Who Are The Tribes, by Terrance Hayes
Pilot Books publishes limited edition poetry chapbooks and comics from the likes of Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, and Jessica Fjeld. They contend that “innovative work demands innovative design,” so: “all of our books are designed and printed in ways unique and luminous to the manuscript itself. We take the editorial and design process as a seriously creative act, one that gives the poems an opportunity to live a physical life that the reader can interact with in new ways.”
They’ve been at it for five years. All of the books are beautiful, but none more beautiful than Who Are the Tribes, their latest offering, by Terrance Hayes. The book was produced in a limited letterpress edition of 300, bound in a double pamphlet handstitch, with illustrations (pen-and-ink drawings, it looks like) by the author.
The text is a single poem in 15 parts, and it is wild, formally and otherwise.
The first movement, “1. BEEFS,” begins with a spreadsheet in which the rows are delineated Tribe, Color, Poison, Smoke, Loves, and the columns are 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Each tribe is given a name (ANTLER, SPIKE, QUIXOTE, BILL, and SIXFOUR), and two of the four row characteristics (Color, Poison, Smoke, and/or Loves.) Meaningfully, two of the cells for each tribe are left blank, suggesting mystery, a puzzle for the reader to solve, complications that the BEEFS matrix can’t accommodate, and perhaps something about the fragments of communication from which we construct our BEEFS with whatever is deemed other. And, indeed, this fragmentary/puzzlish/gapped strategy continues in the second half of the BEEFS movement, in which we have a series of lines ending in vs:
The tribe who loves burial vs
The tribe whose color is pennied vs
The tribe whose poison in touch vs
The tribe who lives before the past vs
The tribe who smokes fire vs
and so on, in two columns.
The BEEFS are complicated enough that I had trouble keeping track of all of them, even with pencil in hand, even working through the spreadsheet of tribe, color, poison, smoke, and loves. Some of the BEEFS seemed significant, and others seemed trivial or petty.
By the end of this first movement, it is not difficult to surmise that Who Are the Tribes is a poem about race. But by using the word tribes instead of the word race, Hayes opens the exploration to matters beyond our simple cultural constructions of race, and outward in the direction of whatever things cause people to construct their questions of who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t. Already, in this first movement, he is showing the arbitrariness of the ways some of those questions are constructed.
One additional question this reader had at this point in the narrative is how closely Hayes planned to map the African-American experience onto the poem. Is this, in other words, a poem about the question of blackness — a subject Hayes has explored before — or is it a poem about a more general tribeness, or is it a poem about both, or is it a poem about both, plus some other things. (And, by the way, this reviewer — I’m a white guy — is already worrying about terminology. Which descriptive or identifying words are appropriate and which give offense and in which context and when spoken by which speaker? Is African-American too stilted a term? Is black [or is blackness] a term that will give offense to someone? Will some readers be offended if I misread something that ought to have been apparent, out of my own otherness? These questions are not easily answered by me, and in fact they are part of what this book is about and what intrigues me about it. There is an explosive history and an explosive contemporary politics and explosive ramifications to the subject of race and tribe, and Hayes takes full advantage of the power of that explosiveness while at the same time avoiding being reductive about any of it. This is a book that is poking around in the ambiguities, and dangerously so.) Certainly Hayes’s illustrations are populated by characters with African-American features, but these characters also have — all of them — a single forehead horn. Also, some of the illustrated characters have supernaturalish features — demonic-looking eyes, mostly. Others have possibly identifying marks of this group or that: the mohawk, the dog collar, earrings, scars (possibly self-inflicted), Padaung neck rings. One of the illustrated characters superficially resembles Terrance Hayes. And there are similar questions with the language, much of which is rooted in African-American culture. Some of that language rises from inside the culture and some of that language is harsh or pejorative language imposed from the outside, and some of the imposed language has been reappropriated for use from the inside. However, even as the poem embraces this reading, the poem also resists it in long stretches which seem to indicate a reading in which this is a poem that means to reckon with questions of tribe that transcend even questions of race. Ultimately, the reader comes to believe that we’re meant to think about both readings at the same time, to hold them in tension without privileging one or the other, or to read the poem first one way, then a second, then a third, and in the accumulation of readings to have an experience that mirrors the experience of thinking about usness and themness, which is to say that there isn’t a singular statement or idea to which the idea of usness and themness might be attached. It’s a complicated, ever-shifting set of issues, mindsets, and reckonings with history, which are put into play at the public level but also at the personal level, in daily interactions, and in manners conscious and unconscious.
