The Rose Has Teeth (By Terrance Hayes)

Issue Date: 
March 17, 2014

Written by celebrated poet and Pitt professor of English Terrance Hayes, this poem was read by him during Pitt’s Feb. 24, 2014, Black History Month event, A Celebration of the Arts. The lyrical reading was accompanied by the music of Geri Allen, internationally renowned pianist, composer, and director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program.

I was trying to play the twelve bar blues

with two bars. I was trying to fill the room

with a shocked and awkward color,

I was trying to limber your shuffle, the muscle

wired to muscle. I wanted to be a lucid hammer.

I was trying to play like the first mechanic

asked to repair the first automobile.

Once, Piano, every man-made song could fit

in your mouth. But I was trying to play Burial’s

“Ghost Hardware.” I was trying to play the sound

of applause by trying to play the sound of rain.

I was trying to mimic the stain on a bed,

the sound of a woman’s soft, contracting bellow,

the answer to who I am. Before I trust the god

who makes me rot, I trust you, Piano.

Something deathless fills your wood.

Because I wanted to be invisible, I was

trying to play like a woman blacker

than an unpaid light bill, like a white boy

lost in the snow. I wanted to be a ghost

because the skull is just a few holes

covered in meat. The skin has no teeth.

I was trying to play what I felt singing

in the mirror as a boy. I was trying to play

what I overheard: the old questions, the hunger,

the rattle of spines. The body that only loves

what it can touch always turns to dust.

What would a mother feel if her child sang

“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child”

too beautifully? A hole has no teeth.

A bird has no teeth. But you got teeth, Piano.

You make me high. You make me dance.

You make me believe there is good in me.

My lady, she dreams I am better than I am.

I was trying to play like strange fruit hanging

in a tree. A tree has no teeth. A horn has no teeth.

Don’t chew, Piano. Don’t chew, sing to me

you fine-ass lounging harp. You fancy engine

doing other people’s work. I was trying to play

the sound of an empty house because

that’s how I get by when the darkness in my body

starts to bleed. I was trying to play “Autumn Leaves”

because that’s what my lady’s falling dress

sounds like to me. Before you, Piano, I was just a rap

of knuckles on a window sill. I am filled with the sound

of my lover’s breathing and only you can bring it out of me.