Terrance Hayes reads “How to Draw a Perfect Circle”

August 8, 2018

Curtis Fox: You're listening to an archival episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast from December 2014. This episode was hosted by associate editor Lindsay Garbutt and Poetry magazine's editor Don Share.

Don Share: This has been a big year for Terrance Hayes. He's a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, and his fifth book of poems is coming out soon from Penguin.

Lindsay Garbutt: His poem in the December issue, “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” is one of the poems in his new book which is called “How to Be Drawn.” “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” is, in part, a meditation on blind contour drawing. That's the exercise where you draw something without looking down at the paper, and without lifting your pencil off the paper.

Don Share: Terrance Hayes told us that he was taking drawing classes a few summers ago when he wrote the poem. But that's not what the poem ultimately focuses on.

Terrance Hayes: The reason for the poem was a pretty big New York story a couple of years ago.

Lindsay Garbutt: New Yorkers might remember this story. Basically, a transit cop shot and killed a man on a subway platform after the man had stabbed the cop in the eye.

Terrance Hayes: It was a big deal. The guy, the cop, was like a hero, it was in the news, and Bloomberg gave him some sort of um ... medal of honor.

Don Share: But the cop's heroism is not what got Terrance Hayes going on this poem.

Terrance Hayes: We know the story of heroism, we know the story of soldiers and policemen who save us, and it's very easy with that story to demonize the other side. But sometimes the evil has a kind of history that makes it more complicated and much less clear. And so this is a poem that really explores my feelings about that.

Lindsay Garbutt: His feelings weren't just provoked by the news story. He had a personal connection with one of the people involved in the incident. But we'll leave that for the poem to reveal.

Don Share: It's a fairly long poem and all but impossible to excerpt from. We're going to play the whole thing, but we're going to break it into three segments. Let's hear the first part of it now, where he connects what is happening in a drawing class to this violent incident on the subway platform.

Terrance Hayes: How to Draw a Perfect Circle

I can imagine the sphere of the model’s body, her head,
Her mouth, the chin she rests at the bend of her elbow
But nothing tells me how to make the pupils spiral

From her gaze. Everything the eye sees enters a circle,
The world is connected to a circle: breath spools from the nostrils
And any love to be open becomes an O. The shape inside the circle

Is a circle, the egg fallen outside the nest the serpent circles
Rests in the serpent’s gaze the way my gaze rests on the model.
In a blind contour drawing the eye tracks the subject

Without observing what the hand is doing. Everything is connected
By a line curling and canceling itself like the shape of a snake
Swallowing its own decadent tail or a mind that means to destroy itself,

A man circling a railway underpass before attacking a policeman.
To draw the model’s nipples I have to let myself be carried away.
I love all the parts of the body. There are as many curves

As there are jewels of matrimony, as many whirls as there are teeth
In the mouth of the future: the mute pearls a bride wears to her wedding,
The sleeping ovaries like the heads of riders bunched in a tunnel.

The doors of the subway car imitate an O opening and closing,
In the blood the O spirals its helix of defects, genetic shadows,
But there are no instructions for identifying loved ones who go crazy.

When one morning a black man stabs a black transit cop in the face
And the cop, bleeding from his eye, kills the assailant, no one traveling
To the subway sees it quickly enough to make a camera phone witness.

The scene must be carried on the tongue, it must be carried
On the news into the future where it will distract the eyes working
Lines into paper. This is what blind contour drawing conjures in me.

Don Share: What’s really striking to me is when a poet makes the most out of every letter, both in terms of the sound of the letter and the way it looks on the page and, you know, the O sounds that fall all the way through this poem so relentlessly really drive home so many different aspects of what occasions the poem. Drawing a circle, but also this circle of the eye, the orbit of the eye, also the O in cop, and so on. It’s quite remarkable, and this technique adds a great amount of intensity to the poem whose subject matter merits intensity.

Lindsay Garbutt: In this next section, Hayes meditates on the biography of the assailant and describes his funeral.

Terrance Hayes:

At the center of God looms an O, the devil believes justice is shaped
Like a zero, a militant helmet or war drum, a fist or gun barrel,
A barrel of ruined eggs or skulls. To lift anything from a field

The lifter bends like a broken O. The weight of the body
Lowered into a hole can make anyone say Oh: the onlookers,
The mother, the brothers and sisters. Omen begins with an O.

