My first encounter with Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Terrance” occurred in my car. It was the spring of 2009 and I’d been listening to a CD of an episode of “The Playlist,” the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, on my way from one teaching job to another. The drive from Saratoga to Cupertino took about ten minutes, just enough time to listen to most of a longer track or several short ones. Listening this way, it took me six trips to get to “The Blue Terrance.”
Hayes’s voice roused me out of my driving-induced stupor. What was he talking about – “the math teacher’s toe ring,” “the tide humping the shore smooth,” “bloodshot octaves of consequence?” I was captivated, bemused, and distracted. I couldn’t drive and listen to him at the same time, so I skipped to the next track and arrived at work, feeling weirdly unnerved. Even though I was already a few minutes late, I listened to the poem again, all of it this time.
The blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
At that time, in 2009, I was dealing with my elderly father’s physical and mental decline. When I first heard the poem on my drive between jobs, my father had less than two years left to live, although I didn’t suspect he’d be gone so soon. My family had moved Dad from his home, which he’d allowed to become more and more dilapidated, into an apartment a few miles from where I lived in the Bay Area. The idea was that I would look in on him every few days and make sure he was doing all right, but that he would mostly take care of himself.
It didn’t work out that way. The Meals on Wheels I ordered for him rotted in the refrigerator. Viruses destroyed his computer. He wandered around town, confused and disoriented. He ate less and less, surviving on Coke and the occasional fried egg, and refused to bathe or do his laundry.
Once while we were in the car, I put in the Poetry Foundation CD and told him to listen, skipping forward to “The Blue Terrance.” The rigid, defiant look in his eyes softened a little. He listened closely, this lover of poetry whose faint pencil marks I can still read in his 1950 copy of the Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, the one he took with him when he joined the Army in 1954. We sat in the car for the two minutes it took to listen to the poem. At the end, he was perfectly still, under the spell of Hayes’s voice as he recited the last lines:
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
I could see the words of the poem as clearly as skywriting. I knew my father was moved, too, by the way he remained motionless for a moment, before slapping his knees and muttering, “huh!” The poem’s last lines hit me: sitting with my father, whose mind and body were slipping away, was one of the loneliest times in my life.
The Blue Terrance is at the Poetry Foundation.