How To Be Drawn
By Terrance Hayes
by Zachary R. Wood
October 22, 2015
How often do we consider the possibility of there being a difference between what it is and what it looks like? In How To Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes complicates the meaning and significance of perception and representation. Although the book is divided into three parts, Hayes’ poems flow freely and mindfully between themes of race, identity, masculinity, history, family, art, and language.
The author of five books of poetry and a winner of the National Book Award in 2010 for his fourth book of poetry, Lighthead, Hayes is widely (and rightly) considered one of the most inventive and imaginative poets in America. To be sure, this book, throughout its many tangled and newfangled twists and turns, attests to Hayes’ unique ability to repurpose formal poetic conventions and often create new forms and structures. In a three-part poem about the great Etheridge Knight, Hayes adroitly employs nuanced table charts as templates to affect our experience of and rumination on the content of his language.
This reader found himself pausing and re-reading passages several times, trying to catch all of the tricks at work. As a poet, Hayes is often as playful as he is skillful. His writing is full of devices and contrivances that seem to lead you one way and go another, or expose one side of the coin while faintly intimating and then obscuring what is on the other. In this sense, How To Be Drawn is at once complex and transparent.
For example, in the poem, “How To Draw An Invisible Man,” Hayes alludes to the existential themes probed in Ralph Ellison’s classic, Invisible Man. In doing so, Hayes explores what it means existentially to be rendered invisible and how one can be made visible:
“Before America thought to release anyone
from its dream, the waterlogged monologues
one who is unseen speaks burst suddenly
from Ralph Ellison’s body and because I mean to live
transparently, I am here, bear with me,
describing the contents: the fictions envisioned
by Emerson and immigrants, the dogmas,
aboriginal progeny, scholastic recriminations,
dementia, jubilee, hubris in Ralph Ellison,
Duke Ellington’s shadow, a paragraph
on the feathered headdress of Marcus Garvey,
some of it was pornography, some of it alluded
to Negroes who believe educating black kids
means teaching them to help white people feel
comfortable, some of it outlined the perks
of invisibility, how we are obliged to eschew
the zoo, the farm animals, it had something
to do with captivity...”
Here we see invisibility viewed through a racial lens with references to Ellison’s body, Ellington’s shadow, and Garvey’s headdress. Yet we are also given Emerson, immigrants, dogma, doctrine, and the American dream. In this regard, Hayes situates his reflections on invisibility within the context of American values and idealities—democracy, freedom, individualism, and plurality of thought—all of which are sharply at odds with marginality, captivity, and invisibility.
With felt urgency and mesmerizing linguistic multiplicity, How To Be Drawn, invites us to step into an ambit of poetic creation unlike anything we have seen before, with multiple maps, graphs, plot charts, novel forms and new styles that compel us to contemplate not only how African-Americans are perceived and represented but also how we perceive and represent ourselves.
In one of my favorite poems from the book, “Wigphrastic,” Hayes writes with humor, wit, and incisiveness about the stereotype of black women wearing wigs. Hayes says, “Let’s wear ready-made wigs, custom-made wigs, hand-tied wigs, and machine-made wigs...Let’s get higher than God tonight like the military wives of Imperial Rome smiling in the blonde and red-haired wigs cut from the scalps of enemy captives. Somebody slap me...Wear your wig. Your wig is terrific.”
Regardless of how one feels about the frequency of unfamiliar devices and unusual constructions used in this book, How To Be Drawn will prove to be enterprising in its ambition, compelling in its thought, and pathbreaking in its innovative experimentation.