Book Review: Terrance Hayes' Poetry

Terrance Hayes’ latest collection of poetry, Lighthead, is an exploration of past and present, lightness and dark. The poems are lithe and fresh. They draw the reader close, seductively, before introducing a grain of truth, uncomfortable or inexpressible, that can’t quite be quantified.

The beauty here is that the speaker has an uncommon sympathy with the reader: Who is not more than his limitations? […] Thus, I have a capacity for love without / forgiveness.

The poems in this volume are different from each other in subject and form, but they are all tied together by Hayes’ talent for language. Plays on words and sounds make a mark on the reader’s mind in lines such as: my silk slick black back- / talking cousin; and They called / me savage then, because I reeked and wreaked havoc / on the slim flowers.

Hayes describes painful moments with a deep intimacy: the sound particular to one/ returning to his feet after a friend has knocked him down. From these depths come a tone of hopefulness: All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet / the flowers don’t quit opening.

Recurring themes also link these poems together. For instance, there is a subtle yet strong exploration of African-American culture woven throughout the book: Where everyone I know / is ablaze with this story and darkened by its ash.

Without bitterness, the speaker traces his ancestry and influences through the civil rights movement, back through slavery, all the way to Africa, and back to the present day. References to music also abound, both in references to specific musicians and in poems that mirror different musical styles. While not overt, there is a sexuality throughout the book, simmering just beneath the surface.

Stepping back and looking at each poem in this book, it is clear that Hayes is a master of form and wordplay. But there is nothing showy about the presentation of the poems. Hayes explores form with a delicacy that is easy to miss because his words themselves are so intoxicating – for instance, his melding of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” into his own poem “The Golden Shovel.” He’s been praised for his artistic take on pecha kucha, a Japanese business-presentation format. Hayes also incorporates different and unusual media formats into his poems, such as T-shirt slogans, LP liner notes, and deleted scenes from movies.

My favorite poem in this collection is “The Elegant Tongue,” a passionate weaving of the tale of the five blind men and the elephant, a musing on marriage, and a nod to African heritage. All this ends with the serpent in the garden of Eden. While told without sentiment, the speaker is connected to the reader by his human condition: Forgive me: I believe, as the elephant must, / that everything is punctured by the tusks of Nostalgia.

This modern and skillful collection of poetry has earned Hayes the National Book Award for Poetry, as well as his recent placing as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, which will be announced in March. His mixture of bittersweetness and joy is reflected in the closing lines of the sonnet “God is an American”: Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives / all right. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.

That ache is what connects us to each other, and it will connect you to Lighthead.

Terrance Hayes will be the Cockefair Chair Writer-in-Residence for the English Department of UMKC between March 7th and March 10th 2011. Public events are planned, with times to be announced. For more information, visit

About the Author

Abby Sidener

Abby Sidener is a full-time Library Sub at the Kansas City Public Library and a public transportation advocate. When she's not helping out patrons at the Library or devouring poetry and short stories, she can often be found handing out books on the Kansas City Metro bus system as a participant in the Mid-America Regional Council's Green Commute Challenge.