'Lighthead'

In his fourth collection of poems, Lighthead, Terrance Hayes offers incredible insight.



At the heart of most mysteries is the desire to make sense of the senseless. We attempt to piece together some kind of meaning from clues that at first blush appear random: a missing item of clothing, tiny scratches on the face of a lock, the placement of a book on the shelf.

I don’t know about you, but, to me, that sounds a lot like what poems do. Poems are little engines of meaning and association. At its core, a poem is an expression of the mysterious, an attempt to get to the heart of this whole being-human thing.

Perhaps the greatest difference between a poem and a mystery story, however, is that poems are generally open-ended; they expand ever outward increasing the possible meanings, whereas a mystery will routinely contract until there is only one logical solution.

In his fourth collection of poems, Lighthead, winner of the 2010 National Book Award, Terrance Hayes offers this insight: “Not what you see, but what you perceive, / that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement / of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.” That’s a handy guide for anyone venturing into the open territory not only of Lighthead but of poetry in general.

Hayes continues to employ a sort of hip hop vernacular, as in the opening lines of “Shakur”: “I’m coming to you live from the halfway out / Where the winter morning stretches out ... ,” and where the rhythmic bounce of a stage-strutting MC is on full display. But Hayes follows those lines with, “Like a white sheet over lovers the infinite / Has fetched. “—which both deflates the bark of braggadocio and deflates the hard beat twisting the poem into something odd, even melancholic.

Hayes’s version of hip-hop is tempered with New York School coolness; it’s as if John Ashbery made an album with RZA.

Throughout Lighthead, Hayes shows himself to be a master of tone and form. Whether using a form as staid as the sonnet or creating new forms such as the series of pecha kucha, which are poems based on the structure of a Japanese business presentation, Hayes makes nary a misstep.

Think of Lighthead as a dance and Hayes as a dancer so fleet of foot and imagination as to be able to move from a waltz to a fandango to break-dancing without a single stall or stutter in his movement­­—which is not to say there’s anything here that smacks of the showoff. No, this Fred Astaire; this is Alvin Ailey. Just one of the greats in top form doing what he does.

At the heart of Lighthead is an exploration of the mystery of inspiration. The title itself alludes to the proverbial light bulb going off cartoonishly above a person’s head. But inspiration bends in many directions whether it be the spark from which a poem is born or the cruel flame that incited the burning of black men in the South in “All The Way Live”:

Everyone was at war
With what it meant to be alive. That’s why we refused to be banished.
And why when they set us on fire, there was light at our core.


Hayes digs deep into the American mystery.


Lighthead by Terrance Hayes; Penguin Books; $18

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