Stanzas From a Locked-Down World

Form, fragment, and memory in the lyrics of Terrance Hayes

Terrance Hayes’s lyric improvisations bounce off the restrictions of the forms he chooses, energized by limitations. The poems in his 2018 collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, were written directly after Donald Trump’s election. American Sonnet is a term he took, with a respectful nod of the cap, from Wanda Coleman, who used it for her 14-line riffs full of Black feeling and protest. Hayes’s lines in this unrhymed poetic form twist and turn as the poet tries to talk with his “assassin”—simultaneously Trump, white supremacists everywhere, and a villain inside Hayes’s head.

More recently, the constraints of pandemic lockdown have been an instigation—and a subject—for Hayes’s poetry. In “Do Not Put Your Head Under Your Arm,” he writes in loosely rhymed quatrains, each introduced by a do-it-yourself emoticon made of keyboard symbols. The poem’s curious title comes from the eccentric avant-garde composer Erik Satie and the section of his piano suites Enfantines subtitled Recommandations maternelles—a reference that becomes resonant when we reflect on how the pandemic has turned everyone into children subject to instructions from a higher authority. The emoticons remind us of how we depend on our screens to express ourselves and retain contact with the social world. With both hands up in the air, Hayes’s stick figures signify bafflement and surrender, or perhaps supplication. This is an unhappy condition to be stuck in, but there are few alternatives to accepting some pandemic disempowerment, apart from plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan or clogging downtown Ottawa with long-haul trucks.

In “Do Not Put Your Head Under Your Arm,” Hayes refers to the “Kafka Virus”—a fitting name for Covid-19. Google “Kafka” and “virus” and you will learn about Apache Kafka, an open-source stream-processing data platform that the CDC relies on to generate the global and national Covid numbers we anxiously check in our news sources. The conversion of individual human suffering and death to data-driven, algorithmic rationality by means of a digital platform that for no obvious reason bears the name “Kafka” is nothing if not Kafkaesque.

The fragmentary form of Hayes’s quatrains suggests the partitioned, socially distanced quality of life in the pandemic. Our thought breaks up into distracted bits and bytes when we are living so much on our screens. Disasters both real and fictional stream before us night and day, while the boundary between dream and waking blurs. In lockdown, it has been hard not to confuse vivamus (“let us live”) and bibamus in Seneca’s famous epigram, which Hayes renders as “Let / us drink, for we must die.”

Two beautiful memory poems presented here return Hayes to his childhood in South Carolina. In “Strange as the Rules of Grammar II,” the poet describes coming to terms with the strangeness of a world we are obliged to accept as reality even without understanding its logic or cause. And in “Blood Pressure Medicine,” Hayes recalls “the morning song” of pills, shaken in their plastic container, that his grandmother began every day by taking. Now, years later, holding his own prescription, Hayes recognizes that the song has become his, too.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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