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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 693-694
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Hayes, Terrance. Muscular Music. Tia Chucha Press, 1999.
From the opening poem of Terrance Hayes' debut collection, Muscular Music, we know we are reading a different kind of writer. In "At Pegasus," Hayes presents a straight black man in a gay club, speaking with unabashed openness of the love between men. Between the "strobe and black lights" and within the "glitter and steam" of the club, Hayes finds and depicts a love that is pure, beautiful, and "holy."
We are not surprised by this sentiment, though, as we move further into the poems in this book. "Goliath," for example, establishes the kind of black masculinity that Hayes' work manifests—one in which the speaker is not afraid to cry "a big man's tears," is not afraid to feel. His "tenderness," even toward the most inhuman of acts, such as the murder depicted in "Yummy Suite," fills poem after poem in this collection.
"Yummy Suite" is perhaps the most ambitious of the poems in the book given the weight of the subject matter and Hayes' attempt to render so many different versions of the story. In it, we see Hayes pick up Langston Hughes' question of what happens in black life to the "dream deferred," using Hughes' own "blues form" in order to try to answer that question and raise ones of his own. "Yummy Suite" is an examination of the rawness of urban black life today and the accompanying problems of gang violence. With compassion and honesty, Hayes considers what pushes a child with "dreams" and a life of possibility to kill not only another but himself in the process. [End Page 693]
In poems like "Yummy Suite" and "Late," for the poet's mother, there is a striking range of emotions present—from anger, hatred, and regret, to complicated forms of love. But on the flip side of the emotional spectrum, Hayes' poems also evince an edginess of tone and ironic wit. His sense of humor is perhaps best seen in the many poems in which he incorporates figures from popular culture, particularly black personalities in the media such as Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, and Fred and Lamont of "Sanford and Son." While he recognizes on the one hand their value—how Shaft's afro for example allows the speaker of the poem "Shafro" to "feel a little better about [him]self"—he critiques these figures as well as our cultural tendency to deify such icons. In this vein, the poem on Miles Davis, "When the Neighbors Fight," presents the speaker/poet being forced to reconcile Miles, the jazz great, with Miles, the man. The speaker acknowledges that "Miles Davis/Beat his wife" and admits that "It hurts/To know the music is better/Than him."
Given the overwhelming musicality of Hayes' poetry, it is only fitting that musical figures such as Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and Roberta Flack populate so many of his poems. Like Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry, Hayes' poems echo jazz in their rhythms. In manipulating sound and sense, Hayes also makes full use of the form of the poem on the page. One of the most interesting examples is "Salami (A Manifesto)," in which Hayes offers the reader a multiple-choice component as part of the poem.
While these poems are very tightly crafted, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Hayes' work is how he navigates the many extremes presented to him as a black/American poet. Contrapuntal to his references to pop culture and black life a la television and entertainment are his allusions to "high culture"—James Baldwin, Franz Kafka, Robert Hayden, Pythagaros, Plato, Orpheus, etc. In addition, in a time when so many poems and poets are being divided between the "political" and the "personal," Hayes walks the line between the two and makes it seem natural and effortless. Despite the poet/speaker's reticence at being "caught in that space between personal and public," these poems are a testament to how potentially viable and fruitful it is to inhabit that very domain.