Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Terrance Hayes' Wind in a Box

Terrance Hayes displays an astonishing versatility in Wind in a Box. I'd use the old cliché – that these poems seem as if they'd been written by a legion of bards, instead of a lone legionnaire – but Hayes' voice comes through, whatever form his poems take: persona, prose, list; “variations” on blue; as well as multiple renditions using the collection's title, each quite different from the previous incarnation. The stylistic mix works here, doesn't feel either desperate, or forced; if anything, it posits him as an avidly open poet, who's not merely willing to try anything for trial's sake, so much as he is restless.

Hayes is erudite, but also necessarily rageful; he tackles race relations, most tenuously among African-Americans, peeling skin color away to get at the beating heart beneath. But there's bones and gristle too between the outer and inner parts of these poems, and Hayes doesn't neglect the physical – body image, sexual congress both consensual and not; see "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)" for an example of the former, and "A Girl in the Woods" for the latter. He's smart, which can be a crutch with some writers, but he handles his smarts like a hot coal, tossing it from hand to hand so he doesn't get burnt.

His persona poems are not what one might normally expect. Hayes is oblique when naming (re)sources; readers need to dig deeper below the surface from the start. The title, “MJ Fan Letter” imparts that the poem is voiced by a fan, to Michael Jackson; the addressee is K.O.P., or Jackson's once ubiquitous title, King of Pop. But the language suggests otherwise. So is Jackson, then, writing to himself, and by extension, talking to himself? The poem's genesis is the song “Man in the Mirror,” which he references in its first few lines:

...for the first dozen years of my life
I never looked at myself. I believed mirrors
bore no true social significance partly because
they hung on walls.

The banality of that comment – “because they hung on walls” – is offset by the perversity of what readers know: that Jackson has such an unhealthy relationship with self-image that he would literally reconstruct his face through myriad plastic surgeries until he stopped looking remotely like himself; even sadder, until he no longer resembled a black man. Hayes has found in Jackson's self-mutilation a symbol of the much greater problems and issues that continue to haunt African-Americans.

"MJ Fan Letter," like many poems in Wind in a Box, requires multiple readings to get to all its levels. Sometimes I see this as a deficit, if the poet is working overtime to obfuscate what otherwise would benefit from being clearly stated; clarity is not easy to achieve, whereas willful obscurity is. Hayes' command of language is exemplary, and his poetry is often demanding, but once you get to a point of resolution the struggle has been worth it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

David Kirby's The House on Boulevard St.

David Kirby is a contemporary poet with a deceptively light, deft touch, and plenty of smarts. When plumbing the cultural depths – something he does a lot, but in a very offhand manner – Kirby's subjects run along a more meat and potatoes vein: Gomer Pyle, Rat Scabies, Richard Pryor, Karl Wallenda, Roman Polanski, and Little Richard are merely a handful of names that pop up in The House on Boulevard St., alongside major league poetry peeps Robert Bly, Sylvia Plath, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, and Marianne Moore. Perhaps he says it best in “Meetings with Remarkable Men”:

My own heroes are not Andrew Jackson or John Bunyan
or Cervantes but people I already know,
like Officer John Moore, the little skinny yellow-eyed guy
who used to be what was called a “prize fighter”
(if you asked him, he'd think about it for a while and then say
his biggest match was for $10,000 in 1947 against
Wild Bill Kelly) and who now writes parking tickets
for the football players who leave their Broncos
in the handicapped spaces outside the Williams Building
everyday so they don't have to walk far
to the desks where they'll drowse through
my Contemporary Poetry Class...

Here, Kirby reveals (and revels in) his everyman poetics, displays ready wit, and a love of pop culture. He also writes in a step-line form that zigzags across the page, hugging the margins and giving the appearance of a dense and inscrutable field of text – that is, until one begins reading, and finds the writing breezy as well as accessible. Kirby uses this form exclusively nowadays (unlike his earlier poetry, which was more formal and blander; I'd say it had a lot less personality), and it succinctly echoes the twists and turns both his mind and narrative takes.

The House on Boulevard St. is a “new and selected poems” (emphasis Kirby), but reordered from its original chronological publication, broken down into three sections which are “organized around the periods of time the poems explore rather than their dates of publication,” according to the preface. This is an interesting way to sequence the book, with poems about friendship, teaching and academia together; poems written on sabbatical, in Paris, Scotland and Italy; and poems about family. Kirby employs a compositional similarity from poem to poem, akin to a great ocean into which the reader jumps and thrashes giddily, yet each develops its own distinct personality and seems less of a piece than part of an engrossing obsession. It's no surprise, then, that he is also an expert essayist; I've read both What Is a Book? (with contents divided under subjects, What Is a Reader?, What Is a Writer?, What Is a Critic?, and finally, the titular topic), as well as Ultra-Talk, which finds Kirby considering a dizzying array of matters culled from the great (un)washed, and would recommend both readily.

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