A brief rundown of the poem’s remaining movements:
In “2. HOW TO FORGET,” we get “a city that was a village that was a tribe & is a tribe again” in which the inhabitants named themselves “the disciples of darkness” and “the disciples of spit” and where all manners of libertine this and that prevail (here we get our first bit of talk about the horns we see in the illustrations.) This section proceeds in quatrains of long unrhymed and unmetered lines, and none more important than the last three lines of the final quatrain:
a black country with black woods around tribes talking about fucking
other tribes up because if it is true every star represents the fingers
of a hand it is also true what we cannot touch it is possible does not exist
(The reader is reminded, here, of the power that can rise from pronouncing on the thematic preoccupations of a piece of writing good and early.)
In “3. PLAUSIBLE MOTTOS,” we get one plausible motto from a “Someone” from each tribe, and these mottos match up in certain ways with the BEEFS spreadsheet. For example, in BEEFS, we learn that the fourth tribe, BILL, is associated with the poison $$$$ and with the loves $$$$. Here, the fourth tribe’s plausible motto is “Seems there’s a lot of money in just being black these days.”
But the motto is called into question because it is not the official and communally accepted motto. It is, instead, a plausible motto, uttered by someone in the tribe who has now been pressed into service as a spokesman of the tribe, but by whom? The poem doesn’t tell us. And now we’re asking some hard questions, such as: Who decides who gets to be the spokesperson for whom? And also: Who does it serve, when a group can be reduced to a plausible motto. And: plausible to whom, and for what purpose?
And now, by the third movement, some of the presuppositions of the first movement’s BEEFS spreadsheet are called into question, because we could ask the same kinds of destabilizing questions of the spreadsheet as we could ask of the plausible mottos. (In this movement, I began to think about the word “stereotype,” although it’s not a word that appears in the movement, and also to think about the kind of rhetoric people throw around about the word stereotype, such as: “It wouldn’t be a stereotype if it wasn’t true.” To which I now have to turn the questions implied by the invocation of the plausible mottos: To whom is it true? Which members of the group get to be the representative members, and why, and for what purpose, and for whose purposes? There are, perhaps, more questions than answers.)
In “4. WHATSHISNAME” we get “that ________________ Mr. ————— / who knew so little of himself / he signed his name with a dash / & left his mark on all of us.” The second stanza is offset by a massive two-tab indentation, and the entire stanza, unlike the rest of the section, proceeds between quotation marks, but the source is unattributed:
“Among the many reasons to distrust ———– were: (1) His theatrical
grin (2) His chitchat was a simulacra of syntax, a meticulous
mishmash of fuck thisness & fuck thatness, (3) That jacket he
claimed he got in vintage New York, I know his momma found in a
thrift store, (4) His overwrought s-curled afro!”
The speaker of the section announces him or herself in the first person at the section’s beginning (“On the tip of my tongue is the name of that ______________”), then offers the unattributed quotation in the offset middle stanza, then pronounces upon all of it in the third: “His cackles often emerged / blackly enough to suggest / he’d swallowed something / that should have been too big / & rambunctious to fit down his throat.”
This section seems to be strongly in conversation with the section that preceded it.
In “5. THE ANTIDOTE FOR INVISIBILITY,” five prose lines are entirely covered in overstrike — they are literally crossed-out, but we can still see them. What they say, in part (and in a collective first-person), is: “We did not want to be part of the bullshit quietude” and “we did want to be nailed to anything rooted to earth” (no period ends the sentence, which suggests a fragmentary and reclaimed quality to the speech.) The antidote seems to be the speech itself, the bearing witness, since the speech doesn’t contain talk of an antidote — it is simply a catalog of want and unfulfilled desire.
The sixth section, “6. TRIBE SENTENCE COMPLETION,” continues the play with reductive tribe identification that was so strongly called into question in “3. PLAUSIBLE MOTTOS.” There is no way to fully offer it except to quote it in full, which I will:
“When I have nothing to think about I like to think about BL_____SS, which as you probably
know is like thinking of nothing because it was thought of as nothing for many years.”
If you are a Bill insert: Blankness
If you are a Spike insert: Blandness
If you are a Quioxte insert: Blackness
If you are a SixFour insert: Bleakness
If you are a Antler insert: Black ass
In “7. BILL REPARATION,” we get a closer look at the BILL tribe, whose foregrounded preoccupation is reparations, and here we get another conflation of the world of the story, with its special rules, and the world outside the story, in lines such as “Inside me was the echo of rap stars caterwauling ‘how about me’” and “I didn’t love Americans but I loved America when she sobbed / touching my cheek in the darkness to see if I was crying too” before concluding: “(A culture of what she wanted me to think she was versus a culture of what she wanted me to be.)”
