Essay

Another Life

Terrance Hayes and the poetics of the un-thought.
Black and white image of the poet Terrance Hayes.
“The Negro is America’s metaphor.”
                               —Richard Wright

To say that Terrance Hayes’s latest collection, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin (2018), is about Donald Trump’s election is to both identify a vital thread in these poems and to miss the point entirely. Hayes spent the better part of the 200 days between Trump’s election and the early summer of 2017 writing sonnets, 70 of which make up this collection. But only when I read the text in its entirety did I understand that Hayes’s project isn’t so much about Trump’s presidency as about the social and psychological phenomena that abetted his ascent to the Oval Office:

America, you just wanted a change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own.

Hayes goes on to quote several lines from “All Gold Everything,” a song by the hip-hop artist Trinidad James: “Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring, gold all in my watch.” James’s 2012 hit is an ideal reference here, as it calls simultaneously to images of Trump’s preferred mode of home decor, the character of the man, and the inferred egotism of the people who elected him. But Hayes’s project looks beyond Trump to ask what a 21st-century poetics of Black life sounds like. Further, what might such a poetics tell us about the limits and lacunae of America’s national imaginary? Hayes confronts not only the unmitigated cruelty of contemporary Black life but also how it feels to live with the weight of that cruelty as one’s inheritance.

Throughout the book, Hayes meditates on this complex relationship between power and non-power: “Like no / Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants / Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.” The descendants of the slavers and the enslaved alike inherit the legacy of American decadence and must make sense of its costs and contradictions. For this, too, is the dream we inherit and strain against: desire warped by the marketplace, a collective yearning to be made beautiful by luxury. For the Black men in these poems, however, this relationship is essentially destructive. Their hope of escaping the bloodbath of American poverty, and the brilliance they marshal toward that aim, are often rendered futile by the world they are made to survive: a social order that depends on their annihilation to function. In this schema, the figure of Donald Trump appears not as an unprecedented event, or as easy shorthand for white supremacy or U.S. nationalism alone, but as a symbol of something fundamentally American as America has been heretofore defined—a celebrity president for a culture obsessed with the sound of its own voice.

It bears mentioning that my own introduction to the sitting president was a 1994 episode of my favorite TV show at the time, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which Trump appeared as himself. It wasn’t until years later that I learned of the infamous, 1989 full-page ad in four New York City papers, including the New York Times, in which he seemed to call for the execution of the Central Park Five: a quintet of Black and Brown teenagers convicted of raping and assaulting a white female jogger but later exonerated by DNA evidence. Even then, long before Trump re-entered the political realm in earnest, the language of his broadside struck me. “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts,” Trump wrote. “I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”

In that moment, I came to understand the connection between the implicit, ever-present threat of Black male sexuality and the state’s power to let live and make die. Even as a child, there was a way I was seen, or might be seen someday if I lived long enough, that was bound up with whatever those boys were thought to be. Some ever-present danger supposedly lived in us and claimed our bodies as its own. The stakes of the conflict were clear. No matter the small, affectionate names our grandmothers gave us. No matter our favorite books or video games or songs. We were never children in the eyes of the broader world. We were already grown. We were already ghosts.

***

Hayes’s collection takes seriously the scope and scale of the much larger ethical dilemma that haunts the relationship between Black suffering and Black art. This is a phenomenon inextricable from what the poet and critic Fred Moten describes as the ongoing commitment of Black scholars to “study the sound of an unasked question.” The first question in American Sonnets addresses this matter head-on:

Would you rather spend the rest of eternity
With your wild wings bewildering a cage or
With your four good feet stuck in a pile of dirt?

Here, you are caged, or you are chained, or you are both: held by the state, bound to the land. The only way out is through imagination, through interior life, through the mind behind the masks that Black folks in America must wear every day. Hayes’s question posits a vision of Black life as one of constant fugitive movement between celebration and despair, mobility and captivity, flight and its opposite. In calling upon the language of animality—i.e., his invocation of both “wild wings” and “four good feet”—Hayes foregrounds the fraught, historically lethal adjacency between Black and animal life without emptying that juxtaposition of its political or aesthetic power. The critical embrace of the nonhuman realm—not only of animals but also of the trees and the sea and the dark earth beneath us—appears in American Sonnets as the refusal of dominion as the only worthy logic of human being and belonging. What we have survived, and the way we have survived it, is inextricable from this openness to other degraded forms of life.       

Indeed, any attempt to sketch the extravagant beauty, or brutality, of Black social life in the United States exposes the limits of our instruments. Our current situation, our atemporal state of emergency, cracks the scales and demands new language. It propels us back into a web of long-standing, overarching questions about where we are, how we got here, and what to do with any such revelations once they arrive. Time and time again, American Sonnets demands that we consider the ways in which anti-Black violence operates as what we might call the engine of the world: background noise, civil society’s diegetic music. It forces us to consider the way that numerous forms of Black materialBlack music, Black movement, Black writing, Black flesh, Black pain—serve as fuel for much of what flourishes under the heading of American culture:

America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it.

Against this hunger for Black flesh made manifest in public spectacles of state-sanctioned violence, as well as in popular representations of Black culture in television, literature, and cinema, Hayes’s collection is a reminder that we must commit to a more rigorous, imaginative engagement with Black interior life.

