T(HERE) reviewed by Michael Leong

11/04/10

T(HERE)

by Jonathan Hayes
Silenced Press, 2010
66 pages
Reviewed by Michael Leong

Like Walt Whitman, Jonathan Hayes’ sprawling long poem T(HERE) contains multitudes: it’s a kind of (anti-)Bildungsroman in the form of a postmodern montage. With a scrapbook informality, it seamlessly combines fragmented narratives, childhood reminiscences, impressionistic vignettes, conversational asides, lyric nodes (one passage entitled “because” was published as a stand-alone poem in Underground Voices Magazine), energetic bursts of what appears to be automatic writing (I particularly like the sequence that begins, “Dopamine Valentine floe flows frothing gorgeous glacier frosting grinding rock abrasions…”), and short aphoristic comments (one of my favorites is “Gravity is made of memory”).

It shuttles back and forth between New York and San Francisco, hitting on diverse intermediary points such as Newark, New Jersey and Beaufort, South Carolina. It employs short staccato lines as well as more lengthy verset-like paragraphs. This entire amalgam—which is surprising considering how much Hayes, with his omnivorous imaginative appetite, can pack into a slim 66- page volume—is suffused with what can be called a “neo-beat” sensibility. According to John Clellon Holmes’ famous formulation in “This is the Beat Generation” (1952), the word “beat” “implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed against the wall of oneself.”

Indeed, we often find Hayes describing and plumbing such states of psychic rawness, such layers of exposed mental bedrock (the disavowal of capitalization here lends a sense of spontaneity—an ostensible espousal of a “first thought, best thought” philosophy of writing):

                      …eyeballs barely protected by eyelids.
                      the body grows dank in organic clothes.
                      shower attire is retired, and the brain is inside
                      the body, trapped, hiding, brooding, alien-
                      escape thoughts, slowly solidifying on their
                      own schedule.

And in some instances, he seems to deliberately channel Ginsberg as he combines the ominous foreboding of the “hydrogen jukebox” with high-tech genetic engineering:

                      Design and creator, from the seeds of apples
                      to the egg yolk of bombs on University
                      Avenue where engineers made the nuclear axis
                      toward the Pacific and mass murder.

As can be expected, there are copious references to drugs and sex—to peyote and pyrex pipes, to male prostitution, to a commanding dominatrix named Incest. It goes without saying that fans of beat literature will enjoy this poem for its unabashed forays into the underside of polite society. But to over-fixate on the poem’s content might take away from the rigorous force of its conceptual inquiries.

If one can speak of the poem’s “conceptual core,” then it consists of the double helix of “here” and “there” —adverbs that pragmatic linguists call “pure place deictics.” Such terms refer to specific places relative to where the speaker is situated, indicating either distance (there) or proximity (here). Thus, broadly speaking, Hayes’ poem explores the wandering self’s relation to widening and ceaselessly shifting contexts and bears witness to the vicissitudes of life that inexorably turn “here” into “there.” (The blurred photograph on the cover nicely captures this sense of movement, this sensation of “here” being constantly in flux.) Yet memory, which is so important to Hayes, acts as a hinge with which we can imaginatively toggle between the “here and now” and the “there and then”:

                      There is always a, “here.” The memory from,
                      “there,” is the re-experience you hold now,
                      “here.” They are inseparable. There is no
                      escape.

Hayes’ poem is filled with such “re-experiences”—some of them are comedic, some of them are bizarre, and some of them are luminous in their suggestive brevity:

                      The peach blossomed beautiful. At high noon
                      the mother said, “A beam of light.”

Hayes seems to safeguard memories in the same way that the parentheses in the title—T(HERE)—shelters a sense of “here” against an encroaching “there.”

But I also read the word “here,” conspicuously embedded within the poem’s title, to indicate not only “the place …where the person speaking is, or places himself” but also as a calling to “attention to what the speaker has, brings, offers, or discovers” (Oxford English Dictionary) —like in the phrase “Here you go.” Hayes’ discoveries, his poetic offerings amount to a dynamic and clever text; here, he seems to be gesturing to the reader, take it.