In his 2015 collection How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes explores how and why we are drawn to certain labels, ideas, and memories as well as the methods we use to literally draw them into existence through music, vocabulary, and, of course, poetry. The poem “How to Be Drawn to Trouble,” in particular, is a strong example of this with its speaker using a James Brown song as a means to explore his own experiences and reflect upon them. Through its use of song-like, verse-chorus-verse repetition, structure, and enjambment, the poem conveys not only the troubled relationship between the speaker’s parents but, with the same mechanisms, mirror the speaker’s struggle in understanding himself and the attraction to trouble he shares with his mother.
While throughout the poem Hayes bends and twists time in a Tarranino-esque fashion, we are first introduced to the speaker of the poem as he observes the people in his immediate surroundings: “The people I live with are troubled by the way I have been playing/ ‘Please, Please, Please’ by James Brown and the Famous Flames/ All evening, but they won’t say.” (Lines 1-3). This sets the emotional environment for the rest of the poem as the speaker is drawn to this song, so much so that he is withdrawn from those he lives with. This is also the last time anyone outside the speaker’s memory is observed, suggesting that after the third line we are beyond the realm of shared experience and are taken within the speaker’s stream of consciousness. “I’ve got a lot of my mother’s music/” the speaker reflects, “In me. James Brown is no longer a headwind of hot grease” (3-4). Here is where the cast is assembled, with the speaker observing James Brown as a connection to his mother, with Brown serving as a type of mediator throughout the piece.
This trinity of James Brown, the mother and the speaker also mirrors how the speaker describes Brown singing the word please (“bending the one syllable until it sounds/ Like three.”) in addition to being a metaphor for the interconnection of these three characters (9-10). This theme of thirds is repeated all over the poem, with the enjambment being such that it causes the beginning of certain lines to either have three metrical feet or three words; “Of the soul,” “Of the state,” “Was briefly imprisoned,” “I, for one,” “To eradicate trouble,” “Or was given,” “Covering her scar,” and so on (10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 30, 56). It could also be argued that the loss of this meter toward the last third of the poem reflects the speaker’s inability to focus on “the good things,” which he refers three times within the piece (6, 26, 38).
Furthermore, the speaker mentions focusing on “the good things” after difficult realizations, particularly in regards to his parents relationship: “My father believes a man should never dance/ In public. Under no circumstances should a grown man have hair/ Long enough to braid. If I was a black girl, I’d always be mad./ I might weep too and break” (23-26). Considering James Brown was a man who not only danced in public but had long, manicured hair, it can be reasoned from this selection that the speaker’s father did not approve of Brown’s life, never mind the life that the speaker’s mother was/wanted to live. This suggested tension is something the speaker promptly tries avoiding and ends line twenty-six with, “But think about the good things.” However, a few lines later the speaker reflects: “My mother and father though rarely did they actually dance./ They did not scuffle like drums or cymbals, but something/ Sluggish and close to earth. You know how things work/ When they don’t work? I want to think about the good things.” While the speaker’s observations are more general this time it results in a similar repression, indicating he still has a difficult time processing their relationship directly and his continual “dancing” around their conflicts.
Additionally, in between the “good thing” lines, the speaker recalls his mother meeting Brown while he was imprisoned at the prison she worked, mentioning of her scar: “In the photo she took/ With him, he holds her wrist oddly, probably unintentionally/ Covering her scar” (28-30). Later in the poem does the speaker tell of the scar’s origin: “When my mother was beating the door and then calling to me/ From the window. I might have heard her say Please just before/ Or just after the glass and then the skin along her wrist broke” (55-57). This image of James Brown covering/obscuring the mother’s scar is metaphorical of how the speaker views his mother’s relationship with the Godfather of Soul in that she is made to feel unblemished, akin to his worldview; an idea conveyed in the enjambment of line thirty: “Covering her scar. There’s the trouble of being misunderstood.” Juxtapose this with the father’s reaction to the mother coming home in the early morning after being out all night, the situation during which she received the scar, she feels rejected, literally outcasted for the same reasons. This scar metaphor also summarizes how the speakers focuses on his mother, “thinking of the good things” and covering up the bad stuff (as much as he can) with James Brown.
As the poem continues, Brown’s lyrics are often in place of/allude to dialogue that would have been said between mother and father; The lines, “Add the to the trouble of shouting/ ‘I got to get out!’ ‘I got to get down!’ ‘I got to get on up the road!’” (32-33), alluding to an argument regarding the mother going out and the father disapproving; The lines, “Baby, you done me wrong. Took my love, and now you’re gone” (53) following the quatrain where the speaker’s mother punches “clean through the porch window” (49) after being locked out of the house; Most directly in the final quatrain, “I might have heard her say Please just before/ Or just after the glass and then the skin along her wrist broke. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease, that’s how James Brown says it” (56-58). This use of the song’s lyrics not only submerge the reader into the consciousness stream of the speaker but also reflect a type of escapism for the speaker himself, as the lyrics show up during moments of arguments, shouting and violence. This suggests that while Brown’s song helps take the speaker (and by extension, the reader) to these memories, it also serves as an additional way for the speaker to distance himself from them when they become too overwhelming. This duality is echoed earlier in the poem with lines, “[Brown’s] accent made it sound like he was pleading/ Whether he was speaking or singing” (21-23).
