Well, if we talk about Terrance Hayes, we’ll have talked about all the shortlist finalists for the 2015 National Book Award. Then we can move on to talking about the long list. The anagram for Terrance Hayes reads like a critical catalogue of the last page of Ulysses: Each errant "yes." He’s a professor of poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, and heck, he already won a National Book Award in 2011, so he can’t complain too much, right? He describes his own work in musical terms, saying (in an interview) "Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument–language and breath. But I would say, you know, people say that I’m a musician. I would say I try… I try to play, I try to engage music, and I think if I could really play music, I don’t know if I’d be a poet. So, I think, in the absence of knowing how to play a guitar or a cello, I thought, well I can play words. I know words. They’re cheap, they travel very easily, and so that became my primary instrument."
If sonnets are pop songs, this poem — the penultimate entry in his recent book How to Be Drawn — is a long blues, repetitive in structure, spun out in tercets, or counted in 3, if you will, right until it comes to its Wallace Stevens ending. -ed.
How to Draw a Perfect Circle
I can imitate the spheres of the model’s body, her head,
Her mouth, the chin she rests at the bend of her elbow
But nothing tells me how to make the pupils spiral
From her gaze. Everything the eye sees enters a circle,
The world is connected to a circle: breath spools from the nostrils
And any love to be open becomes an O. The shape inside the circle
Is a circle, the egg fallen outside the nest the serpent circles
Rests in the serpent’s gaze the way my gaze rests on the model.
In a blind contour drawing the eye tracks the subject
Without observing what the hand is doing. Everything is connected
By a line curling and canceling itself like the shape of a snake
Swallowing its own decadent tail or a mind that means to destroy itself,
A man circling a railway underpass before attacking a policeman.
To draw the model’s nipples I have to let myself be carried away.
I love all the parts of the body. There are as many curves
As there are jewels of matrimony, as many whirls as there are teeth
In the mouth of the future: the mute pearls a bride wears to her wedding,
The sleeping ovaries like the heads of riders bunched in a tunnel.
The doors of the subway car imitate an O opening and closing,
In the blood the O spirals its helix of defects, genetic shadows,
But there are no instructions for identifying loved ones who go crazy.
When one morning a black man stabs a black transit cop in the face
And the cop, bleeding from his eye, kills the assailant, no one traveling
To the subway sees it quickly enough to make a camera phone witness.
The scene must be carried on the tongue, it must be carried
On the news into the future where it will distract the eyes working
Lines into paper. This is what blind contour drawing conjures in me.
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 the onlookers called him crazy.
I did not see a moon as white as an onion but I saw a paper plate
Upon which the boy held a plastic knife and sopping meat.
An assailant is a man with history. His mother struggles
To cut an onion preparing a meal to be served after the funeral.
The onion is the best symbol of the O. Sliced, a volatile gas stings
The slicer’s eyes like a punishment clouding them until they see
What someone trapped beneath a lid of water sees:
A soft-edged world, a blur of blooms holding a coffin afloat.
The onion is pungent, its scent infects the air with sadness,
All the pallbearers smell it. The mourners watch each other,
They watch the pastor’s ambivalence, they wait for the doors to open,
They wait for the appearance of the wounded one-eyed victim
And his advocates, strangers who do not consider the assailant’s funeral
Appeasement. Before that day the officer had never fired his gun
In the line of duty. He was chatting with a cabdriver
Beneath the tracks when my cousin circled him holding a knife.
The wound caused no brain damage though his eyeball was severed.
I am not sure how a man with no eye weeps. In the Odyssey
Pink water descends the Cyclops’s cratered face after Odysseus
Drives a burning log into it. Anyone could do it. Anyone could
Begin the day with his eyes and end it blind or deceased,
Anyone could lose his mind or his vision. When I go crazy
I am afraid I will walk the streets naked, I am afraid I will shout
Every fucked up thing that troubles or enchants me, I will try to murder
Or make love to everybody before the police handcuff or murder me.
Though the bullet exits a perfect hole it does not leave perfect holes
In the body. A wound is a cell and portal. Without it the blood runs
With no outlet. It is possible to draw handcuffs using loops
Shaped like the symbol for infinity, from the Latin infinitas
Meaning unboundedness. The way you get to anything
Is context. In a blind contour it is not possible to give your subject
A disconnected gaze. Separated from the hand the artist’s eye
Begins its own journey. It could have been the same for the Cyclops,
A giant whose gouged eye socket was so large a whole onion
Could fit into it. Separated from the body the eye begins
Its own journey. The world comes full circle: the hours, the harvests,
When the part of the body that holds the soul is finally decomposed
It becomes a circle, a hole that holds everything: blemish, cell,
Womb, parts of the body no one can see. I watched the model
Pull a button loose on her jeans and step out of them
As one might out of a hole in a blue valley, a sea. I found myself
In the dark, I found myself entering her body like a delicate shell
Or soft pill, like this curved thumb of mine against her lips.
You must look without looking to make the perfect circle.
The line, the mind must be a blind continuous liquid
Until the drawing is complete.