OUR HYSTERICAL COUNTRY
by Anya Maria Johnson
after “The Life of a Poet: Terrance Hayes,” Library of Congress
On the way to Providence, autumn in full blow,
I listened to an interview with Terrance Hayes.
Asked about the political nature of his poems,
he tells the man questioning him
about the time his mother cut up his frog
with a pair of scissors.
He makes a joke about, “Amphibian Americans”;
he nods and says, “sure,” frequently, leaving a lot open
to interpretation. I’m saying, he resists
a certain platform.
Somewhere north of Rye, I passed a town called Killingsworth.
I was thinking about this, and about the stupendous fall foliage,
when Terrance (forgive me for being familiar)
starts to disparage poems about trees.
But then, still driving north, in the crucible
of all that color, I saw a stand of birch, bare and white,
a nucleus of bone under blood and muscle.
And I wrote that down.
Days later, I replay the interview, searching
for the warning, or, for permission
to talk about landscapes. The track buffers back
to the anecdote about the frog. Maybe I imagined it.
Because, doesn’t Terrance (forgive me!) read aloud from “Pine,”
and doesn’t that poem say (about a boy,
hiding from the cops in the summit of a tree),
It must have been like clinging
To the massive leg of God—
If the leg of God is covered in bark?
But perhaps that poem isn’t about trees.
I would like to write like that.
To pass a town called Killingsworth and break its verdict
down, with authority. To say,
“America, tell me, what is killing worth?”
“America, what is worth killing?”
Unlike Terrance, I am afraid of what blooms from the dead.
I’ve never tried to grow
a garden or an opinion.
I think there’s something inherently flawed
(at least, in the mouths of white folks) about the phrase,
“A Beautiful Black Man.” As if the beauty was conditional.
But Terrance is. Beautiful.
All through that drive I dictated to my phone––
I was trying to write a poem that wasn’t about trees.
I’d take my eyes off the fevered woods
and tap the microphone icon, hoping
to say it right this time. But is kept translating to yes,
so the voice note reads,
“Terrance yes beautiful! A Black Man
yes, yes, yes!”
And that might be the closest I get to saying it right,
to writing about race,
or our hysterical country.