Take a Break and Read a Fucking Poem: “At Pegasus” by Terrance Hayes

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No one can cancel pride.

No one can cancel pride. Dan Kitwood / GETTY

I’m sure you’ve heard, but PRIDE IS CANCELLED. Or it’s pivoting to streaming video to stay alive, like so many other venerable gay institutions. So of course the only poem I can think of is “At Pegasus,” by Terrance Hayes. You can find it in his book Muscular Music, available at local bookstores.

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Yes, this poem is a late 1990s hit written by a straight guy about a straight guy feeling a little contemplative at a gay club, but what am I supposed to do??? Though I love Pride, and though I would happily march in this great celebration of LGBTQness, it’s not for me, so it’s hard for me to relate to this cancellation. I guess it’s like how I would feel if the Super Bowl got cancelled? Or if they cancelled going on boring dates?? Anyhow, Hayes’s poem is more than worth your time, and I’ll try to make up for writing about the hetero gaze at the end of this post and in future posts, but, for now, indulge me with a few notes:

• If Whitman is considered the mother of American poetry and Dickinson the father of American poetry, Orpheus is considered the god of all “Western” poetry. In those first lines, Hayes compares the dancers’ rapturous advances on the speaker to the mauling of Orpheus at the hands of the Maenads, who tore him to pieces and threw his head in a river after refusing to play music for them. “His head, still singing, with his lyre, floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established,” according to legend. You can see why Orpheus is the god of the poets. Is Hayes’s speaker being slightly homophobic or slightly sexist in these lines? Yes, because, the first lines are the first steps on the speaker’s poetic journey from feeling uncomfortable to realizing that sexuality is fluid.

• Hayes structures his poem using the poignancy formula, which is a variant on the Greater Romantic Lyric form. The poignancy formula simply presents the present, then the past, then the present with the past, normally using imagery. In this case, Hayes weaves in and out of the present moment and the past story, linking the movements of the dancers in the club with a physical and somewhat sexual male bonding experience from earlier in his life. He, too, danced shirtless with a boy “among maggots & piss, / beer bottles & tadpoles / slippery as sperm.” As the dancers dance hip to hip, he recalls the weight of his friend’s hip on his own hips as he carried him on his back to safety, an expression of love he remembers better than he remembers his first kiss. Moving back and forth in time like this supercharges the final line, which fuses the past and the present in one big gay dance floor that takes us all “wet & holy in its mouth.”

• By way of asking forgiveness for writing about the hetero gaze after the news of Pride’s pivot, I present the best LGBTQ poems/books from the LGBTQ poets I could think of in 15 seconds, all of which I will write about sometime this summer God willing and the creek don’t lay us all off.

“Peanut Butter” by Eileen Miles. Truly a great mid-July banger.

“Love Poem” by Audre Lorde. “And I knew when I entered her I was / high wind in her forests hollow.”

“Song of Myself, XI” by Walt Whitman. “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore, / Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly.”

“Archery” by Stephanie Burt: “It’s like touching without touching, / except when there is, also, touching.”

“Les Luths” by Frank O’Hara. Memorize the following four lines from this poem and your life will greatly improve: “I am feeling particularly testy at being separated from / the one I love by the most dreary of practical exigencies money / when I want only to lean on my elbow and stare into space feeling / the one warm beautiful thing in the world breathing upon my right rib.” He means Vincent Warren.

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“Colosseum” by Jerico Brown: “I am what gladiators call / A man in love—love / Being any reminder we survived.”

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