From one vantage, it appears that Hayes is working toward a poetics that might address this ever-expanding number of human lives bookended, almost in a definitional sense, by early death and ongoing misrecognition.

Something happened
In Sanford, something happened in Ferguson
And Brooklyn & Charleston, something happened
In Chicago & Cleveland & Baltimore & happens
Almost everywhere in this country every day.

We are in search of ways to honor the multitudes of our kin, counted and uncounted, who remain, if not ungrievable, then altogether opaque, deemed most valuable once they are gone. The litany of the slain is all too familiar. Our Black male cultural heroes, in particular, are largely martyrs: men murdered on balconies and on stages, standing in driveways, riding in passenger seats, on their way home. How does this knowledge impact our view of their inner lives or their places within the symbolic order? What is Black male life outside the frame of endangerment or threat?

A number of Hayes’s American sonnets—all of which he foregrounds as an inheritance from the late Wanda Coleman, inventor of the form and a singular force in 20th- and 21st-century Black poetics—make an explicit link between Black male death, the culture industry, and the American everyday:

But there never was a black male hysteria
Because a fret of white men drove you crazy
Or a clutch of goons drove you through Money,
Stole your money, paid you money, stole it again.

This is America, the poem asserts from the outset. And, not unlike Donald Glover’s recent piece of captivating, ultraviolent musical cinema (under the moniker of Childish Gambino), Hayes’s vision of the US is primarily defined by just this sort of murderous gaze and yearning for blood, this Janus-faced, simultaneous obsession with black death and the performance of black vitality. The line “but there never was a Black male hysteria” echoes throughout the collection and is one of several refrains—“the names alive are like the names in graves” is another—that constitute a connective thread within the text. Hayes seamlessly pivots from a mode of historical analysis (his invocation of Money, Mississippi, as the site of Emmett Till’s 1955 murder is both a statement of historical fact and a return to one of the country’s most well-recognized metonyms for the fear of Black male sexuality) to criticism of the ongoing criminalization of Black male sociality and the hyper-fetishization of Black male athleticism, all within the same few lines:

There was a black male review
By suits in the offices, the courts & waiting rooms.
There was a black male review in the weight rooms
Where coaches licked their whistles. Reviews,
Once-overs, half-studies, misreads & night
Mares looped the news.

It’s telling that Hayes describes the American sonnet elsewhere in the collection as a form that is “part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame,” one in which he can render his enemy both “gym & crow.” The American sonnet, in this instance, is rendered as a site of both retribution and re-imagination, a vehicle through which Hayes offers an imprecatory secular prayer that honors the psychological and political need for rage while necessarily noting the limitations of rage:

It is not enough
to love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.

We are called toward something higher, Hayes seems to say, a more capacious approach to conceptualizing care, justice, and reparation.

***

Throughout American Sonnets, Hayes demands that readers engage seriously with the sheer multitude of forms that our national obsession with Black flesh takes. “Black male hysteria,” in this sense, becomes a frame through which to explore how Black men and boys become archetypal of Blackness broadly construed, usually in ways that are inextricable from the lethal forms of violence and violation they are made to endure. What we might otherwise regard as celebrity, attention, or even love is shown here to be little more than another form of surveillance. The spotlight is a bullseye. Hayes knows this well and elaborates the affective experience of this condition with singular thoughtfulness and care. His titular “Assassin” operates as the embodiment of this dilemma. At various points, the term works in a fairly straightforward register—a speaker’s description of the United States as a “land of assassins,” for example—but at other points, it’s clear that there are any number of assassins in the text, named and unnamed, who require our attention:

Assassin, you are a mystery
To me, I say to my reflection sometimes.
You are beautiful because of your sadness, but
You would be more beautiful without your fear.

We bear witness here to the speaker’s critical lens turning inward and in the process discover yet another layer of Hayes’s larger intellectual project: an inquiry into the way it feels to be a problem, the impulses toward self-destruction we internalize while living in a culture founded in genocide, enslavement, and widespread ecological devastation. There is a battleground beyond the spectacular forms of anti-Black animus we see circulated on our timelines and television screens every day. Alongside that conflict, there remains the work we must undertake to refuse the world that has refused us, to see ourselves outside of its distorted imagery and brutal machinations. The assassin always comes by surprise, so we must be ready. We must be careful.

The speakers in Hayes’s sonnets help us make this necessary connection between a culture of wanton violence and the way that culture shapes the internal lives of those forced to live at the underside of modernity:

I live a life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.

“Define life” is the collection’s highest aim and the greatest gift to its readers: a critical lexicon for the division between life and death, that boundary always blurred in advance by the difficult miracle of Black persistence in the Americas. In taking up the mantle of Coleman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, and numerous other Black poets who have turned to the sonnet in an effort to elaborate—all while living within a space of confinement, aesthetic or otherwise—more expansive visions of Black personhood, he turns us back toward the archive while simultaneously calling us forward, toward the future of the field. Hayes’s poems grant us a vision of Black life that redefines life, that burns a hole through the forms of life never meant for us, and in their place offers another set of instruments altogether. On this front, a revision of Gil Scott-Heron’s timeless question comes to mind: What can survive in America? Nothing, if not our love.

Originally Published: August 6th, 2018

Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016). He is a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.