- Wind in a Box
One of the most highly anticipated poetry volumes of the year was Terrance Hayes's third collection, Wind in a Box. If there can be such a thing as a "hot" poet in contemporary American poetry, Terrance Hayes is it. His second book, Hip Logic, won the 2002 National Poetry Series and recently went into a second printing with Penguin (it sells!). His first book, Muscular Music, won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and was reissued last year as a Carnegie Mellon Contemporary Classic.
More telling than the awards and publishing success, though, is the word of mouth on the street—or, in poetry's case, in creative writing programs and the hotels of AWP meetings. Before I read a single line of Terrance Hayes, his splendid black dome (now topped off with a mohawk) was pointed out to me at AWP in Baltimore, easily visible above the herds of shorter white poets. There is a buzz about his name: many people who have not even read his books or, indeed, any contemporary poetry at all, have heard of him—or claim to have heard of him, so as not to appear uncool. Poets I know who cannot agree on anything agree on "liking" Hayes.
This phenomenon can be explained to some extent by the way Hayes straddles different categories as a poet, offering readers a little of everything. There is something in his work for race poets, confessional poets, language poets; he appeals to both traditionalist and avant-garde sensibilities. In Wind in a Box, just as in his first two collections, Hayes dramatically shifts gears with each section, so that the voice, style and content of one section do not prepare the reader [End Page 179] for what is coming in the next. And because of Wind in a Box's four/four structure—with only four poems to a section—the reader barely has time to grow comfortable within each section. Hayes delights in this sort of "Now you see me, now you don't" Proteus act, skirting the reader's expectations and staying on the imaginative move. Not surprisingly, the form he takes up most often in his new book is the dramatic monologue, as it allows many different winds—Amiri Baraka, Dr. Seuss, Etheridge Knight—to fill the boxes of his poems.
With growing popularity come greater expectations, and Hayes shows the right instincts in not wanting to be any one kind of poet to meet demand. There is a healthy restlessness to his work; he is not interested in writing a consistently recognizable "Terrance Hayes poem" but in setting himself new challenges, discovering the full range of his abilities. As a rising AfricanAmerican poet, Hayes must inevitably feel a strong set of expectations to "represent" the AfricanAmerican community, and in his new book he wrestles more explicitly with questions of race and identity than in his first two books, as if conscious of the extra attention his new visibility brings. The opening of "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)," the lead poem in the first section, is so openly rhetorical as to seem a response to a challenge to deal more directly with race in his work:
When I consider the much discussed dilemma of the African-American, I think not of the diasporic middle passing, unchained, juke, jock, and jiving sons and daughters of what sleek dashikied poets and tether fisted Nationalists commonly call Mother Africa, but of an ex-girlfriend who was the child of a black-skinned Ghanaian beauty and Jewish- American, globetrotting ethnomusicologist.
Characteristically, Hayes swerves away from a more generic narrative of AfricanAmerican experience to offer a personal story about a relationship with a girl of mixed blood. The "dilemma" of the AfricanAmerican, he argues, must be discussed in all of its individualized complications, especially when those complications come in the form of connections to people of other races.
Wind in a Box is a very poised collection. Hayes places the four most accessible, conventionally autobiographical lyric narratives [End Page 180] about race in the first section, then disorients...