Poem by Terrance Hayes
For Etheridge Knight and “The Idea of Ancestry”
One Saturday night Mr. K was seen in a corner of the neighborhood bar shaking hands with the deputy of darkness. A minute or two later both shadows were gone. One afternoon in the Worchester Public Library Mr. K was heard leaking a Shhhhhh over a geography book. When he slipped out just before the library closed, he left behind a trail of blue salt. 1 a.m. or so in Philadelphia Mr. K was heard saying “spoon” to himself, but his meaning wasn’t specific: lovers in drawers, soup, heroin? During the course of one afternoon in Minneapolis Mr. K borrowed money from another poet’s girlfriend, one poet’s wife, another poet’s ex-wife, two poetry fans he encountered in a bookstore, a former poetry student and three established poets, including James Wright and Robert Bly. One Sunday Mr. K shouted from the back of a Memphis preacher’s congregation: “I’ll hop to heaven on one foot before I ride there on your goddamned bus!” One afternoon in Korea, according to Mr. K, he lay nose to nose with the Hunger Nurse. Hair spread like a cape of black feathers down her back. One Wednesday around five o’clock Mr. K was seen skipping down the steps of a Northeastern courthouse. One afternoon in a VFW bar Mr. K told the room “I know everything dies, I’m a modernist.” Once or twice Mr. K was spotted on the road to Peducah, Kentucky. One Thursday in Pittsburgh Mr. K sold the dogs of his stepchildren for dope. One morning in the city of light Mr. K was seen in a diner parking lot smoking with a devout fry cook. “I wear sunglasses 24/7,” he explained, “because I love touching in darkness just as much as the blind.” More than being high, Mr. K loved the moment just after the high, when nostalgia stepped away from the future. Mr K once told an audience of high-schoolers in Michigan, “The memory of living always lasts longer than actually being alive.” The first time Mr. K died was the summer of ‘55 in Mississippi. He lay on his back beside the river thinking about the smell of the moon. The whereabouts of his poem about the smell of the moon remain unknown. The poem written in a notebook while Mr. K lay on a Veteran’s Memorial hospital bed was lost. The poem written on a bar napkin in downtown Philadelphia in 1981 was lost when Mr. K stumbled to the parking lot. The poem written during Mr. K’s weekend locked in a Connecticut jail was left in the cell upon his release. I can’t say what any of the poems were about because, according to Mr. K, a poem is never about anything but poetry. The whereabouts of the poem, “Boy with the Head of His Father,” which ends with an image of Mr. K holding a small photo of his father, remains unknown. “Allegory For Breaking And Entering” which begins “Soon and righteous, the dark will flatten, caught / in the mouth,” is lost. We say figurative language because the words of a poem must be full enough to cast a shadow. A word takes as many shapes as a name. Once, caressing death in Indianapolis in a room full of poets, Mr. K claimed he’d figured out just about half of who he was. “Half the name given to him by his father, half the name given to him by his lovers, half the name he’d given himself. Sometimes he was half shaped like his mother. Sometimes Mr. K took the shape of a snake doctor selling a concoction of moonshine and pure cane as a guaranteed elixir for good health. Sometimes he took the shape of a Pullman porter exiting a railroad kitchen. Some places Mr. K went silent as a knife sliding across a knuckle, a knockdown, a knockout. Some places K stood for Quixotic. Sometimes K stood for candor, confessor. A name is full of history like a poem. Nothing is as unknown as a name according to Mr. K.
Terrance Hayes is the author of Lighthead which won the National Book Award for Poetry, Wind In a Box, Hip Logic, and Muscular Music which won the Whiting Writer’s Award and Kate Tufts prize in poetry. How To Be Drawn is his most recent collection of poems. He was a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship genius grant recipient. He is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the new editor for The New York Times Magazine.