“If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer / A nail, you ain’t thought of the nail correctly.”
I See A Part And Not The Whole
by Claude McKay
I plucked my soul out of its secret place, And held it to the mirror of my eye, To see it like a star against the sky, A twitching body quivering in space, A spark of passion shining on my face. And I explored it to determine why This awful key to my infinity Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace. And if the sign may not be fully read, If I can comprehend but not control, I need not gloom my days with futile dread, Because I see a part and not the whole. Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Inside me is a black-eyed animal”]
“When the wound is deep, the healing is heroic. Suffering and ascendance require the same work.”
― Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Snow For Wallace Stevens
by Terrance Hayes
No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
Light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
I know what he said in his poem.
“Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
How, with pipes of winter
lining his cognition, does someone learn
to bring a sentence to its knees?
Who is not more than his limitations,
who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.
Is it not true that if we were to assemble enough of our life’s work and thoughts in one place, and dug through it carefully, we would find it would be an erector set of contradictions, or at least an odd creation with parts of it out of place? Are we to throw out everything a person creates because the worst of it is worse than we expect of them or that they expect of themselves? Is that not the nature of being human? Maybe it’s impossible to walk a straight line on a round planet forever twirling endlessly in two trajectories, one a slanted axis; the very nature of it dizzying, causing us to lose our balance once in a while and go akimbo.
One of the purposes of art is to hold ourselves and other artist’s accountable, for their genius and their failures or limitations. One of the sins of white privilege, particularly in the realm of poetry, is the reverence placed on the tradition of affluent white men of means who are held up as the pantheon of poetic tradition, without recognizing their legacy of poetry is tainted by the ease with which they found a publisher and an audience, the ease they were afforded recognition, while there were equally as many gifted voices of people of color that went unnoticed, unrewarded, unpublished, unheard. We best be careful as we venture back in literature to not let the whiteness of the page on which the words are set blind us to the whiteness of the privilege of the writer’s life that for many have persisted into the present.
Terrance Hayes has a knack for connecting the present to the past, for wading in the pools of literary history, feeling their swirling eddy’s, but then making the current his own. I love his lines; “I too have lost faith in language have placed my faith in language. Thus, I have a capacity for love without forgiveness.” These are the words at the core of how we might find a path to heal as a nation. Have we the people, lost faith in the words of our founding fathers? Words like “freedom” and “justice for all“? Maybe, if we can as a nation, hold on to love, we’ll find our way forward, even if the sins committed by our founders, in allowing slavery on these shores, and institutionalizing racism by that very act and suppression of rights under Jim Crow and segregation will never deserve forgiveness.
The Brave Man
By Wallace Stevens
The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.
Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.
“The story of each stone leads back to a mountain.”
W. S. Merwin
American Sonnet for the New Year
by Terrance Hayes
things got terribly ugly incredibly quickly
things got ugly embarrassingly quickly
actually things got ugly unbelievably quickly
honestly things got ugly seemingly infrequently
initially things got ugly ironically usually
awfully carefully things got ugly unsuccessfully
occasionally things got ugly mostly painstakingly
quietly seemingly things got ugly beautifully
infrequently things got ugly sadly especially
frequently unfortunately things got ugly
increasingly obviously things got ugly suddenly
embarrassingly forcefully things got really ugly
regularly truly quickly things got really incredibly
ugly things will get less ugly inevitably hopefully
Published in the print edition of The New Yorker, January 14, 2019,
This is the last Fourteenlines for 2019, the last of the decade. Fitting to end it with music. I continued my tradition of assembling a mix of my favorite new songs that were released in 2019 and giving it away as gifts. This years mix was a two cd set with 34 songs. I include one song from each artist. There is a certain sound and rhythm that runs through it but the genres run the gamut from rock to blues, to jazz, to soul to pop to singer songwriter. The best new artist is J. S. Ondara who has local ties to Minneapolis currently. He is a talent to watch. Best comeback goes to P. P. Arnold. First new album in many years and she has made a great one.
I have shared links for my five favorite songs of the year. Enjoy and Happy New Years. May 2020 bring you peace, health and prosperity.
Although we live by strife, We’re always sorry to begin it. What, we ask, is life Without a touch of Poetry in it.
Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid! Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade. Hail, flowing fount of sentiment! All hail! All hail! Divine emollient!
Gilbert and Sullivan – Pirates of Penzance
American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin
by Terrance Hayes
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
Copyright Poetry September 2017.
Who said the sonnet is a dried up husk as a literary form? It still lives and breathes fire and ice in the hands of spirited young writers, like Terrance Hayes, who revel in the mastery of 14 lines. Hayes stays within the bounds of tradition enough to give the poem added weight, while loosening the straps of literary restraint enough to wiggle free to write smoothly and with style.
I love this poem. The grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone, is one hell of a line. Interesting questions come to my mind at the end. What does Hayes love? What does he want destroyed? Tradition? I think he’ll let us decide. I am grateful he is writing clever, thought provoking poetry.
The line “While your better selves watch from the bleachers” made me think of Yeats poem Second Coming and the line; “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
What does Gilbert and Sullivan have to do with anything? A silly reminder, fellow Pirate Kings, to try and keep a sense of humor, despite a whole herd of rough beasts slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
To listen to Terrance Hayes read his poem, click on the link below to go to the Poetry Foundations website and click on the red arrow near the title.