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Who is the Better: Politics, Art, or Avocado?
On Terrance Hayes' "Avocado" and maybe shutting up.
I finally read Terrance Hayes’ book Lighthead over break. It’s great! Which everyone says, but I also. You should read it too!
In any case, I thought I’d write about one of the poems for my occasional series on poems that confuse me but which I’d like to understand better. One of my favorite entries in the collection is “The Avocado;” you can read it below.
by Terrance Hayes
“In 1971, drunk on the sweet, sweet juice of revolution,
a crew of us marched into the president’s office with a list
of demands,” the black man tells us at the February luncheon,
and I’m pretending I haven’t heard this one before as I eye
black tortillas on a red plate beside a big green bowl
of guacamole made from the whipped, battered remains
of several harmless former avocados. If abolitionists had a flag
it would no doubt feature the avocado, also known as the alligator
pear, for obvious reasons. “Number one: reparations!
Enough gold to fill each of our women’s wombs, gold
to nurse our warriors waiting to enter this world with bright fists,
that’s what we told them,” the man says, and I’m thinking
of the money-colored flesh of the avocado, high in monosaturates;
its oil content is second only to olives. I am looking
at Yoyo’s caterpillar locks dangle over her ear. I dare you
to find a lovelier black woman from Cincinnati, where the North
touches the South. “Three: we wanted more boulevards
named for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An airport
named for Sojourner Truth.” The roots of the avocado tree
can raise pavement, so it’s not too crazy to imagine the fruit
as a symbol of revolt on the abolitionist flag. We are all one kind
of abolitionist or another, no doubt. And we are like the avocado too
with its inedible ruby-colored seed that can actually sprout from inside
when the fruit is overmature, causing internal molds and breakdown.
“Demand number twenty-one: a Harriet Tubman statue on the mall!”
Brother man is weeping now and walking wet tissue to the trash can
and saying, “Harriet Tubman was a walking shadow,” or, “Harriet Tubman
walked in shadows,” or, “To many, Harriet Tubman was a shadow
to walk in,” and the meaning is pureed flesh with lime juice,
minced garlic, and chili powder; it is salt, and the pepper
Harriet Tubman tossed over her shoulder to trouble the bloodhounds.
Many isolated avocado trees fail to fruit from lack of pollination.
“Goddamn, ain’t you hungry?” I whisper to Yoyo, and she puts a finger
to my lips to distract me. Say, baby, wasn’t that you waking me up
last night to say you’d had a dream where I was a big luscious mansize
avocado? Someone’s belly is growling. “We weren’t going
to be colored, we weren’t going to be Negro,” the man says,
and I’m thinking every time I hear this story it’s the one telling the story
that’s the hero. “Hush now,” Harriet Tubman probably said
near dawn, pointing a finger black enough to be her pistol barrel
toward the future or pointing a pistol barrel black enough
to be her finger at the mouth of some starved, stammering slave
and then lifting her head to listen for something no one but her could hear.
“The Avocado” starts as a fairly straightforward narrative. The narrator (Hayes himself, more or less) is at a Black History Month (February) luncheon with his wife Yoyo. The two of them are eating tortillas and avocado dip and listening to a lunch companion (or possibly a speaker) talk about his participation in the Civil Rights Movement some 40 years ago. (Lighthead came out in 2010.)
Hayes (in the poem) finds the speaker boring, trite, and somewhat ridiculous. Partly in mockery, partly just because he’s distracted, he starts to riff on the avocado, drawing deliberately absurd connections between the fruit and Black history. “If abolitionists had a flag/it would no doubt feature the avocado, also known as the alligator/pear, for obvious reasons,” he starts, though the reasons aren’t at all obvious until he starts to build up far-fetched analogies. The speaker demands reparations, and Hayes connects that to “the money-colored flesh of the avocado.” The speaker talks about getting more boulevards named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hayes muses, “The roots of the avocado tree/can raise pavement, so it’s not too crazy to imagine the fruit/as a symbol of revolt on the abolitionist flag.”
Hayes’ jump from renaming boulevards to abolition is sardonic; the poem is making fun of the domestication of Black resistance movements (“much like the domestication of the avocado!” you can hear Hayes exclaiming.) Hayes compares the speaker, and Black revolutionaries in general, to the avocado’s sterility; the “ruby-colored” (ie, blood-red) seeds don’t always fall on fertile ground, but may instead “sprout from inside,” so that the fruit becomes “overmature.” It molds and breaks down.
