by Terrance Hayes
The dead were still singing Turn the lights down low
Beneath Yellow Bridge where years before, clowning
And ass out, Stick jumped with nothing but the State
Championship trophy in his righteous clutch. The water
Was supposed to be deepest there, and for three seasons
Straight MVPs: Charlie “Fly” Kennison, Long Timmy Long,
And Rocket Jefferson, those are the names I knew, jumped
Free. But Stick’s ankle broke. I fished him out, crumpled
And bawling like the day he was born, like an object of
Baptism, and a life of bad luck followed in the shape of
Floods and fractured lightning, and then, numb, tooth-
Less, and changed, the dead refused burial, striking out, 2
By 2, 4 by 4, from the morgue house to raise trouble at
The bridge. I started hearing birds everywhere after that.
The lyrics in the first line of the Terrance Hayes’ poem—Turn the lights down low—seem familiar, but the song title escapes me. Which is exactly how I feel about the poem as a whole. Even after reading “Stick Elegy” over and over and over again, it escapes me even as I feel like I should know it well.
Let’s start with that lyric. It sounds like a slow-dance song, the type you’d hear at a high school prom of yore. But it’s not romantic and it’s not nostalgic. Dead people sing it—an image to make you shudder and avoid walking under bridges.
The boys mentioned in the poem seem familiar too. Kings of the basketball court, with their superhero nicknames, Fly, Rocket, Long, and the unfortunate Stick, whose very name, brittle and thin, suggest his destiny. Most of us knew such boys. Most of us knew or heard of that one boy, so full of promise and jokes and life, the boy we think of every time we jump in a pool, the boy who dove in the shallow end and broke his neck.
Then there’s the biblical references: Noah’s flood and the two-by-two procession into the ark; Job’s lifetime of bad luck; baptisms in the river Jordan. I recognize the allusions but the applications are unsettling.
The poem’s conversational tone adds to my sense of familiarity. Listing the past jumpers, the speaker says, “those are the names I knew,” at once establishing a whole history of bridge jumpers before his time and his reliability as a storyteller. Like all good storytellers, the speaker knows when to pause for effect. The break between stanzas leaves the word “free” exposed, a tragic commentary on Stick’s fate. Behind the casual tone is a familiar form, the sonnet, with rhymes seemingly offhand but crafted most carefully: low/clowning, jumped/crumpled, tooth/2, trouble at/after that.
Here’s where I start to lose the thread. A story is being told, but what is happening? Events happen over time. A story implies a timeline. In “Stick Elegy” certain words make timelines meaningless. The dead were “still singing” (emphasis mine) and a few words later we’re into “years before” territory. The poem ends with a past event that leans towards the present and future: I started hearing birds everywhere after that. Does after that happen after Stick’s fall or Stick’s death or the dead singing under the bridge?
And who is this all happening to? Was the trouble at the bridge the speaker’s, Stick’s or does it belong to the dead people coming out of the morgue? Was it Stick who is changed or the dead? Look at the syntax around those lines. It’s purposefully confusing. We think we’re reading about Stick but all the sudden we’re not—
and then, numb, tooth-
Less, and changed, the dead refused burial
Look, as long as we’re in the land of the fanciful with these dead folks processing out of the morgue two-by-two and four-by-four, let me mention that Billy Collins is standing over my shoulder, accusing me of trying to
tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
So I’ll step back and think about what I do understand. It’s enough.
I see that the speaker is haunted by Stick’s life and death. The dead refused burial is a succinct and startling way to talk about grief.
I see that there’s a horrible reverse baptism at work here. Instead of baptism as a ritual marking the beginning of a new life in a community, Stick’s participation in the bridge-jumping tradition makes him an outcast and marks the end of the life he expected to have.
I see that the poem closes with birds, just as the story of Noah’s flood ends with a dove carrying an olive branch. But the birds at the end of “Stick Elegy” bring no peace and no promise. They sing to haunt.
There’s a big black boulder at a boy’s high school near my house. It sits outside the gym where boys exit to head to their playing fields. Every year new names are spray-painted on the rock, names of boys from the school who died, by suicide, by drowning. Whenever I walk past the rock, I touch it, sometimes tracing the wobbly-painted names with my finger. It’s my blessing to the boys lost and the boys left behind. Who knows how many boys do the same? At the very least, they see it daily, this rock that gives voice to their grief, this rock that says, We haven’t forgotten you, we will never forget you.
That, unfortunately, is what is most familiar of all about this poem.
I posted the poem on a bridge of course.
Terrance Hayes was born in 1971 in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother was a corrections officer, his father a barber for the military. He studied music and English at Coker College on a basketball scholarship. He got his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon, University of Alabama, University of Pittsburgh. He now teaches at New York University. Among the many awards he’s won are the National Book Award, several Pushcart prizes and fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s published six books of poetry and one short story collection.
He has two children by his ex-wife, poet Yona Harvey.