When I looked into my past I saw the boy I had not seen in years
Do a standing backflip so daring the onlookers called him crazy.
I did not see a moon as white as an onion but I saw a paper plate

Upon which the boy held a plastic knife and sopping meat.
An assailant is a man with history. His mother struggles
To cut an onion preparing a meal to be served after the funeral.

The onion is the best symbol of the O. Sliced, a volatile gas stings
The slicer’s eyes like a punishment clouding them until they see
What someone trapped beneath a lid of water sees:

A soft-edged world, a blur of blooms holding a coffin afloat.
The onion is pungent, its scent infects the air with sadness,
All the pallbearers smell it. The mourners watch each other,

They watch the pastor’s ambivalence, they wait for the doors to open,
They wait for the appearance of the wounded one-eyed victim
And his advocates, strangers who do not consider the assailant’s funeral

Appeasement. Before that day the officer had never fired his gun
In the line of duty. He was chatting with a cabdriver
Beneath the tracks when my cousin circled him holding a knife.

The wound caused no brain damage though his eyeball was severed.

Don Share: So now we know that the assailant was a cousin of Terrance Hayes’s, which helps explain why he would brood over the meaning of this particular incident. This next and final section of the poem starts with a mythological precedent, then moves back to the drawing class and becomes a meditation on seeing.

Terrance Hayes:

I am not sure how a man with no eye weeps. In the Odyssey
Pink water descends the Cyclops’s cratered face after Odysseus

Drives a burning log into it. Anyone could do it. Anyone could
Begin the day with his eyes and end it blind or deceased,
Anyone could lose his mind or his vision. When I go crazy

I am afraid I will walk the streets naked, I am afraid I will shout
Every fucked up thing that troubles or enchants me, I will try to murder
Or make love to everybody before the police handcuff or murder me.

Though the bullet exits a perfect hole it does not leave perfect holes
In the body. A wound is a cell and portal. Without it the blood runs
With no outlet. It is possible to draw handcuffs using loops

Shaped like the symbol for infinity, from the Latin infinitas
Meaning unboundedness. The way you get to anything
Is context. In a blind contour it is not possible to give your subject

A disconnected gaze. Separated from the hand the artist’s eye
Begins its own journey. It could have been the same for the Cyclops,
A giant whose gouged eye socket was so large a whole onion

Could fit into it. Separated from the body the eye begins
Its own journey. The world comes full circle: the hours, the harvests,
When the part of the body that holds the soul is finally decomposed

It becomes a circle, a hole that holds everything: blemish, cell,
Womb, parts of the body no one can see. I watched the model
Pull a button loose on her jeans and step out of them

As one might out of a hole in a blue valley, a sea. I found myself
In the dark, I found myself entering her body like a delicate shell
Or soft pill, like this curved thumb of mine against her lips.

You must look without looking to make the perfect circle.
The line, the mind must be a blind continuous liquid
Until the drawing is complete.

Don Share: As the poet says, “Omen begins with an O.” So the poem really expands partly on the way to a very large point beyond the incident in the news on the subway platform. I think the crescendo of the poem intensifies things into a much larger feeling, almost looking over the whole world. And we just see the parts of it that we see and when we can’t see, whether literally or figuratively, that is when violence ensues. Which means that seeing and observing are important to preserve life.

Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. I guess the other connection for me might be infinity or the connection between, as he says, “the shape of a snake / Swallowing its own decadent tail,” so it’s this kind of creation and destruction in the same motion. So there is this creation through love and destruction through murder is a kind of infinity loop.

Don Share: It’s a vivid but actually terrifying poem. And not just because of the violence and passion it inscribes but even where it takes us at the end.

Terrance Hayes: You must look without looking to make the perfect circle.

Don Share: “the mind must be a blind continuous liquid / Until the drawing is complete.” It’s a tall order.

CS: That was an archival poetry magazine podcast from December of 2014. You can read “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” by Terrance Hayes online at We’ll be back next week with another archival episode, with new episodes coming in September.

In this archival episode, the editors discuss Terrance Hayes’s poem “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” from the December 2014 issue of Poetry.

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