When I first read “God is an American,” I was wide-eyed and breathless and thought it might be a love story. To me, Terrance Hayes was the best kind of romantic–the kind of man who uses a German turn of phrase the way a tipsy i-banker might quote a line of Baudelaire in the original French. Never mind that Hayes’s label for “the covering of adulthood” is Schadenfreude, the German word for “pleasure at the pain of others.” The way Hayes describes himself “clinging to a lover’s moorings,” upon a first reading, I was tempted to believe that both the pleasure and pain of Schadenfreude were the speaker’s own.
Now, though, I’m inclined to believe that the speaker of “God is an American” is more in love with his own work than with his dampened object of post-shower affection. It’s the old cliche: an artist who falls in love with the canvas rather than the model. The speaker’s relationship with his lover is well-defined, albeit painful: it’s full of the human necessities of cavities and hygiene and “powdered sugar on a black shirt.”
Poetry, on the other hand, resists him. “Sometimes what I feel has a difficult name,” Hayes writes. “Sometimes it is like the world before America.” In other words, tangled, ebullient, complicated, and ultimately unreachable. Because God himself is an American (according to the title), poetry is therefore the work of the pre-theistic elements, uncivilized and unconstrained.
And though it may be cliche, I love “God is an American” because I’ve also felt that. Who hasn’t? Just like Hayes’s speaker, I have found myself “alone…on the top floor pulled by obsession, the ink / on my fingers.” The pain/pleasure of the struggle, to define the undefinable, always, like Hayes, “in love with incompletion.”