Terrance Hayes’s Hip Logic
Essay by Derold Sligh


In this mix of praise and elegy, Terrance Hayes’s collection of poems, Hip Logic, explores American culture and language in relation to the African American identity. Broken into five parts, the book touches on a variety of domestic and linguistic settings. The poems address subjects as native to American pop culture as Mr. T, Shaft, and Big Bird while experimenting with formal structures such as villanelles, sonnets, odes, a sestina, and ars poeticas. Specifically, in a poem like “Touch,” Hayes investigates the relationship between African American children and the law. To do so, he paints a portrayal of a game of touch football (“By moonlight, / We chased each other / Around the big field // Beneath branches sagging / As if their leaves were full of blood”). In the dark of evening, this, what seemed to be, innocent game of football becomes a stage for elegizing the African American identity with the introduction of the police (“We didn’t notice when policemen / Came lighting tree bark / & our skin with flashlights”) (“It’s true, we could have been mistaken / For animals in the dark, / But of all our possible crimes, / Blackness was the first”). This poem is just one of the many in the collection that exemplifies Hayes’s ability to create a social criticism on the relation between African Americans and the pre-established social ideologies that exist in America while also romanticizing the moment, yet keep that romanticism grounded through his focus on the domestic.

Throughout the book, the rules of formalism are stretched taut and beat on like a drum by poems like his mock-sonnet, “Sonnet,” which contains the repetition through 14 lines: “We sliced the watermelon into smiles” or his broken villanelle, “Broken Dangerfield Newby Villanelle,” which is composed of three-line stanzas that barely hold a refrain. In a more noticeably crafted villanelle, “William H. Johnson,” Hayes displays an ability to keep strict control of rhyme (paint and ain’t or train, lain, complains, and name) but in surprising and innovative ways. Perhaps his most celebrated form investigated in the book, though, is the anagram. Dedicated as two whole sections in the book, the anagrams are a form Hayes became attached to from a word game in a daily newspaper, in which it was the reader’s job to make as many words possible from a set of letters. In these anagrams, the last words of each line are a variation of the title of the poem and are at least four words long. An example of such is his poem “breathe”:

When my great-great-grandfather Caesar plops out to the ether

in the middle of my Saturday evening bath,

I gasp not because I hate

seeing naked old phantoms, but because he begins to heat

the water way beyond a degree I can bear!

In this case, the title, “breathe,” is the word that is put through the “anagram machine” that lies in Hayes’s mind.

One element that should sustain Hip Logic as one of the most pivotal books of African American poetry is also its ability to connect poetry to all of Art. Art is clenched tightly in the fist of poems such as “Diego Rivera—Dama de Blanco” (“She knows / Diego makes love to all the women he paints, / even Frida’s sister. [What color is the line / between greed & passion?]) or “Ode to Balthus” (“There is a girl in white and girl in green & red and girl in nothing / And each is walking away”). Poems such as “Lorde,” “For Robert Hayden,” “For Paul Robeson,” and “Gospel of Two Sisters” celebrate painting, literature, and film through fresh an innovative language (“What hues lie in the slit / When a mask breaks / When love leaps from my mouth”)

Although these anagrams draw much of the attention in his book, of his highest poetic moments are perhaps his odes. By no means are these odes conventional. This unconventional language is seen in poems such as his ode to Shaft, “Shaft & the Enchanted Shoe Factory or Ars Poetica: The Epic Quest for Language,” in which he use a dialogue and lot of colloquial language to achieve his dedication to Shaft (“He’s Jesse-Owened across Harlem in these shoes, / he’s tossed them like a pair of guns / By the beds of countless women, / He’s kicked down the doors of villains”). Another example of Hayes’s innovation of poetic convention is his ode to Mr. T. (“A man made of scrap muscle & the steam / engine’s imagination”). Perhaps, his strongest ode and the most pivotal of the book, though, is his ode to his father, the last poem of the book, “The Same City”:

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.

There is perhaps no closer attention given to language in the African American literary tradition than the display made in Hip Logic. Poems such as “Ars Poetica #789,” brings an investigation of poetry to life with a kind of language fit for the basements of speakeasies in Harlem (“My daddy, Mr. Blacker-than-most, / wears shades in the house. He says / ‘Nobody’s blacker than me, Boy’”) yet, because of his attention to formalism, makes this collection also appropriate for the college lecture rooms of Harvard.