In How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes, winner of the National Book Award for Lighthead, uses his knowledge of both poetic and visual arts to address the ways we do and don’t see. Hayes points out the danger in associating the act of reading with the act of looking, especially in contrast to what reading normally becomes which is a breed of semi-passive seeing. He complicates his language with a musical control of sound and engages his reader with a lyricism that often takes one by surprise. He even challenges the visual processing of language through the use of forms/maps/graphs as templates, complicating and deepening our experience of the language on the page and therefore its content. All of this much the same way visual art transforms seeing of an object into looking at a subject.
What I find most interesting is the way How to Be Drawn concerns itself with what it means to be invisible, how that comes about, and the ways one can be made visible again. The richness of allusion to and echoes of the cultural critique of race relations in America contained in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is impossible to ignore and impossible not to appreciate.
In “What It Look Like,” Hayes introduces invisibility as disguise. He warns, “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like.” After all, “don’t you lie / about who you are sometimes and then realize / the lie is true.” Even more explicitly, “Wigphrastic” discusses how wigs, for black women especially, act as “a form of camouflage. . . horsehair that covers the nightmares and makes [one] civilized.” Covering is a breed of invisibility, a way of making something unseen.
Hayes doesn’t condemn anyone for resorting to camouflage, though. “The wish to live awhile on the mind / of another human is not inhuman. The wish to slide / for a while inside another human, it is not inhuman.” And again in “A Concept of Survival,” “I want to enter someone else’s hide and hide / I want to sleep enough to never need sleep again.” The desire to get by, to survive without resistance is a human, nearly erotic, desire and one Hayes doesn’t want to belittle his audience for having.
But, says Hayes, “remember too that the eyes are not flesh, / that crisis is initiated by the absence of witness” (“Ars Poetica for the Ones like Us”). Throughout the collection Hayes’ use of direct address such as this is masterful. It’s magically conversational somehow circumventing the confrontational. For Hayes it seems there are many breeds of conversation ranging from casual speaking and interviewing (as in “Reconstructed Reconstruction,” an interview that morphs into interrogation, the questions excised) to artistic representation—drawing, painting, and therefore witness of any kind then, as a way of conversing with the subject. Hayes’ many instances of direct address also act as a kind of summoning of the dead, the disembodied reader among them. A séance of sorts, a ritual featured prominently in the long series, “Instruction for a Séance with Vladimirs.”
“The dead are lonely.” Hayes opens, quickly following with, “we are lonely,” the sentence haunted by the understood “as well.” Already, through an easy syllogism, we are close to the dead, the invisible-but-present. Recognizing this shared longing allows us to find communion even if only ethereally. “You are, indeed, in the company of the dead and chatting with the dead.” Throughout the series Hayes mentions portraits as a kind of summoning as if any attempt to summon the dead inevitably results in an actual summoning of, if not a visible specter, a thought haunted. Looking, true looking, is always a séance.
In this way then, invisibility is a product of the viewer not the subject, a lack of will to perform the ritual of summoning required to look at what is yet unseen. Put another way: invisibility is a strategy of survival imposed on the invisible by the viewer/non-viewer.
“Antebellum House Party” illustrates this with terrible resonance:
…. Is furniture’s fate
as tragic as the fate of an ax, the part of a tree that helps
bring down more upstanding trees? The best furniture
can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty.”
As a survival mechanism the black body must break itself down to parts in this our antebellum America: “to make the servant in the corner unobjectionable / furniture, we must first make her a bundle of tree parts.” And again, “furniture’s presence should be little more than a warm feeling / in the den.” This final line needs little commentary to summon thoughts of Walter Scott and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and and, appallingly, and again: “If [the quiet room] remains unbroken, [the furniture] lives long enough to become antique.”
How to Be Drawn also, gracefully, shows black agency. From “Self-Portrait as the Mind of a Camera:” “I know there are three kinds of looking in every picture: / The way the photographer looks, the way the subject looks, and Brothers and Sisters, the way it all looks to you.” Based on the black and white photography of Charles Harris, “Self-Portrait as the Mind of a Camera” shows what it is so be an empowered individual, someone who is truly looking. Asking after the formative power of witness Hayes writes:
. . . .What if you could hold everything
you behold in a chamber inside yourself: a sense of the existential,
a sense that color sometimes conspires against you, a sense
there are people who would be anonymous without you?
The purpose of photographs is ultimately “to hold time still” to “[hold] something you can press your lips to.” We see that this record of witness, this making visible, is and must be an act of love: “Camera, you really have to love us / to keep us from disappearing.”
Then revelation: “You must look without looking to make the perfect circle / the line the mind must be a blind continuous liquid / until the drawing is complete” (“How to Draw a Perfect Circle”). Looking must be indirect to draw the perfect circle, the perfect world. We cannot be blind to the curvature, to the color. We must address directly what we witness and through frank representation enter into a fruitful conversation, one in which we are looking through (not past) what things look like to get at what they are, what we are.
“If you were a camera. . .” writes Hayes, “you’d be something that gives the past an appearance,” “memory would live in you,” and “you’d get to hold everything / you beheld, a good God, everything would take hold of you.” Thus apotheosized as the maker and keeper of an “archive of moments” the you here, all its ghosts and lonely souls, the speaker, the poet, the reader, comes close to the world. And what’s more, even if only for a moment, whoever that you might be can press the world to their lips in a prayer, in memory of, in hope for a change that is, please, soon to come—the shift from seeing to looking, from drawing to drawn in.