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Poet Terrances Hayes shines in his new collection, Lighthead

Lighthead
By Terrance Hayes
Penguin Books, 95 pp., $18

 

In the ad for New York City's famed 92nd Street Y reading series in the May Harper's Magazine, the photo of Terrance Hayes sits right between those of John Irving and Salman Rushdie. If Hayes isn't quite as famous as those guys, the distinction still reflects growing recognition for the Pittsburgh-based poet who's just published his fourth collection.

With Lighthead, the Carnegie Mellon professor lives up to such billing. Like 2006's Wind in a Box -- only moreso -- Lighthead is both wildly eclectic and wonderfully inventive. Hayes remains as probing and evocative on topics like race and militarism as he is bogglingly playful in turning language into sheer music.

Hayes leads with "Lighthead's Guide to the Galaxy": "Ladies and gentleman, ghosts and children of the state, / I am here because I could never get the hang of Time," he announces. "Lighthead," indeed: Hayes is perhaps at his best when evoking the surreal clarity found on the edge of sleep or dizziness.

Take "The Last Train to Africa," a road movie in six stanzas. A wild-ass driver mythically named Stagger (as in Stagger Lee) speeds for a train, his passenger recounting "insomniac nuclear silos built against / nature where the wind tastes like roadkill or tiny bowls / of fire ..." That's followed by a visit to "a drive-through strip club" and a haunting rendezvous.

Elsewhere, Hayes engages in formal play. Four poems are labeled "pecha kucha," after the trendy presentation format in which each of 20 images is accompanied by a brief talk. "Coffin for Head of State," its stanzas based on song titles by African music legend Fela Kuti, is a nightmarish political prophecy: "I almost described the leaves shining on their bones / and the snakes roosting in their sheaths to the coffin."

Another pecha kucha, "For Brothers of the Dragon," employs textbook elements of fiction ("Imagery," "Symbolism") as touchstones to explore the rewriting of history, whether a story of the assassinated Malcolm X or the poet's personal narrative. "Tell my story, begs the past, as if it was a prayer / for an imagined life or a life that's better than the life you live."

Still, Hayes also regularly engages the seemingly mundane world of ordinary things, and familiar people. Take the domestic intimacy of "Three Measures of Time." For the brother watching the mother, time is "[a]bsence in each Hello, her teeth are yellow, / her belly stretched-marked, her glasses / were supposed to be scratch-proof and unbreakable."

Hayes is among the funnier poets around -- as in "Lighthead's Guide to Addiction," in which a long list of deadpan advice includes, "If you are addicted to infants, try reliable contraception." Yet Lighthead is also probably Hayes' most explicitly political collection. He continues, for instance, exploring race and African-American heritage, usually ironically ("New Folk") or critically ("What if blackness is a fad?").

Most evident, however, are poems on politics as culture, especially the militarization of America. Some are bitterly comic: "Tankhead," for instance, is structured as a lecture to a new theme-park Patton mascot: "Carrying such an enormous head, your body will seem / drunk on patriotism."

 It's here that Hayes (like most poets) most risks offering prosaic commentary, or even preaching. Generally, though, his skills suffice to avoid such traps. "Music to Interrogate By," for instance, compares the powerlessness of the citizen of an unjust state to "a dampness in the thread of an old jacket."

Timeless too is Hayes' sense of the music in his lines, as in "I Am A Bird Now":

After the vase is asleep with the taste
Of the bit flower its moodiness and lust

You know how I feel / submerged
In a clouded jar altered and alert

The mind light-headed and hawked
Run-down and cloaked in awkwardness

In one poem in Lighthead, Hayes quips that his job is to "root through noise like a termite / with a number on his back." Lucky readers, so melodious an infestation. 

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