Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

Poems by Terrance Hayes, see "A Conversation Between McCallum and Hayes"

From Muscular Music (1999, Tia Chucha Press)


They are like those crazy women
     who tore Orpheus
when he refused to sing,

these men grinding
     in the strobe & black lights
of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.

"I'm just here for the music,"
     I tell the man who asks me
to the floor. But I have held

a boy on my back before.
     Curtis & I used to leap
barefoot into the creek; dance

among maggots & piss,
     beer bottles & tadpoles
slippery as sperm;

we used to pull off our shirts,
     & slap music into our skin.
He wouldn't know me now

at the edge of these lovers' gyre,
     glitter & steam, fire,
      bodies blurred sexless
by the music's spinning light.
    A young man slips his thumb
      into the mouth of an old one, 

& I am not that far away.
     The whole scene raw & delicate
      as Curtis's foot gashed
on a sunken bottle shard.
     They press hip to hip,
      each breathless as a boy

carrying a friend on his back.
     The foot swelling green
      as the sewage in that creek.
         (stanza break)
We never went back.
     But I remember his weight
      better than I remember
my first kiss.
    These men know something
      I used to know.
How could I not find them
     beautiful, the way they dive & spill
      into each other, 

the way the dance floor
     takes them,
      wet & holy in its mouth.


From Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002)


The rain falling on a night
     in mid December,
I pull to my father's engine
     wondering how long I'll remember
this. His car is dead. He connects
     jumper-cables to his battery,
then to mine without looking in
     at me & the child. Water beads
on the windshields, the road sign,
     his thin blue coat. I'd get out now,
prove I can stand with him
     in the cold,  but he told me to stay
with the infant. I wrap her
     in the blanket staring
for what seems like a long time
     into her open, toothless mouth,
and wish she was mine. I feed her
     an orange softened first in my mouth,
chewed gently until the juice runs
     down my fingers as I squeeze it 
into hers. What could any of this matter
     to another man passing on his way
to his family, his radio deafening
     the sound of water & breathing
along all the roads bound to his?
     But to rescue a soul is as close
as anyone comes to God.
     Think of Noah lifting a small black bird
from its nest. Think of a carpenter,
     raising a son that wasn't his.


Let me begin again.
     I want to be holy. In rain
I pull to my father's car
     with my girlfriend's infant.
She was pregnant when we met.
     But we'd make love. We'd make
love below stars & shingles
     while the baby kicked between us.
Perhaps a man whose young child
     bears his face, whose wife waits
as he drives home through rain
& darkness, perhaps that man
would call me a fool. So what.
     There is one thing I will remember
all my life. It is as small
     & holy as the mouth
of an infant. It is speechless.
     When his car would not stir,
my father climbed in beside us,
     took the orange from my hand,
took the baby in his arms.
     In 1974, this man met my mother
for the first time as I cried or slept
     in the same city that holds us
tonight. If you ever tell my story,
     say that's the year I was born. 

From How To Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015)

How to Be Drawn to Trouble

The people I live with are troubled by the way I have been playing
"Please, Please, Please" by James Brown and the Famous Flames
All evening, but they won't say. I've got a lot of my mother's music
In me. James Brown is no longer a headwind of hot grease

And squealing for ladies with leopard-skinned intentions,
Stoned on horns and money. Once I only knew his feel-good music.

While my mother watched convicts dream, I was in my bedroom
Pretending to be his echo. I still love the way he says Please
Ten times straight, bending the one syllable until it sounds
Like three. Trouble is one of the ways we discover the complexities

Of the soul. Once, my mother bit the wrist of a traffic cop
But was not locked away because like him, she was an officer

Of the state. She was a guard at the prison in which James Brown
Was briefly imprisoned. There had been broken man-made laws,
A car chase melee, a roadblock of troopers in sunblock.
I, for one, don't trust the police because they go around looking

To eradicate trouble. T-R-oh-you-better-believe
In trouble. Trouble is how we learn what the soul is.

James Brown, that brother could spice up any sentence he uttered
Or was given. His accent made it sound like he was pleading
Whether he was speaking or singing. A woman can make a man
Sing. After another of my mother's disappearances, my father left her

Bags on the porch. My father believes a man should never dance
In public. Under no circumstances should a grown man have hair

Long enough to braid. If I was a black girl, I'd always be mad.
I might weep too and break. But think about the good things.
My mother and I love James Brown in a cape and sweat
Like glitter that glows like little bits of gold. In the photo she took

With him, he holds her wrist oddly, probably unintentionally
Covering her scar. There's the trouble of being misunderstood

And the trouble of being soul brother number one sold brother
Godfather dynamite. Add to that the trouble of shouting
"I got to get out!" "I got to get down!" "I got to get on up the road!"
For many years there was a dancing competition between

My mother and father though rarely did they actually dance.
They did not scuffle like drums or cymbals, but like something

Sluggish and close to earth. You know how things work
When they don't work? I want to think about the good things.
The day after the Godfather of Soul finished signing just that
All over everything in the prison, all my mother wanted to talk

About were his shoes. For some reason, he had six or seven pairs
Of Italian leather beneath his bunk suggesting where he'd been,

Even if for the moment, he wasn't going anywhere.
Think about how little your feet would touch the ground
If you were on your knees pleading two or three times a day.
There are theories about freedom, and there is a song that says

None of us are free. My mother had gone out Saturday night,
And came home Sunday an hour or so before church.

