So To Speak

Penguin Bks. Jul. 2023. 112p. ISBN 9780143137726. pap. $20. POETRY
Across his career, Hayes has proven himself to be the rare poet capable of imbuing pronounced introspection into poems of grander historical, cultural, and philosophical incident with easy elegance. Following American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, easily the author’s most political work to date, Hayes’s latest returns to a more self-reflective space. That’s not to say Hayes is pulling punches—the poem “George Floyd” opens: “You can be a bother who dyes/ his hair Dennis Rodman blue/ in the face of the man kneeling in blue”—but the collection is animated by its variations. Hayes has always been a poet whose work feels unlimited in what it can contain, and here there are talking cats and dogs, Bob Ross and Lil Wayne, and magic goat’s milk. But there’s also an apparent melancholic vein that weaves through and around the playfulness of form and content, a clear-eyed reckoning with the weight and weariness of existence that powers the collection. Hayes recalls the “morning song” of pill bottles, laments that a scar can be “so old others must tell you how it was made, observes that “starting out we have no wounds to speak of / beyond the ways out parents expressed their love,” and wonders, “If you see life’s potential as art, is it artful or artificial living?” Read this collection on repeat.
VERDICT Quietly devastating and exquisitely wrought, these poems are among the very finest of Hayes’s career.
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