How to Be Drawn
By Terrance Hayes
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Has Terrance Hayes enjoyed a big few years, or what? "Big years" for a poet, of course, but he already netted a National Book Award for 2010's Lighthead and both guest-edited wrote a brilliant introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, which was my introduction to the guy. I'd call How to be Drawn a victory lap, but it's more than that: it's his best collection to date, pushing forward his interest in experimental forms, his tributes to his influences, and his themes of racial identity so they form a terrific net of themes and forms. In other words, he wrote some terrific poetry here.
The best example of everything coming together is "Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report." First off, Hayes isn't kidding about the "crime report" thing. The poem not only references crime (Etheridge Knight was a poet who wrote his poems while imprisoned for bank robbery), but it looks like a crime report on the page. However, the content subverts the form: rather than filling out each field of the report in a straightforward manner, Hayes offers impressions, small stories, and commentary. For instance, rather than fill out an address for the "residence" segment, he writes "In the cell's darkness, the code of ancestry breaks" (49). It seems to me he's playing with perceptions vs. reality of race, offering literal boxes for Knight to fit into and then writing him out of the box by offering ambiguous answers to clear questions.
Of course, that's not the only experiment here. Also daring? A poem in the form of an interview, "Reconstructed Reconstruction." Besides the obvious racial implications of the title, the reader is also brought to "reconstruct" the interview, as Hayes offers answers but leaves the questions blank; "Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburg," which almost seems like a series of prose poems or flash-fiction pieces based on an abstracted view of Pittsburg; "Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs," a funny poem about some of Hayes' literary and artistic heroes; and "Who are the Tribes," a downright unclassifiable poem about racial identity. Interestingly, the how-to poems aren't as experimental as you might expect them to be. He gives us three: "How to be Drawn to Trouble," a tribute to James Brown; "How to Draw an Invisible Man," about Ralph Ellison, and "How to Draw a Perfect Circle," which doesn't seem to be a tribute to anyone at all. (Da Vinci, maybe?)
Elsewhere, Hayes shows both top-notch social observation and a wicked sense of humor. Take "Black Confederate Ghost Story," whose first few stanzas are once relevant to the racial discussion and funny: "Attention, African-American apparitions hung/burned or drowned before anyone alive was born: please make a mortifying midnight appearance/before the handyman standing on my porch/this morning with a beard as wild as Walt Whitman's. Except he is the anti-Whitman, this white man/with Confederate pins littering his denim cap and Jacket. (And by mortify, dear ghosts, I mean scare the snot out of him)" (35). Also note the wordplay, which comes back strong on one of the best poems here, "A. Machine." Best line in that poem? "Under the overpass and passed over, the past is over and I'm over the past" (43). So I'd say he nailed it here. I've liked Hayes for a while now, and this is the one where everything he does well comes together.
Out of 10: 9.3.