Last week saw the release of a new batch of MacArthur Foundation fellows, and 2 people on this reading list were not terribly surprised to see that Pittsburgh-based poet Terrance Hayes was among the genius honorees. They went to grad school with Terrance back in the 90’s, and I think one of them may even have been dunked on by him at one point. I remember Terrance being good at a lot of things–and nice. Early reports out of Pittsburgh–where I’m writing from–is that bookstore owners and fellow poets couldn’t be happier for Mr. Hayes.
Those on this list for the past couple years will remember his name: he’s the author of “New York Poem” and “Ghazal-Head,” from past editions, and I’ve previously noted that he’d won several prestigious writing awards. None as big as the MacArthur, though.
In the 90’s, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran poems in its Saturday edition. I found a couple archived versions of Hayes poems from his grad school days, and I thought the one below was perfect for this week–a week that also sees the PIrates (“Bucs,” in local and poetic parlance) inching toward a second straight postseason berth. May they meet–through hard work, creativity, and just a little luck–the same heights as today’s featured poet. -ed.
A large woman gabbing at the bus stop.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
For a native son of her gray industrial breast.
She blesses her Bucs, her Steelers,
Her father, God rest his soul, was a Penguins fan.
She mistakes me for someone who gives a damn,
Her blue scarf twisting like the mad Monongahela,
Her blue face lined like a jitney’s street map.
I’d tell her I’m not from this place;
These severed grumpy neighborhoods,
These ruthless winter tantrums,
But her long-winded stories have numbed me.
She is persistent as snow, as boot slush & Thinsulate,
As buses rumbling like great, metallic caterpillars.
She lights a cigarette & it means:
Spring will burn quick & furious as a match,
Summer will blaze.
She tells me, Nobody’s a stranger in Pittsburgh.
And maybe I believe her. I believe her,
My frosty, fairy, foster-Mamma,
My stout, blabbering metaphor.
I woke up yesterday sick and tired and angry and blue, so much so that even when I went searching for poems to share, I came up empty. But then sometimes the US Postal Service just plops the answer right down in your lap, doesn’t it? A Boston friend sent me a book of Pittsburgh mystery stories, and among the contributors was MV regular Terrance Hayes. Mr. Hayes teaches at CMU, and maybe he just tried his hand at short stories for fun, because he’s known as a poet. A reader recently commented that he just likes poems that rhyme, so this should satisfy anyone with a similar taste. Note that the tercets here have inter-locking rhyme as well. Is there a word for that? Isn’t this similar to the pattern Dante used in the Divine Comedy? Little help? Lotta repetition here, too. The swinging, personable rhythm throughout really lets him free up that cliche at the end, and use it to full effect. -ed.
THE BLUE TERRANCE
|If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:
the match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,
and the lyrics asking: How long has your door
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows
of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song
in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why
the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love
watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit
and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-
house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic
than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
Well, it was bound to happen. Sooner or later some guy I used to play basketball with was gonna get a poem published in the New Yorker. The funny thing about Terrance Hayes is that not only was he a hard-working poet during his days at Pitt, he also mopped up the floor with all his opponents in basketball. He’s a good 6-8 inches taller than me, and he could shoot. The only person I know brave enough to guard him regularly was MV member Steve Bailey, and I think even Steve would admit the dude was a force.
So I see this poem, and I think, that’s great. Terrance was probably the only poet I’ve seen open a reading with a “cover” of another poet (it happened to be a Allan Ginsburg poem that had also appeared, posthumously, in the New Yorker), and now he’s “made it.” Certainly this is the best news he’s received in November. Ah, no. Turns out his 4th collection just won the National Book Award. So there’s that.
Knowing what we know, can you see how Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of the NYer, might like this piece? It’s fancy and rhyme-y, but with an intimacy of feeling and vocabulary that bear out the poet’s anagram, “Chat nearer. Yes.”
NEW YORK POEM
In New York from a rooftop in Chinatown
one can see the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of buildings where there are more miles
of shortcuts and alternative takes than
there are Miles Davis alternative takes.
There is a white girl who looks hi-
jacked with feeling in her glittering jacket
and her boots that look made of dinosaur
skin and R is saying to her I love you
again and again. On a Chinatown rooftop
in New York anything can happen.
Someone says “abattoir” is such a pretty word
for “slaughterhouse.” Someone says
mermaids are just fish ladies. I am so
fucking vain I cannot believe anyone
is threatened by me. In New York
not everyone is forgiven. Dear New York,
dear girl with a bar code tattooed
on the side of your face, and everyone
writing poems about and inside and outside
the subways, dear people underground
in New York, on the sci-fi bridges and aisles
of New York, on the rooftops of Chinatown
where Miles Davis is pumping in,
and 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.