Equal to the poem’s use of Brown’s lyrics is its visual structure in which it adopts a song-like, verse-chorus-verse format, alternating from quatrains to couplets similar to how a pop song would alternate from four verses to a two line chorus (1-58). With this feature the piece takes a step beyond just referencing a song and becomes a song itself, not only submerging the reader into the speaker’s mental framework, and how he chooses to cope with these painful memories, but displaying how intertwined these memories have become with music, reflecting back to the speaker’s stream of conscious. However, with such a rigid structure, it could be argued that the speaker’s mental state has become less of a free-flowing “stream” and as repetitive as listening to the same song over and over and over again, similar to what the speaker admits to doing in the first three lines, “...I have been listening to ‘Please, Please, Please” by James Brown…/ All evening.”
As we, the reader, navigate through the speaker’s hodgepodge of memory and music, we are also, simultaneously, observing a battle between the speaker and his own thoughts and perspectives. Specifically, we see the speaker struggle to his define his own allure to trouble, one that he admits his mother was drawn to: “I’ve got a lot of my mother’s music,” the speaker states at the beginning in line three. Throughout the piece, the speaker rationalizes the irrational actions of his mother, as well as James Brown, by validating/redefining “trouble”; “Trouble is one of the ways we discover the complexities/ Of the soul,” the speaker says before recalling, “Once, my mother bit the wrist of a traffic cop” (10-11). Prefacing this definition of trouble with this memory of the mother doesn’t necessarily serve as a validation for the behavior but more an acceptance of the mother’s humanity—the fact that while the mother has made mistakes, the speaker rationalizes that her character is greater than the sum of her errors. This is echoed in the following quatrain, “...James Brown/ Was briefly imprisoned. There had been broken man-made laws,/ A car chase melee, a roadblock of troopers in sunblock./ I, for one, don’t trust the police because they go around looking// To eradicate trouble” (13-17). In this quatrain, the speaker’s descriptions of “laws” as “man-made” allude to a critical position on a traditional social stance, one that focuses more on mistakes than character, with the speaker alluding to his father holding these beliefs later in the poem. Additionally, the speaker’s mention of the police troopers usage of “sunblock,” referring to their pale complexions, suggests possible racist leanings and unfair treatment toward people of color such as Brown and the speaker’s mother. With the speaker outright saying he distrusts police for “trying to eradicate trouble,” one could interpret this as the “trouble” being the warped, racist “social law” of Jim Crow trying to suppress people of color. In this case, the speaker could see his allegiance to Brown and the mother as a form of solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement and the belief that his father’s strict social views are one of stagnation and obedience to oppression.
Shortly thereafter, the speaker defines “trouble” again in line eighteen, “Trouble is how we learn what the soul is,” and recalling, “After another of my mother’s disappearances, my father left her/ Bags on the porch” (22-23) before describing his father’s belief that “Under no circumstance should a grown man have hair// Long enough to braid,” (24) with the speaker admitting, “If I was a black girl, I’d always be mad./ I might weep too and break.” (24-26). While “weep too and break” foreshadows the mother’s breakdown at the end of the poem, it also sees the speaker empathizing directly with his mother as she attempts to live her life within the judgmental eye of a disapproving husband as well as society. This idea is further expanded upon in the following lines as the speaker juxtaposes this image of the father leaving the mother’s bags on the porch with Brown “covering” the mother’s scar in the photo they take together; with the image of the father as one of rejection and the photo with Brown as one of acceptance (22-30).
The speaker’s empathy aside, an interesting occurrence happens in the second to last quatrain: “She punched clean through the porch window/ When we wouldn’t let her in. I can still hear all the love buried/ Under all the noise she made. But sometimes I hear it wrong./ It’s not James Brown making trouble, it’s trouble he’s drawn to/ ...It’s trouble he’s asking to stay.” (49-52, 54). “When we wouldn’t let her in,” states that the speaker, as well as the father, refused to let the mother into the house and is the only time the speaker refers to himself and the father as a unit. Considering all of the speaker’s concessions toward mother and her actions through out the poem, the inclusion of himself here reflects a certain guilt which he still holds—reflected when he states, “But sometimes I hear it wrong,” referring to not hearing the “buried” love but the presumed crass shouting from the mother, suggesting a similar focus on error over character as the father does toward the mother through out the poem. Moreover, when the speaker states that, “It’s not James Brown making trouble, it’s trouble he’s drawn to/ ...It’s trouble he’s asking to stay,” the speaker, in this moment, is reflecting this of himself as much as it reflects James Brown in that the speaker acknowledges the mother as “troubled” and her action as irrational but still wishes her to stay out of love. This is the crux of the piece, as the speaker struggles to outweigh his guilt with positive memories—“good things”—and find peace within a shared love rather than a self-accused betrayal. However, in attempting to cover up his mother’s failings, the speaker finds himself more drawn to them and is, therefore, reminded of his betrayal equally as often. Thus, he is stuck in this repetitive mindset as much as “Please, Please, Please” is stuck on repeat.
Through the interweaving of memories and music via the repetition of language and meter, as well as the use of James Brown’s lyrics, and a verse-chorus-verse structure, Terrance Hayes explores how one deals with guilt and traumatic experiences. Similar to how a song combines moments and condenses time, the mind connects points in a person’s life and attempts to draw lessons and meaning from them. However, more often than not, the results are mixed, leading one to reinterpret experiences again and again. The hope being that, among the difficulties, one can focus on the good things and hear the music.
Hayes, Terrance. "How to Be Drawn to Trouble." How to Be Drawn. N.p.: Penguin, 2015. 7-9.