Patti Smith may have been the big-name winner at last night’s National Book Awards (her memoir, “Just Kids,” took the nonfiction prize), but I was pleased to see that the poetry award went to Terrance Hayes for his fourth collection, “Lighthead,” which Stephen Burt reviewed for us in April.
Hayes’s work is terrific, and characteristic of a certain strain in contemporary poetry: it’s grounded in narrative even as it’s linguistically dense and playful, with allusions to formal verse traditions and to pop culture new and old. There’s an appealing restlessness and reach and witty musicality to these poets’ work — I’d put Angie Estes and Lucia Perillo in the same category — with meanings that can explode in a thousand directions in every line. As far as I know nobody has grouped them into a “school” yet, like the New York poets or the Language poets, but I like to think of them as the A.D.D. poets, and I’m always on the lookout for their latest offerings. So I’ll be first in line for the winter issue of Ploughshares, which Hayes guest-edited, and in the meantime I’ll point curious poetry fans to poets.org, where they can find a pretty good selection of Hayes reading his own work aloud.
God is an American is constantly pushing toward new possibilities for private inquiry and new structures against which to ballast his buoyant and boundless sense of language. These poems marry swank and swagger to what I like to think of as a 21st Century gravitas. —Tracy K. Smith
I still love words. When we make love in the morning,
your skin damp from a shower, the day calms.
Shadenfreude may be the best way to name the covering
of adulthood, the powdered sugar on a black shirt. I am
alone now on the top floor pulled by obsession, the ink
on my fingers. And sometimes it is a difficult name.
Sometimes it is like the world before America, the kin-
ship of fools and hunters, the children, the dazed dream
of mothers with no style. A word can be the boot print
in a square of fresh cement and the glaze of morning.
Your response to my kiss is I have a cavity. I am in
love with incompletion. I am clinging to your moorings.
Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives
alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.
Hey, I am learning what it means to ride condemned.
I may be breaking up. I am doing 85 outside the kingdom
Of heaven, under the overpass and passed over,
The past is over and I’m over the past. My odometer
Is broken, can you help me? When you get this mess-
Age, I may be a half-ton crush, a half tone of mist
And mystery, maybe trooper bait with the ambulance
Ambling somewhere, or a dial of holy stations, a band-
Age of clamor and spooling, a dash and semaphore,
A pupil of motion on my way to be buried or planted or
Crammed or creamed, treading light and water or tread
and trepidation, maybe. Hey, I am backfiring along a road
Through the future, I am alive skidding on the tongue,
When you get this message, will you sigh, My lover is gone?
Because keyless and clueless,
because trampled in gunpowder
and hoof-printed address,
from Australopithecus or Adam’s
boogaloo to birdsong
and what the bird boogaloos to,
because I was waiting to break
these legs free, one to each
shore, to be head-dressed in sweat,
my work, a form of rhythm
like the first sex, like the damage
of death and distance
and depression, of troubled
instances and blind instruction,
of pleasure and placelessness,
because I was off key and careless
and learning through leaning,
because I was astral and pitchforked
and packaged to a dim bungalow
of burden and if not burden,
the dim boredom of no song,
I became a salt-worn dream-
anchor, I leapt overboard
and shackle and sailed through
my reflection on down
to ruin, calling out to you,
and then calling out no more.
Terrance Hayes is the author of Wind in a Box (Penguin 2006), Hip Logic (Penguin 2002) and Muscular Music (Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Classics, 2005 and Tia Chucha Press, 1999). He teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his family.