The critique of infertility and fallow birth is partly a critique of the speaker’s masculinity. “Enough gold to fill each of our women’s wombs,” the man trumpets, before starting to weep and “walking wet tissue to the trash,” a limp, damp symbol of inadequacy.
Hayes’ virtuoso silliness is a kind of virile alternative, as he separates himself from the “Brother man” via irony and poetic chutzpah—and by boasting about his wife. “I dare you/to find a lovelier black woman from Cincinnati, where the North/touches the South.” The first half of the poem could be seen as a kind of avocado masculine food fight between politics and art—a version of e.e. cummings’ self-satisfied novel The Empty Room in which the poet defies the authorities armed only with his vaunting humility. Though Hayes has less humility and more guacamole spread.
The stakes, and the battle lines, start to blur, though at the moment when Brother man breaks into tears, and starts talking about Harriet Tubman. The speaker says, “’Harriet Tubman was a walking shadow’, or, ‘Harriet Tubman / walked in shadows,’ or, ‘To many, Harriet Tubman was a shadow/to walk in.’” The words are uncertain perhaps because the man is crying, but the effect of that breakdown is not to make him more ridiculous, but to create a poetic ambiguity. The de-masculinization of tears connects the would-be revolutionary to a feminine heroism which also trespasses on and takes over the poet’s own verbal power.
The ridiculous political speaker changes into the knowing poet. At the same time, the poet becomes the ridiculous political speaker. Hayes reaches out to his wife to ask her to validate him, (“Goddamn, ain’t you hungry?”) But instead she distances herself, (“she puts a finger to my lips to distract me.”) Then Hayes remembers (or invents?) one of his wife’s dreams, in which Hayes was transformed into “a big luscious mansize avocado.”
Hayes sees the politician as a goofy green irrelevant would-be masculine dip, and that’s exactly how his wife sees him. “[E]very time I hear this story it’s the one telling the story/that’s the hero,” Hayes the narrator says, apparently unaware that he has told the story in such a way that he is the hero—celebrating his own invention, his cleverness, his clear-sightedness, and his beautiful wife.
When Hayes imagines Harriet Tubman saying, “Hush now,” he is, within the poem, directing that rebuke at the Black political speaker who sees himself as the hero. But in context, Tubman raising her finger to her lips echoes the poet’s wife raising her finger to her lips, trying to get Hayes, who sees himself as the hero, to shut up. Tubman represents an unloquacious militant femininity, which serves as an alternative to the hyper-verbal masculine performance of the Black politician and of Hayes himself. Tubman’s “black finger” which is also a pistol barrel is a symbol of competence and revolution precisely because it’s not a penis.
Also, notably, because it’s not an avocado. The poem, which has relentlessly returned to the image of the avocado every other line or so, deliberately abandons it at the conclusion. Tubman’s finger is never turned into or analogized to an avocado. Her demand for silence (“pointing a pistol barrel black enough/to be her finger at the mouth of some starved, stammering slave”) is a demand that Hayes be silent. She is quieting both the Black speaker in the poem and the poem itself, both of which end with “something no one but her could hear”—an admission on Hayes’ part of poetic, political, and personal inadequacy. He has no avocado joke which can compare.
Tubman, in much-told stories, would threaten escaped enslaved people who became frightened and wanted to return to the plantation rather than dare the dangerous journey north. Hayes positions himself as one of those enslaved people—too timid and/or selfish to lead the revolution. “Avocado” is a poem about the inadequacy of (male) revolutionary rhetoric. And one of the (male) revolutionary rhetorics it’s criticizing is its own battery of poetic invention, irony, and absurdism.
What starts as an elevation of the brilliant free-wheeling, sensual artist over the arid would-be revolutionary ends by suggesting that in their vapid (preening male) rhetoric of self-dramatization, the two are largely indistinguishable. As an altnerative, the poem puts forward Tubman as a “shadow to walk in”—an example of courage and resolution characterized by listening and quiet.
Of course, Hayes is the one pointing to Tubman as an example; he hasn’t exactly stopped talking. Still, the poem isn’t just a critique of itself, but of Hayes’ work generally; “Avocado” is typical of his writing in its boisterous, swaggering free association, and I think in its ambivalence about didactic political content. The poem works as a kind of self-parody—an avodcado pureeing and eating itself. Or an avocado uncertain if it had dreamed it was a man, and perhaps wishing it had dreamed it were a woman—at least if that woman were Harriet Tubman.
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