When the Neighbors Fight,
The trumpet’s mouth is apology.
…………We sit listening
To Kind of Blue. Miles Davis
…………Beat his wife. It hurts
To know the music is better
…………Than him. The wall
Is damaged skin. Tears can purify
…………The heart. Even the soft
Kiss can bite. Miles Davis beat
…………His wife. It’s muffled
In the jazz, the struggle
…………With good & bad. The wall
Is damaged skin. The horn knows
…………A serious fear.
Your tongue burns pushing
…………Into my ear. Miles Davis
Beat his wife. No one called
…………The cops until the music
Stopped. The heart is a muted
…………Horn. The horn is a bleeding
Wife. Tonight our neighbors are a score
………..Of danger. You open
My shirt like a door you want
…………To enter. I am tender
As regret. Mouth on the nipple
…………Above my heart.
There is the good pain
…………Of your bite.
Right from his title–an introductory dependent clause, complete with comma, that enjambs to the poem’s first line–Terrance Hayes ignites serious musical momentum in this poem. Nearly every line and stanza enjambs to create a movement that tracks through the rest of the poem. As a result, each couplet executes its own sharp, connotative turn through the intimate, dangerous world of three couples—the speaker and his partner, their quarreling neighbors, and Miles Davis and his wife.
Like a fight, or like the extended improv of a Miles ensemble tune, the poem builds itself from small turns that hover above other turns, the poem’s three couples layering risks onto one another. These small turns result in two larger turns that create the poem’s structure.
Here’s an example of how the smaller turns work, pivoting always on connotation and provisional meaning at the ends of lines. From the title we move to a metaphor: “The trumpet’s mouth is apology. / We sit listening” and we think we’re going to be listening to the neighbors fighting. Instead, we’re listening to classic jazz (while the neighbors argue). But “Kind of Blue. Miles Davis” does more than just identify the album and artist; it slides into the next line, the revelation of Davis’ having “Beat his wife.” So now we’re overhearing a second fight, one that “hurts” Miles’ wife, right? Yes but one that also hurts the listeners who now “know the music is better / Than him.”
So we set up the pattern for the rest of the poem–turn and connotation/revelation, turn and provisional meaning/revelation again–a microstructure within and between each stanza. Every little turn speaks into the poem another image of damage that, while it may be filtered through a wall, can be heard “muffled / In the jazz, the struggle / With good & bad.” Terms and tones in one line turn malevolent in the next: “Even the soft / Kiss can bite” and “The wall / is damaged skin.” Hayes repeats this metaphor twice, and by the second time the wall is not just a tissue separating the fighting couple from the listening one but also the thing that keeps us now, maybe, from loving Miles and his music.The poem’s initial metaphor of the trumpet’s mouth now contains more than apology: “The horn knows / a serious fear.”
We come now to one of the poem’s major turns. Our eavesdropping couple moves past listening and into sensuous action as the speaker describes, “Your tongue burns pushing / Into my ear.” It’s a dangerous seduction, coming with the reminder, again, that “Miles Davis / Beat his wife.” And so movement continues, more unveilings about how Miles’ abuse went unchecked until “the music / Stopped,” music covering up the abuse, in the moment of the poem and in the icon’s life. Though now the trumpet metaphor is reversed and transformed: “The heart is a muted / Horn” and the “horn is a bleeding / Wife.”
When the neighbors finally return as a “score / of danger,” we get a final major shift for the speaker and partner. Even with all they’ve heard in the jazz and through the wall:
My shirt like a door you want
To enter. I am tender
Here is desire and the possibility of intimacy (more tentative, perhaps, in similes rather than metaphors); this is the urge towards connection in spite of the evidence of abuse and the risk of pain and regret. Is the risk of the “Mouth on the nipple / Above my heart” worth taking? How can you know until you open and enter the vulnerable door? Each micro-movement in the poem, like a musical turn of phrase, has led, to this sensuous, troubling end: “the good pain / Of your bite.”
David Wright teaches creative writing and American literature at Monmouth College (IL). His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in Hobart, Image, Poetry East, and Quiddity, among others. Later this year, his newest collection of poems, The Small Books of Bach (Wipf & Stock) will appear. He can be found on the web at sweatervestboy.tumblr.com and @sweatervestoy on Twitter.
Terrance Hayes. “When the Neighbors Fight.” from Muscular Music. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon UP, 2006. 76-77. Reprinted with permission of the author.