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.

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