Terrance Hayes Delivers a Dazzling Homage to Writers He Loves

From a Washington Post review by Becca Rothfeld headlined “Terrance Hayes delivers a dazzling homage to writers he loves”:

Is it an anthology of prose poems? A memoir? A chart of an imaginary territory? An exam in a class in a dream? Even the title of the latest singularity from poet Terrance Hayes, “Watch Your Language: Visual and Literary Reflections on a Century of American Poetry,” spans genres. At first glance, it seems like an admonition of the sort voiced by exasperated parents at the dinner table when their children speak impolitely, but it soon turns out to be an earnest invitation.

We are called to attend to the words in the book, to the shapes they make on the page, to their heave and heft in the mouth, and we are also instructed to watch, to literally look at, his playful sketches of beloved writers. “Drawing,” Hayes writes, “is also a way to watch your language,” to make the intangibilities of literature visible. His preface ends with a pair of disembodied eyes, magnified behind the lenses of large glasses.

The title, then, provides a preview of his signature gesture, which recurs in the dazzling pieces that follow: Time and time again, he introduces a phrase or form that appears familiar, then radically reinvents it. The results are strange, sometimes surreal and always sublimely surprising. Hayes, the author of six acclaimed poetry collections and the winner of a National Book Award in 2010, continues to devise language well worth watching.

Exhilarating eclecticism is more common in poetry than in prose, yet “Watch Your Language” is more anomalous and less readily classifiable (not to say better) than “So to Speak,” a concurrently published collection of his poems. It gathers essays, fragments, poems in prose and verse, sketches both visual and verbal, and other forays and frissons, some of which first appeared in publications like the Yale Review and many of which are absolute novelties.

The book brims with homages to writers Hayes loves, but these are not straightforward exercises in biography or appreciation so much as flights of lyricism. Of musician and poet Russell Atkins, Hayes writes, “The practice of a poem should be what archaeology makes you feel glowing red in a darkroom. Art should encourage expenditures of beasts buried with candelabras burning elaborately underground.”

In a passage on the poet Reginald Shepherd, he puns magnificently on the writer’s redolent surname: “By the time he was a young man, babblers gathered around the shepherd saying words he heard as poems. If he let the sheep indoors, they broke the quiet.” In a preface, Hayes characterizes “Watch Your Language” as a guidebook, but I found it to be more of an antimap: a document of delicious disorientation. Images flit by as if in reveries, many of them like scenes from a hallucinatory novel.

And in an essay about a poetry conference he attended in China, Hayes recalls that his interpreter told him that a Chinese speaker was saying, “The man who invented language gained God’s favor.” The interpreter turned to Hayes and whispered, “Probably this is incorrect,” later adding, “Language was invented by people, not one man.”

Later, at the same conference, Hayes looked from the window of his hotel room and saw “into the room of an adjacent hotel,” where a man was “standing with his nose to the mirror for what felt like ten or fifteen minutes. He was alone, in a dark suit. He wasn’t screaming. I didn’t dream it. It was the madness of loneliness.”

Perhaps Hayes did not dream this despairing phantom, but there are many moments in this book when fact fogs into fantasy. Perhaps my favorite piece begins unassumingly enough: “On YouTube you can find a whole genre of these videos of people unboxing new stuff. I’ve seen a few smartphone unboxings, and a few sneaker unboxings, an unboxing of a compact automobile. I watched a few before writing my own unboxing script.” But this ordinary scenario soon swells into something incredible:

The book arrives in a real box. “You want to come at it from as many angles as possible,” I say, cutting into the cardboard where it is held by tape. Inside the book inside the box, I begin removing lines of poems and holding them up to the camera … Everything in the box is useful. Make something with the box. Even if you have no glue and scissors, you can turn it into a legible surface or fortress or sculpture. Throw nothing away … Storms, crows, gunmetal drones, shouts, circadian incantations, mantras of healing expand in the box.

The box comes to hold more and more, until at last it holds everything, and until the genre of the unboxing video itself is unboxed. “Watch Your Language” goes on unboxing archetypes by proffering teasing parodies. In addition to a guidebook, the collection is at times a mock textbook, with mock exercises (“The essay should be completed over a single evening under moonlight and the supervision of the test maker, a shadowy figure”) and mock exam questions (“Who should play Langston Hughes in the Langston Hughes movie, someone the color of sunset or someone the color of rum cake?”). Sometimes, it is a mock encyclopedia, with mock entries in mock-serious tones (Lynda Hull’s “poems display the properties of rain just before it evaporates”).

The book contains charts with labels like “The Nine Muses of a Poetry Enthusiast’s View of History or the Nine Multi-Faced, Multifaceted Muses of American Poetic Production,” as well as journal entries and letters. It is at once a schoolbook, a diary and an epistolary novel. In the past, Hayes has confessed that he is addicted to established forms.

“As a person raised by a soldier and a prison guard it would make sense that I would like boxes and structure a little too much,” he once joked. But his poems are as much probing commentaries on their given types as they are instances of them. In one of the poems in “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” he writes:

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.

This is a sonnet that invokes its status as a sonnet only to transcend the structures of its form, a prison that unlocks itself. The writers Hayes extols in “Watch Your Language” are the ones he credits with doing what he manages to do so exuberantly. They are the writers who are not confined to a single genre. He loves Gwendolyn Brooks because she “meditates on what it means to be polytonally Black,” and admires Anne Carson because she “shows us how poems are the most polymorphous/polytypic of literary forms: they can be or blend the techniques of journalism, fiction, theater, cinema, manuals, on and on.”

Hayes likes the blues because its songs are “not only vehicles of pleasure, but of protest,” so full that they comfortably contain even contradictions. No wonder he populates his collection with such a rich polyphony. Emily Dickinson appears alongside William Waring Cuney, Sterling Brown alongside Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte alongside James Baldwin. The urge to taxonomize is continually thwarted: “The wish to categorize may be an inherent part of reading and comprehension,” Hayes concedes, but “categories lead to presumptions.”

A category that leads to especially pernicious presumptions is race. In one meditation, Hayes laments that “the poetry of a Black man gets romanticized and boxed,” reduced to narrowly political polemic. In his writing, he endeavors to unbox himself, to teem with tensions and conflicts. “No reader should want a poet to be one thing,” he explains. Happily, “Watch Your Language” proves that he is marvelously multiple.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.

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