Terrance Hayes is one of the best poets now writing. His poems are often slick, hip, and funny, but also deeply earnest. He writes about all the usual stuff — love, family, and fatherhood; the heaviness, levity, and upkeep of the human heart; art and poetry itself — as well as the heritage of African American lives and art, all of it woven together into poems that are smart as hell and also fun to read. Lighthead is his fourth book and his best; it’s also likely to be one of the most talked about poetry books this year.
In the first poem, Hayes introduces us to an alter-ego named Lighthead, a guy who reads between the lines (“Not what you see, but what you percieve:/ that’s poetry”), and who can be cool, penetrating, and sexy at the same time: “When I kiss my wife,/ sometimes I taste her caution.” Elsewhere, Lighthead offers some practical, if unusual, advice: “If you are addicted to coffee, teach yourself to breakdance./ If you are addicted to dancing, polio will cure you.”
Hayes is formally innovative without making form the subject of his poems. Lighthead features a number of poems written in a form called the pecha kucha, Hayes’ adaptation of a Japanese business presentation format in which twenty images are displayed while someone extemporizes about them. Hayes is able to pack lots of disparate material into these poems. It’s a little like getting inside the head of someone wiling away a few minutes surfing the Web, albiet someone very smart. There are also a pair of mirrored poems set across the book’s spine, a set of imaginary album liner notes, as well as many free verse pieces.
Elsewhere, a question about an 80s band sends Hayes careening into his distant past in “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals?”: “What I have eaten of you/…tastes exactly like the soil/ I ate in my grandmother’s yard as a boy. They called/ me savage then, because I reeked and wreaked havoc on the slim flowers.” “Mule Hour,” one of the book’s best poems, takes an imaginary journey into history, both personal and public, in which “Ma and me ride a blue mule into the South, where cockroaches/ dream of the apocalypse.”
This is poetry both young and traditional, gathering its images and rhythms from the last few decades of pop and high culture, but seeking — and finding — its sources in the oldest impulses behind poetry: the need to understand the world, and when that’s not possible, the desire to make hardships more bearable, and joys more profound.