s sake, alchemizing substance simply to advertise style. But if you believe the book’s first lines—“nothing is more durable than feeling”—or are swayed by one of its last—“Some things in this world // Do not depend on speech to be felt”—then Hayes’s feelings seem not microscopically small but astronomically large, visible in his forms’ elaborate lineaments or in the composite images of his shifting perspectives. These poems confirm and convolute Auden’s definition of poetry as “the clear expression of mixed feelings”: to be faithful to all his mixed feelings, to his mixed feelings about his mixed feelings, Hayes found “clear expression” in evasive personae, desperate word-games, and restless modulation. Without all that, this book’s truths—about the tragedies within and without families, about being black in America now or ever, or about one resourceful man named Terrance Hayes—would be too much to bear.
June 09, 2016
11 Min read time