Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poetry Review: "A House Is Not a Home," Terrence Hayes

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This elegantly constructed poem uses a drunken tiff as a springboard for a reverie about sounds--and satirizes bourgeois African-American pretensions about their heritage along the way.

So much of reading contemporary poetry involves working through tropes. No matter how much one enjoys analyzing things, it can get a bit wearying at times. But a poem like Terrance Hayes’ “A House Is Not a Home,” an exercise in building structure out of free association, is an enjoyable respite. Hayes catches a reader up in his imaginative flights. By the end, he also has one marveling at how he pulls his verbal caprices together into a coherent whole. Reading the poem is like listening to an experienced jazz musician play out one apparently unrelated riff after another, only to recognize that they’re adding up to a proper song. The hook isn’t there at the beginning; you pick up on the refrains as you go.

The starting point for “A House Is Not a Home” is an incident in which the narrator gets his ears boxed by a friend and the friend’s wife after an inappropriate display of drunken affection. At first, all he can think of is the happier moments when the three of them were singing along with soul crooner Luther Vandross. From then on, every thought that occurs to him relates to sound, which eventually circles back to the scene with his friends. The structure isn’t immediately obvious, but it is ultimately very simple. The passages about the friends alternate with passages featuring the musings about sounds. The latter function like bridges between the choruses of the former.

The reader may be taken aback by the nature of the sound imagery. Examples include the sounds of church fires and “a skull that only a sharecropper’s daughter can make sing.” Obviously, Hayes is evoking images from the battles over Jim Crow and civil rights. But one doesn’t get the sense that he’s laying it on in the service of any kind of self-aggrandizement. If anything, he’s doing the opposite. Bringing it up in the context of a drunken reverie makes it come across as a poke at the narrator's pretentiousness in bringing it up at all. The feeling of absurdity is only enhanced by the narrator's plans to do his aural explorations as a hypothetical employee of the--brace oneself--"African American Acoustic and Audiological Insurance Institute." There’s an irksome pomposity to bourgeois African-Americans polishing the talismans of bygone oppressions, particularly those they only know vicariously. Hayes seems to recognize how ridiculous that behavior can be. Anyway, everything comes back to the narrator’s relationship with his friends, and that is ultimately what’s important. Sounds may evoke the symbols of history, but they also stand in for everyday personal experiences. It’s the latter that always stays with one the most.

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