Heritage Channeling: A Review of Wind in a Box by Terrance Hayes
It is tempting to describe Terrance Hayes's new collection of poems by borrowing the title phrases from his first two books, Muscular Music and Hip Logic, which appeared in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Hayes, who was born in 1971, is very much hip to the eclecticism that is a distinctive quality of many younger poets today, though his work is a cut above most in its confidently muscular music. With Wind in a Box, his third collection in seven years, Hayes is a poet in full command of his instrument, and increasingly hard to pigeonhole stylistically. Forms in the new collection range from prose poetry to skillfully deployed hip-hop slant rhymes and even some terza rima; subject matter runs from personal to historical; style can be gritty or lyrical; modes include persona pieces, autobiographical narratives, metapoetic exercises, and homages to elder poets. Intertextual references recur, and Hayes's deeply pop-cultured sensibility smoothly juxtaposes icons such as Bruce Lee, Charlie Brown, The Hulk, and Michael Jackson with pieces on sexual violence, African American history, and the American dream.
Among the book's distinguishing features is Hayes's habit of applying the same title to multiple poems. The three called "The Blue Terrance" are highly oblique, impressionistic, and suitably slippery self-portraits. In addition, no less than six poems bear the book's title phrase as their own titles. Every image and line of these "Wind in a Box" poems is utterly lucid, yet taken as a sequence they constitute an occasionally baffling dreamscape of unexplained gestures ("Let me enter / with a pre-assembled strut"), lofty pronouncements ("I know life is spent between two chasms," "And you're right, someone was guilty"), and sharply drawn images untethered from context ("If I am less than smoke to my mother, / the African American. . . ") (76-7). A typical move in this ragtag suite of poems occurs when the one quoted above begins with a grammatically unexplained conditional: "If so, let me go on into the imaginary city" (76).
After reading a half dozen of these intriguing but cryptic pieces, it is fair to conclude that Hayes has taken us to a variety of imaginary cities without fully imagining them for us. Of course, wind in a box is an apt image for any number of tensions or binaries (flux and stasis, natural and artificial, created and uncreated, defined and indefinable); but a metaphor that can mean almost anything risks meaning nearly nothing. It is a risk that Hayes, for good or ill, embraces with gusto. Ultimately, the question of coherence in both book and title sequence is addressed by Hayes himself in a gesture reminiscent of Whitman's many declarations of his own elusiveness:
These words want to answer your questions. These words want to stave off your suffering, but cannot. I leave them to you. ("Wind in a Box" 81)
Not surprisingly, Hayes takes as one of his epigraphs Whitman's most presciently postmodern boast ("I am large, I contain multitudes") and Wind in a Box is itself a thoroughly postmodern production, the expression not of a unified, unifying voice so much as a chorus of contending voices, always insistently self-conscious, skittery, performative. That Hayes is fertile in invention and frisky in formal experimentation is certainly admirable. For many readers, however, some of Hayes's experiments will inevitably fall a bit flat. "Imaginary Poems for the Old-Fashioned Future," for instance, consists of twelve disconnected but numbered items of prose, each one noting a poem or poems the speaker might write in the future. Number four reads, in its entirety, "A poem by someone named Lester Sea. Someone named Lenore. Headline sonnets maybe. Titles ripped from the annals of jazz bebop, no doubt" (83). Number twelve announces but does not supply "A tercet rhyming bric-a-brac, brick a black, and poppa bag" (84). This sort of play among signifiers will no doubt please some readers while many others will judge them to be glib exercises.
At any rate, such poems are strikingly distinct from the more conventionally personal and narrative pieces which arguably remain among Hayes's best. In fact, if there is a single thread uniting all the insistent multiplicity of this book, it is the theme of identity and how it is tested, shaped, formed, and reformed in the varied carols of American culture; and this theme shows up most potently in the autobiographical pieces. Though Hayes devotes whole poems to Borges and David Bowie, the issue of race inevitably forms a large portion of the book's reflection on identity. In her jacket blurb Mary Karr calls Hayes "a distinctly American voice--one of the first of the post-Civil Rights generation," and certainly he is, if not the first, one of the most intriguing current poets in the lineage of Whitman, Williams, and Hughes: all-inclusive scoopers-up of everything American, definitely including if not limited to race.
Hayes never strays far from the vexed topic of racial identity, in fact, and what he has to say on the subject is, no doubt quite deliberately, resistant to summary. For example, the book's third poem, "Talk," recounts a haunting memory of a middle-school incident that perfectly illustrates W. E. B. DuBois's concept of racial "double consciousness." A white basketball teammate in the locker room, enjoying the speaker's impressions of Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, abruptly asks him to "talk like a nigger now," as though race were a mere costume, an entertaining option (5). The adult's reflection on this instance of innocently intended racism is acute and unsparing:
. . . my white friend
thinking I was so far from that word that he could say it to me, which I guess he could since I didn't let him taste the salt
and iron in the blood, I didn't teach him what it's like to squint through a black eye, and if I had I wonder if he would have grown
up to be the kind of white man who believes all blacks are thugs or if he would have learned to bite his tongue or let his belly be filled
by shame . . . . (5-6)
(That "squint through a black eye" is a small instance of Hayes's considerable lyric gift.) And then the poem deepens as it turns inward:
. . . but more importantly, would I be the kind of black man who believes silence is worth more than talk or that it can be
a kind of grace, though I'm not sure that's the kind of black man I've become, and in any case, M, wherever you are,
I'd just like to say I heard it, but let it go, because I was afraid to lose our friendship or afraid we'd lose the game--which we did anyway. (6)
As Hayes puts it in "A Small Novel," "wherever there is a mention of solitude or desire / [he thinks], without wanting to, of Race" (71). It may well be true that he might prefer to write on other topics, yet, as "Talk" illustrates and other unforgettable poems such as "The Heritage Channel," "Black History," "Root," "The Blue Etheridge," and "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)" reinforce, Terrance Hayes is rapidly becoming one of our most distinctive chroniclers of the persistent complexities of race in contemporary America.
Hayes, Terrance. Wind in a Box. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. __________________________
American Book Review; May/Jun2007, Vol. 28 Issue 4, p10