African American poetry is undergoing a renaissance, with Tracy K. Smith, Claudia Rankine, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Gregory Pardlo recently publishing groundbreaking and prizewinning work.
Terrance Hayes is another prize winner, having taken home the National Book Award for his 2010 collection Lighthead and garnered a MacArthur Genius Grant, to boot. His latest collection, How to Be Drawn, is another step forward for this South Carolina-born poet. In this collection, Hayes’s virtuosity and inventiveness remind us that the best poets go their own way – remaking form and refashioning language to do their bidding.
Some time ago Elizabeth Alexander said of Hayes that there are “intricate galaxies inside his head.” These poems – about race and cultures and life and death and God-knows-what-else – gather momentum driven on by an impeccable ear for rhythm and images bursting into bloom like rare flowers. Hayes references Whitman and Emerson, but also MLK and hip-hop, Malcolm X and Mayakovsky.
One poem here is in the style of a crime report, which brings to mind “In Detention” by the late Chris van Wyck, while “Instructions for a Seance with Vladimirs” is unlike any poem you’ve seen or heard.
Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker described How to Be Drawn as “a wild ride without an off switch” but suggested Hayes may need to take some of the sheen off lest he become merely a dazzling entertainer rather than a great poet. I take Chiasson’s point. For me, the poems here that stick to a more traditional structure are the strongest. “How to Draw an Invisible Man” is a single beautifully-cadenced sentence that goes on for forty-one lines and gradually gains in power. “Barberism” is superb. The hair cut by the narrator is described thus:
It was pepper-blanched and wind-scuffed, thin
As a blown bulb’s filament, it stuck to the teeth
Of my clippers like a dark language
The poem is actually about a trauma that barely gets mentioned in passing, and is all the more powerful for it.
Hayes himself has said “a poem is never about one thing. You want it to be as complicated as your feelings.” These poems are a testament to that, and to a poet at the very top of his game.
Hakim Bellamy’s prizewinning 2014 collection, Swear, is from a different tradition. The former Albuquerque Poet Laureate cut his teeth as a performance poet, and indeed was a multiple Slam Champion, and his work reflects this. The poems in this collection are all political in nature – about race and working conditions and education.
While Bellamy writes great lines, he does not yet write great poems for the page. Shorn of his charismatic delivery and presence (I confess to inviting him, twice, to the Southwest Festival of the Written Word and enjoying his company), the poems can come across as sprawling and occasionally unfocused.
Having said that, with a poem such as “Of Angels and Sweatshops” he shows that he is capable of writing the kind of taut, spare work in which not a word is wasted, and which uses white space on the page to magnificent effect. I wished the rest of the works were shorter and stripped down and peeled clean of everything that does not drive them powerfully forward.
Bellamy is already a garlanded multi-talent with the drive to go places where young black poets rarely go. He is gifted and energetic, with a singular vision. He might do well to look at Terrance Hayes’s mastery of craft. That way he could turn his penchant for brilliant one-liners into brilliant poems that will stand the test of time not only on the stage but on the page.