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By Terrance Hayes

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981


 


When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we


cruise at twilight until we find the place the real


 


men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.


His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we


 


drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left


in them but approachlessness. This is a school


 


I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we


are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk


 


of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.


Standing in the middle of the street last night we


 


watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike


his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight


 


Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we


used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing


 


his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.


The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We


 


watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.


He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.


 


He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We


stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,


 


how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June


the boy would be locked upstate. That night we


 


got down on our knees in my room. If I should die


before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.


 


 


II. 1991


 


Into the tented city we go, we-


akened by the fire’s ethereal


 


afterglow. Born lost and cool-


er than heartache. What we


 


know is what we know. The left


hand severed and school-


 


ed by cleverness. A plate of we-


ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-


 


ing in the afterglow. A late-


night chant. Into the city we


 


go. Close your eyes and strike


a blow. Light can be straight-


 


ened by its shadow. What we


break is what we hold. A sing-


 


ular blue note. An outcry sin-


ged exiting the throat. We


 


push until we thin, thin-


king we won’t creep back again.


 


While God licks his kin, we


sing until our blood is jazz,


 


we swing from June to June.


We sweat to keep from we-


 


eping. Groomed on a die-


t of hunger, we end too soon.


Notes:

The epigraph of this poem was originally omitted in the changeover to the new website. Because of this, reciting the epigraph is optional for the 2019-2020 Poetry Out Loud season.

Terrance Hayes, “The Golden Shovel” from Lighthead. Copyright © 2010 by Terrance Hayes. Used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Source: Lighthead (Penguin Books, 2010)

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Poet Bio

Terrance Hayes
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, poet Terrance Hayes earned a BA at Coker College and an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. In his poems, in which he occasionally invents formal constraints, Hayes considers themes of popular culture, race, music, and masculinity. See More By This Poet

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