I have been meaning to write a mini-review of Terrance Hayes’ latest book of poems, “Lighthead.” Since it won the National Book Award for poetry this week, now seems like the right time. This is a beautiful book, sometimes difficult, sometimes funny. Without doubt, Terrance Hayes is one of our finest poets.
This interesting and hard-to-pin-down book of poems begins with “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy” and then leaps into four sections of loaded poems. There are personal poems here, as well as poems that seem to touch our national psyche. They certainly touch our humanity. Our desires, what we miss, what we achieve.
In “Lighthead’s Guid to the Galaxy,” He writes:
Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state,
I am here because I could never get the hang of time.
That urging–insistence on reflection–wanting to know more– runs all through these poems. Little is left to be seen in plain sight and so these poems take time. That’s a good thing.
Among the poems that particularly strike me in this collection, is “God Is An American.” While not a political poem in the way the title might suggest, this poem looks at beauty and nails it. Not with an easy definition, but with experiences that make good sense, that are real. He writes:
I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
all right. It aches like an open book.
In the poem “Three Measures of Time,” he uses three sections “How My Brother Tells Time,” “How My Father Tells Time,” and “How My Mother Tells Time” to shower us in images which invite us to explore how time moves.
In “Satchmo Returns to New Orleans” Hayes offers us almost a litany of praise and a roll call of what sadness is and is not. The sounds in this poem jump and dance. This one, I have read aloud more times than I can count.
Terrance Hayes’ use of language is surprising and innovative. His use of music, which I admire, is regular and rich here. You find rhythms and bounces in unusual places in these poems.
I attended a workshop he gave last year here in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. In that workshop he urged us to think of a song and hear it in a whole new way. He played “That’s The Sound of The Men Working on The Chain Gang,” and as one who used to counsel men behind bars, this song struck me in a whole new way. I was able to hear that “cheery” song with a dark freshness and I owe that, as well as the poem that emerged, to Terrance Hayes.
As I said above, in some ways, this book is not an easy read. But it will satisfy a hunger if you stick with it. It will throw some light around the room.