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How To Be Drawn

April 19, 2016

NPMBlogTour2016-300x225Browsing through the new volumes of poetry at the college library (because it’s national poetry month), I pulled out How To Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes, and was immediately drawn in.

The first poem, “What It Look Like,” goes from talking about music to made-up words with amusements like “a bandanna is a useful handkerchief,/but a handkerchief is a useless-ass bandanna” along the way to my favorite part:
“my motto is Never mistake what it looks like
for what it is else you end up like that Negro
Othello. (Was Othello a Negro?) Don’t you lie
about who you are sometimes and then realize
the lie is true?”

Sometimes I leaf through volumes by black poets and think well, these poems are not written for me, which is fine. Hayes’ poems can speak to almost everyone, though, especially ones like “Black Confederate Ghost Story” in which the speaker invites “African-American apparitions hung,/burned or drowned before anyone alive was born” to “please make a mortifying midnight appearance/before the handyman standing on my porch/this morning.” He says “the handyman’s/insistence that there were brigades of black/Confederates is as oxymoronic as terms like/ ‘civil war,’ ‘free slave.’” The ending is particularly wonderful:

“Attention, apparitions: this is a solicitation
very much like a prayer. Your presence is requested
tonight when this man is polishing his civil war relics
and singing ‘Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier’ to himself.

Hello sliding chairs. Hello, vicious whispering shadows.
I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable
As something hanging a dozen feet in the air.”

Another poem that invites me in and shows me the world from a new point of view is “Antebellum House Party,” in which we “make the servant in the corner unobjectionable/Furniture” so that when “Boss calls/For sugar” then “the furniture bears it sweetly.” At the end, we’re told that “The best furniture/Can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty.”

Some of the poems have little or nothing to do with race or other important topics, but zero in on funny situations like giving “Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs” after Vladimir Mayakovsky (a Russian poet I know mostly because a local Kenyon acquaintance translated some of his poems and I got the book for Walker one Christmas). This is a long poem with many sections, and it builds as it goes; I like this bit especially:

“CREATE AN EXCLUSIVE BELIEVERS-ONLY INVITATION LIST
Invite as many open-minded Vladimirs as possible, for they are like magnets attracting the Vladimirs who are dead. Vladimirs with eighties-style haircuts will attract top-hat Vladimirs. Vladimir the plumber will attract Vladimir the swimmer. Change your name to Vladimir.
What you want is a Vladimir brigade. A mirror of the living reflecting the dead and vice versa. In the towering dusk, groaning and brushing Vladimirs. To overcome the cold one must conjure the supernatural world.”

Occasionally a line or two from a poem made me giggle and want to read the rest more carefully, like this question from “The Rose Has Teeth”:
“What would a mother feel if her child sang
‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’
too beautifully?”

The poem that puts this author’s whimsical-seeming humor together with his musings on race, perhaps my favorite in the volume, is “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades.” It announces its agenda in the second stanza: “We should explore/The origins of a derogatory word like spades as well as the word/For feeling alone in polite company.” Then it goes on to ask the important questions, like “Who do you suppose/Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois/And Malcolm X in a game of Spades?” And it makes the hard observations, like “Renege is akin to the word for the shame/You feel watching someone else’s humiliation.” Finally it ends with the “you” the speaker has been arguing against getting the last word: “You say there are no enemies/in Spades.”

This is an eye-opening volume by a poet who knows how to draw all kinds of readers in and let them see more than they might have been able to before, on their own.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2016 2:38 pm

    I laughed out loud at the bit about “Motherless Child.” I’m going to start singing it very feelingly to Mumsy and see how she responds.

    • April 20, 2016 9:23 am

      Let me know!
      The most awkward I ever felt when my kid sang anything was when Walker became a baritone and did a duet of “All I Ask of You” with his soprano girlfriend. The Phantom of the Opera was the big musical of the 80’s, and I loved it and managed to see it multiple times. I always fell a little bit in love with Raoul when he started singing “No more talk of darkness…”

  2. April 19, 2016 3:26 pm

    This sounds really good. I laughed at the Motherless Child part too 🙂

    • April 20, 2016 9:24 am

      That is one of the most laugh-out-loud parts, but there were lots of really funny moments!

  3. April 20, 2016 12:51 pm

    This sounds like it has a great balance with the humor. Thanks for sharing this great collection.

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