Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
In defense against the inevitable disturbances of life, human beings create shelters. We repeat and recreate order of one kind and another, physical, artistic and social—houses, sonnets, congregations and the like. The poems in Terrance Hayes’ collection Lighthead appear in orderly, traditional couplets, tercets, and other counted and measured forms. We might think of these formal compositions as corresponding to forms and boundaries, shapes and outlines, given to us in creation and repeated in life and art.
But the spirit—which is life and which is God (John 4:24)—is free of all form and all restraint. The spirit blows where it will (John 3:8), but, alas, we are physical beings and cannot follow the spirit were it blows. We desire the spirit, but we cannot hold it or take it in, or turn into it in this life, so we try to contain it in repeatable, recognizable, patterned forms (the liturgy is one of these) where, like a captured butterfly, it might be observed and pondered for a while.
Within the forms of the natural world and of our created art—of biology and physics, of meter and line—the spirit lives. In the opening poem, Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy, we read: “Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self.” Art in all its traditional and tradition-bending variety is like a parallel world in which the spirit—the essence of life—may be contained and kept for a short time.
Maybe Christianity’s purpose is to preserve the self within a frame of eternity by means of a grand narration of creation and redemption, arching over layered repetitions of the same stories, throbbing with the constrictions of the formalities of time and space.
The freeing of the self from natural and imposed forms and processes, while affirming and maintaining those forms, is the power of the gospel, the spirit in the flesh, the spiritual word within the material of the world.
Memories of unwelcomed flies—and the life-affirming dispatching of them—returned to me as I read these poems. I recalled faces of starving children on television when I was a boy, images from the overstressed bit of Nigeria then known as Biafra. Flies seemed like the devil’s little dogs around the children’s faces and above their bloated stomachs, taking preliminary snips of flesh from their heads. Without the strength to swat them, and with no one to help them, the children on the screen in my family room were veiled with flies as with nets of despair. The flies disturbed the peace and order of life, disrupting every moment and intention.
As I watched the television images from Africa, a few related American flies buzzed around inside my family’s house, drawn in by the sweetness of summer snacks and suppers, lemonade and buttered sweet corn. My mother, the quiet matronly huntress, would stalk them with a plastic swatter. Approaching quietly, slowly—the only weapon she ever wielded held high in her right hand—she would strike. Whap! Sometimes a second blow would come, followed by a flicking of the speck of a carcass to the floor until she returned to sweep it out with the dust and sand or vacuum it up with the day’s crumbs. Killing flies was an act of love and care as much as a cleaning task. My mother swatted flies because she was alive and active in the world and because her children were alive and in her care in the house. Aiming at cleanliness and order, the flies challenged her life purposes. So she hunted them down.
It has been reported that at the eccentric father of the 19th century painter, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, swatted the flies above his son who lay dying of complications brought on by alcoholism. The painter’s last words were “Le vieux con!” (The old fool!). But what was that “old fool” father doing but swatting away the advancing angels of death.
As Hayes’ poems riff on death, decay, family and freedom, flies, the little buzzing specks of darkness and death, appear. He writes in a poem titled “Support the Troops!”: I try to serve my country by killing houseflies. In another poem, flies appear again, lazing like the devil’s jewelry in the back of an uncle’s car on the way to church. Hayes’ poems are hip jazz rhythms and swaggering, high-stepping declamations on injustice and intolerance, infused with irony and humor. They are set in enough hot summer days, uncomfortable goodbyes and head-shaking wish-it-were-otherwise moments to make them ring true. As a whole the collection delivers a solid stack of fire-crack art, popping with insight and introspection, fizzling out in strong deliverance of everyday experiences that always disappoint.
The power of poetry, as an art of the word, results from a partial or a thorough process of creative abstraction. When the reports and analyses of our selves, in whatever physical and social conditions we find ourselves, along with the memories and informed ideas we have and hold, are put under the pressure of artistic composition, the raw material undergoes a change. The truth of art lies in the recognition that real human experience is contained and preserved within the package of a painting or a poem.
Normally art does not proclaim or persuade or proselytize or propagandize. Art does, however, sometimes evangelize with the good news of the marvelous and mixed-up wonder of human life and consciousness. Hayes’ poems are made from twisting lyrics formed out of the dust and clay of his own life experience. They are dark and often glimmering solos in the range of daily consciousness, arranging humor, anger, resentment and wistful love into compositions that alter the context of—but not the authenticity of—experience and thought. In the poem Mystic Bounce Hayes writes, If I were in charge, I would know how to fix/ the world: free health care or free physicals/ at least, and an abiding love for the abstract.