The Golden Shovel

By Terrance Hayes b. 1971 Terrance Hayes
          after Gwendolyn Brooks
 
I. 1981
 
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
 
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
 
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
 
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
 
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
 
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
 
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
 
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
 
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
 
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
 
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
 
got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
 
 
II. 1991
 
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
 
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
 
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
 
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
 
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
 
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
 
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
 
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
 
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
 
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
 
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
 
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.

Terrance Hayes, “The Golden Shovel” from Lighthead. Copyright © 2010 by Terrance Hayes. Used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Source: Lighthead (Penguin Books, 2010)

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Poet Terrance Hayes b. 1971

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Living, Coming of Age, Youth, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

 Terrance  Hayes

Biography

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, poet Terrance Hayes earned a BA at Coker College and an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. In his poems, in which he occasionally invents formal constraints, Hayes considers themes of popular culture, race, music, and masculinity. “Hayes’s fourth book puts invincibly restless wordplay at the service of strong emotions: a son’s frustration, a husband’s love, a citizen’s righteous anger and a . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Coming of Age, Youth, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Arts & Sciences, Music

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Poetic Terms Couplet, Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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