The Day I Got Burned I Wanted to Be Burned

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Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead was my favorite book of 2010. His poem “Snow for Wallace Stevens” from Lighthead is one of the best poems about Stevens ever written. And that’s saying something. Hayes’s supercool Who Are the Tribes may not be my favorite book of 2011, but it will probably be in the running. Published by Pilot Books with gorgeous printing, design, and hand-sewn binding by Flying Object, this expertly put together volume also features drawings by Hayes himself. If you like Hayes, if you like little books, if you like political poetry, or, if you are like me and like all three, you’ll find this book compelling. Tactily pleasing, the physical properties of the book accentuate Hayes’s muscular poems. It’s a great marriage of author and publisher.

I love that amidst E-books and Kindles and print-on-demand, artful letterpress books are thriving. I believe the e-revolution in reading will bring about a renewed interest in books and book culture, especially rare editions of a bygone era. This particular edition is limited to only 300 numbered copies, making each one feel a little special. The present needs the past. Extremes beget extremes.

And poetry is about extremes. Hayes himself is a poet of extremes. He takes chances both poetically and politically. He’s willing to be vulgar and restrained, incendiary and subtle. Who Are the Tribes skews more toward the vulgar/incendiary end of the scale, but in a good way.

The title of the book is not a question. It is more of a statement. And, the fifteen poems that comprise the collection set out, in various ways, to articulate elements of the tribes if, in fact, there are tribes. It’s never clear to me one way or the other, though the spreadsheet-like diagram that begins the first poem pretends to help us. According to the table, the tribes are as follows: Antler, Spike, Quixote, Bill, and Sixfour. We learn a little bit about each tribe from this table, as some of the tribes are cross-referenced with values, like “Poison,” “Smoke,” “Loves” and “Color.” Quixote, for instance, is the color of “ink.” Spike loves “jive.” Bill’s poison is “$$$$.” The poem, such as it is, pits qualities of various tribes versus each other:

Entitled “Beefs,” the poem functions as a cleverly unfinished map of each of the tribes. Do the remaining 14 poems fill in the empty cells? Yes and no. It’s all fairly oblique. Take for example, “Plausible Mottos:”

Someone in the first tribe says: “Why didn’t God save Aretha Franklin from herself?
Tell me that.”
Someone in the fifth tribe says: “Humming instead of speaking does mysterious
things to you.”
Someone in the third tribe says: “The day I got burned I wanted to be burned.”

You get the idea. And yet, not. At times, the poems come of as random, but there is a pattern to them, even if that pattern is indeterminacy. For example, “WHATSHISNAME,” contains blank spaces indicated by both empty underscores and a series of dashes:

On the tip of my tongue is the name
of that _________ Mr. ———–
who knew so little of himself
he signed his name with a dash
& left his mark on all of us.

That notion of leaving a mark is critical. Hayes is interested in signifiers and in the signified. The semiotics of race, the semiotics of tribes, the semiotics of black (print/bodies) versus white (bodies/pages). This poem makes one wonder to what degree are bodies and bodies of text connected?
Consider the entire text of “The Antidote for Invisibility,” which is rendered in strikethrough:

We did not want to be the bullshit quietude, or the errant sparkle of hairs damps as cursive on the neck & forearms of someone tethered to labor, we did not want any man or woman’s skin-pocked funk amnesiac chatter

The poem, in prose, continues on like this for three or four more lines. It’s not redacted, merely canceled out. So, is the antidote to invisibility the semiotics of invisibleness? That is a complicated question. Erasure is just absence, but correction, striking the official version from the record while retaining the desire for a record, problematizes identity. To invoke W. E. B. Dubois, the poem participates in a sort of typographical double consciousness. It is always aware of itself as existing in two modes. The bifurcated self. Tribalism is about identity, and tribal knowledge is, after all, a deeper mode of knowing.

All of the uses of “tribe” and their racial implications naturally bring to mind many American Indian issues. And, indeed, there are some provocative overlaps. Hayes’ five tribes references (intentionally or not) the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma. The quote by the anonymous member of the third tribe above could have easily come from a Sherman Alexie poem. And then there is the reference to pocked skin. In fact, one wonders if the “Antler” Tribe is, in fact, a beard for American Indians. Poem 10, called “Antler,” certainly carries the accouterment of Indigeneity:

All of us have seen beauty pass into something else,
have seen it waiting beneath a tree until the shade breaks free
& covers it, some of us have even been covered by it,
gripped it like a lover or machine swerving from the road
where the pines are like people buried head first off the shoulder

I am reminded of Louise Erdrich, especially the Erdrich of Love Medicine, in this poem. Lyrical. Painful. I hear destruction. I see transformation.

Toward the end of the book, each tribe gets their own poem. Quixote’s is the funniest. Sixfour’s the most profane. None of these poems elucidate the denotative elements of the tribes, but they do help fill in some connotative gaps. You feel sorriest for the Spike tribe. You want more poems about Quixote. You never get a handle on Bill. But, in the end, that’s okay because the reader gets a sense Hayes feels similarly.

For better or worse, Hayes’s drawings are less illustrations of the poems than accompaniments to them. Each is a black pencil on paper drawing of a “person” in profile. Six in all. The features and hair-dos of the subjects suggest they are African or African American—or at least their semiotic signifiers intend “Africanness” and “African Americanness.” That is, except for the unicorn-like horn that protrudes from their foreheads.

That’s right. Each one has a big singular horn, like a rhino almost, jutting out of the forehead. I do not know what to make of this. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I do; in part because these too, are about the tensions between the signifier and the signified. The pictures exaggerate those details that signify racial identity just as the poems swim in the seas of poetic exaggeration. In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor explains pushing the literary envelope: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor, herself a cartoonist, understood how startling figures and startling figurative language could do similar work.

Hayes has learned this as well. This is not to say his drawings are cartoons or his poems cartoonish, but, like O’Connor, he is willing to take on big issues. Big issues tend not to hold up as well under “normal means of talking.” They need literary form commensurate with their scope. What I appreciate about Hayes’s project is his willingness to go big, to take risks. At times, he even turns poetic form against itself, just as he uses race against racism.

Ultimately, Who Are The Tribes emerges as a high mix of rhetoric and lyric. It’s a hybrid. It’s tribal and cosmopolitan, angry and beautiful. More angry than beautiful, but as Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich have taught us, nothing lights up poetry like the fire of anger.

Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book of the year. He was won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2016 Common Good Books Prize, judged by Garrison Keillor, and the 2015 George Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, judged by Stephen Burt. He writes and reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Huffington Post. Two new collections of poetry appeared in 2017: A book of collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench, entitled Suture (Black Lawrence Press), and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), about which, Publishers Weekly writes “few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness.” More from this author →