She punched clean through the porch window
When we wouldn't let her in. I can still hear all the love buried
Under all the noise she made. But sometimes I hear it wrong.
It's not James Brown making trouble, it's trouble he's drawn to:

Baby, you done me wrong. Took my love, and now you're gone.
It's trouble he's asking to stay. My father might have said Please

When my mother was beating the door and then calling to me
From the window. I might have heard her say Please just before
Or just after the glass and then the skin along her wrist broke.
Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, that's how James Brown says it.

Please, please, please, please, please, Honey, please don't go.

From How To Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015)

Gentle Measures

First, I would like to have with 196 women from the world's
196 nations 196 children, then I would like to abandon them.
I know it's not that easy. But when I am home, I can't wait
to get moving, when I am moving I can't wait to get home
again. Part of me loves when I've got no place to be.

For the occasion she learns she will have no father
my Sri Lankan child will have to imagine, difficult as it is,
the depth of history, how humanity endures because it is,
at most, an idea. This scenario is also for my mother flirting
with a man twice her age and for the lonely child in me.

I will have a son named High Jinx, and a son named 44,
and a son named Mary. Some of my sons will wear bags
on their heads. Some of my sons will wait their whole lives
to board an ark called American Beauty.

Mothers, various retributions should be divvied in the light
of each child's sins. My children will not always be godly.
You have my permission to punish them as you would like
to punish me. (Your hands and knees must be bloodied.)

I would like to abandon the child of a mother who dies
in a Luxembourg train wreck, and a mother kidnapped
by banana farmers in Belize; a mother taking refuge
alone in a mountain cave during a Peruvian flood.
Goddamn, I want to be as hardcore as my daddy.

Thinking of me two or three myths their brains devise
will begin to divide in them, the tangible cells untangling
themselves until my absence seems to recede. My children
will find grease on their fingers after touching pictures of me.

Sometimes I want to catch the hand of a child and go 
"Life! Life! Life!" Sometimes I imagine an old naked woman waiting 
as her tub fills with water. Or a knock-kneed girl using her face
as a shield. But I will not claim to know other people's loneliness.

When my Korean daughter falls for the man who dresses
his lovers like dolls, I will not be there to say, "Being a doll
is as close as a toy can come to slavery," I will not say, "Isn't it
exciting: the noon teas, the personalized songs and cradling?"

Children, here are some of my favorite things: the tiny tongue 
painted inside a doll's tiny mouth, a phonograph record
spinning like a girl in a black skirt. Also the family drawing
one of you made , though the father in it looks nothing like me.

My little Belgian boy in a hat decorated with buttons
pulled from the shirt I left behind, my little Syrian girl
with a shoe box waiting for birthday cards she will not receive,
my farm boy with the tomatoes he tried selling to neighbors
who wanted pears. I plan to never keep photographs of them.

My mother had me when she was sixteen. The angle of her teeth,
she can barely shut her mouth, may have been inherited
from her father before he ran away. She told me, "If a strange man
ever appears at your door, kick him in his grin, Baby.
Kick him even if he begins to sing to you about me."

Let's praise everything that spurs the spirit to creativity.
The tin cup my father rattles until its poison spills,
how easily a mouth erupts with belief. Let's praise
how much we love without loving, how little we sing while singing.

We can try to praise the light-blue powder of family
because it is not made of stone, it is not mist. You can't hold it
long, but this is true of many things. Somewhere
in this brain is also my father's misery. And whether it is better
to forgive or let yourself be forgiven eventually.

My child with no one to teach her how to skin a Bolivian goat
or make a necklace of Tanzanian wolf teeth, my kindergartners
in Madagascar and Cuba, my daughter whose stepfather
will die in a Kenyan coal mine, my daughter whose boots will fail
to warm her in the Ukrainian snow: their lives will be better without me.

This is a wish for the child sleeping in grass that has wilted
a little, for the child lazing in the pool of a beachside hotel.
This is for the child who overhears his mother cry
into the phone: "Don't you put the bad mouth on me!"

Sometimes my prayers begin, "Darkness, is that you
at my skull?" Because that's one version of pain,
I'm always like "Angel, leave me the fuck alone." I'm like
"Blame the devil of longing." I have said I am in love with beauty,
but my heart is so mangled, it spills blood on everything.

In the high schools where the janitors speak French,
in Swaziland and Switzerland, on the small islands
where nuns show their knees, in places the word for "Father"
means nothing to me: their lives will be better without me.

I would like to leave you to the moody cruelty and nurture
of your mothers, Children, to the complex rites and rituals
of your countries, to God gazing like a cop on a bike, to cocoa
and buzzards and crap inventions and the gospel of possibility.

The bald-headed mother dreaming through cancer of the sprawl
of highways and the wide-open wilder Wilderness, the fluid
holy light she can put her hand through, the rain beating
"I am" "I am" all over her body: it's got nothing to do with me.

At each door I want to slip on my shoes and say to each woman,
"Do what you do, Mother Goose." And should one of you find me,
Children, I'll downright lie and snap, "Shadow, why do you follow me
so? Ain't you a long way from home too?" You don't need me to know
what it means to be lonely. I won't look back. I won't look back at you.

"Gentle Measures", "How to Be Drawn to Trouble", from HOW TO BE DRAWN by Terrance Hayes, copyright © 2015 by Terrance Hayes. Used by permission of Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

"The Same City", from HIP LOGIC by Terrance Hayes, copyright © 2002 by Terrance Hayes. Used by permission of Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Website Powered by Morphogine