Lighthead by Terrance Hayes, Penguin, 2010. $18
Reviewed by Fabu
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes is a unique collection because it is deliberate in crossing all categories of poetry. The author insists that he writes in “a poetic style that resists style.” Terrance Hayes is the 2010 National Book Award Winner for this fourth book of poetry. He is also a painter and musician. His artwork is on the cover and even more interesting to me, he is married to Yona Harvey, also a poet.
Married, with children, they have been separately producing their craft for many years. I admire such multifaceted accomplishments and the way he translates their relationship into his poetry. Hayes includes his childhood girlfriend with his adult wife in the lines, "I remember my tongue sandpapered against vowels in a mouth named Yolanda in the dark of a yellow bus long ago, and I tell Yoyo how that girl may still be somewhere thinking fondly of our tangle." In other poem, he writes about kissing his wife, “When I kiss my wife, sometimes I taste her caution. But let's not talk about that.”
The title, Lighthead, brings back to mind the old southern saying “He’s light in the head” meaning the person does not have good sense. The title also reminds me of my father’s description of African American men as “heads.” Reviewers have many interpretations of the title including a being whose head is infused with light. The man on the cover looks to be literally surrounded in a helmet of light. This provocative title leads to equally curiously-titled chapters, like “God is an American” and “Cocktails with Orpheus” that rouse reader interest even before one delves into the work.
In Lighthead, we have poems that mimic the speed of light and how the Generation Xers talk fast, move fast and do what they do fast. The poems include narrative, hip hop, lyrical, anagrams and a form called pecha kucha which is a set of quatrains derived from a Japanese business presentation that riffs on a series of slides or images. Yes, the collection is wildly creative. It tackles such subjects as race, history, culture, famous icons, identity and masculinity. Masculine thought and perspective form the foundation of the collection. Hayes admonishes everyone in “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights/out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.”
Readers are inside Terrance Hayes’ head looking out at all of these themes from the perspective of a talented African American poet on the cusp of the middle years of his life and his career. The poet is playing with words and underlying even the grimiest subject in a foundation of humor. For example in A Plate of Bones there is the amusing description, “My silk slick back muscular back/talking uncle driving me and a school/of fish corpses to church,” but the poem also speaks to race relations, inter-racial dating and the uncle’s anger at his daughter for dating a white man.
Terrance Hayes uses the last lines from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “We Real Cool” to write “The Golden Shovel” and an Elizabeth Alexander poem, “Ladders” to write “Last Train to Africa" both brand new poems that he concocts from where the women poets end. He uses lines from the lyrics of Marvin Gaye and Louis Armstrong that thread him as a musician vitally connected to these deceased musical greats. I didn’t come away with a favorite poem out of this collection because there was an absolute breathtaking grip that pulled you into his way with words in each and every one of his poems. I compare reading the works of other poets to eating exotic dishes. While some of the ingredients are familiar, most are deliciously new. Terrance Hayes in Lighthead presents readers with a fascinating literary smorgasbord.
Fabu is Madison's third Poet Laureate. She has two new publications: In Our Own Tongues, published by the University of Nairobi Press and African American Life in Haiku published by Parallel Press. Her website is http://artistfabu.com/.