A very interesting thing happens in “8. BEEFS WITHIN A TRIBE.” The impulse of the BEEFS in the first section (and in most of what follows) has been outward: us versus them. And there has been something occasionally reductive about the outward beefing to which the poet has alluded by constantly destabilizing the question of the speaker — of who gets to speak for the tribe, and of how much their speech does or doesn’t stand in for the tribe on grounds of the individual members of the tribe but also on grounds of the perception of the tribe from outside the tribe.
Now, in the BEEFS WITHIN A TRIBE, we get the fulfillment of that promise, in a set of two-columned versus BEEFS that mirror the set-up of the outward BEEFS in the first section, but which are intra-tribe BEEFS, which are, in many ways, more complicated that the inter-tribe BEEFS, not least because they complicate the idea of a unified tribe in the first place, and they call into question the very nature of tribeness. What binds the tribe together? Should the tribe offer a unified front when members of the tribe disagree? Why? What does that choice do to the individual or the idea of the individual? What is the relationship between the individual and the group? Is the identity of the individual more strongly rooted in the individual or in the individual’s identification with the group?
Sections 9-13 further parse these tensions. In “9. TRIBE HUNT,” we get a meditation on the word “run” that is closely tied to competing ideas of the word in black history in the United States, and each of the five tribes has a different attachment to its uses (cut & run, eat & run, run down, run dry, run cold.) The speaker is concurrently an “I” and a speaker on behalf of a collectivized “we.” And, of course, the reader notices the correspondence between words “run” and “race.”
In “10. ANTLER,” we get a beautiful lyric meditation, which I will take the liberty, again, of quoting in full, so as to avoid reducing it:
All of us have seen beauty pass into something else,
have seen it waiting beneath a tree until the shade breaks free
& covers it, some of us have even been covered by it,
gripped it like a lover or a machine swerving from the road
where the pines are like people buried head first off the shoulder,
graveyard or gridlock, the sound of a horn entering the mind,
the deer corpse crushed against a guard rail, its eyes wide
open as an officer of the state scraped the body free.
The many uses of the antler/horn, in correspondence as they are with all we have learned of the ANTLER tribe, with the horn that grows from the foreheads of the people, with the idea of the pines, with the deer, and so on, invites multiple attachments, all of which move us in the direction of various readings, inside and outside the poem, of “All of us have seen beauty pass into something else,” a line that could easily be applied to everything in the broader poem which is happening inter-tribe, intra-tribe, at the level of the public, at the level of the individual, at the various metaphorical levels invoked by the repetitions of words throughout the poem, and at the level of the recurring ideas about groups or tribes throughout the poem — ideas which seem to possess the power to liberate and also to possess a concurrent power to limit or inhibit. And the reader also considers how this lyric isn’t just about tribes, but also includes other things outside the poem in which beauty passes “into something else.” This is a lyric to keep the reader up at night.
In “11. QUIXOTE TRIBE QUOTES,” we get what appears to be a transcript from a conversation among members of the QUIXOTE tribe (a loaded choice of name, to be sure, with its allusion to the old man tilting at windmills), in which ideas about blackness are being thrown around within the group, but from which most of the comments have been omitted from the transcript at the request of the members who said them. We get the sense that maybe the feeling is that people on the outside ought not be privy to what’s happening on the inside, and we guess at the various reasons — perhaps some self-protecting, some strategic — why that might be so.
In “12. SPIKE PREMONITION,” we get an act of rebellion from a SPIKE member, who says he doesn’t want to go “on no more adventures with Spike, the leader of the Spikes, because my good sense tells me he is someone Death wants to educate.” In “13. SIXFOUR RAPTURE,” we get a brief interlude about MC I’m-Bad-As-Freddy-Fucking-Douglas and his rap “My Pop Had No Name But So What.” In “14. IDEOGRAMS AND/OR IDIOMS,” we get an extension of the classifying and categorization scheme that began in sections 1. By now, the reader is super-resistant to it, because of the ways in which it straitjackets the individual, which doesn’t make the particulars (\INCISOR/, ))HELIX((, <APEX>, >ORBITALS<, =FONTANEL=) any less interesting or incisive.
The poem’s concluding section, “15. TRIBE PARTY,” offers “A school of boys around a girl, for example” whose mouths are full with “that gulping shit / to live.” I’m relunctant to finish this review and offer it to you, because I’ve only read this poem seven times, and I don’t think it’s yet yielded to this reader all its complications. But my feeling is that the stress falls on the concluding lines of this section, which weigh heavier upon the reader with each re-reading:
. . . “I want to go down in history,”
I’ve heard ordinary people say that. I’ve heard names
become catchphrases, I’ve seen names needled deep
into the skin, an ink pumping like oil leagues
beneath the surface of day. Could be we’ll say “our”
with our last breaths: the girls who becomes unfortunate;
the boys with their tongues hard on the air, starving to dance
with no idea what happened or why it happened to them.