‘At Pegasus’ is the first poem in Hayes’ collection Muscular Music. The collection explores important themes like identity, relationships, and how one’s identity is affected by their interactions with other people. This is of particular importance in the opening poem when the poet describes a heterosexual man visiting a gay bar and watching men dance.
Explore At Pegasus
‘At Pegasus’ by Terrance Hayes is a deeply moving poem that describes a speaker’s experience in a club.
The poem is based on a speaker’s contemporary experience and how it reminds him of a youthful one. Watching the homosexual men in the club dance on and with one another and being invited onto the dance floor (and declining) takes him back to his youth. He recalls playing with a friend in a dirty stream and having to carry his friend home after he cut his foot open on some glass.
He remembers what it was like to be young, present, living in the moment, and without thoughts for the future. It’s this same kind of emotional experience that he sees playing out on the dance floor that makes him contemplate who he is now (in contrast to who he was when he was a child and how he saw the world).
Structure and Form
‘At Pegasus’ by Terrance Hayes is a fifteen-stanza poem that is divided into tercets or sets of three lines. These free verse stanzas do not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but are formatted similarly. Each contains three lines of around the same length. The poem is colloquial in style, with the poet taking a conversational tone to describe a real place and experience.
The literary devices used intros poem include:
- Simile: a comparison between two things that always uses either “like” or “as.” For example, “They are like those crazy women / who tore Orpheus” in stanza one.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “boy on my back” in stanza four.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza one as well as two and three of stanza two.
- Imagery: a particularly effective passage that uses descriptions to help readers imagine a scene. For example, “ beer bottles & tadpoles / slippery as sperm.”
Stanzas One and Two
They are like those crazy women
who tore Orpheus
when he refused to sing,
these men grinding
in the strobe & black lights
of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.
In the first stanza of the unique poem, the speaker, a straight man who is visiting a gay club, describes the men on the dance floor using a simile. He compares them to “those crazy women” who tore Orpheus apart for not paying attention to them.
Such is the way that the speaker feels the men are clinging to and moving against one another on the dance floor. They’re grinding under the “strobe & black lights” of “Pegasus” (the name of the bar/club).
The scene is emotional and visceral. The speaker describes the movements as “all shadow & sound.” It gets hard to distinguish one person from another, and all one can really do is interpret the passion of the moment and the way that the men on the dance floor are releasing their inhibitions and moving with one another.
Stanzas Three and Four
“I’m just here for the music,”
barefoot into the creek; dance
The speaker is approached by one of the dancing men who asks him to join the dance floor. But the speaker replies with, “I’m just here for the music.” This triggers a memory that carries through the rest of the poem.
He tells the man that he doesn’t want to dance, but there is something about the scene that reminds him of his youth and the way he used to understand relationships and closeness. He’s seeing something similar play out before him.
The speaker remembers how, when he was a boy, he would play outside with his friend Curtis. They would jump into the creek barefoot together. This innocent relationship grows in importance (and its obvious connections to the scene at hand) as the poem progresses.
Stanzas Five and Six
among maggots & piss,
He wouldn’t know me now
The scene was less than ideal when they were kids. They were in among “maggots & piss” and “beer bottles & tadpoles”). There was life in amongst decay (an allusion to the emotional passion that the speaker sees playing out before him and the beautiful liveliness of youth that he recalls).
He remembers how he and his friend used to take their shirts off and slap each other with them, play-fighting in a way that many young boys do.
It was like slapping music into “our skin,” he says. The interaction and the pure joy of youthful friendships carry the same degree of importance and emotional resonance as the scene he sees playing out before him as an adult. There is a purity of experience that exists in both places and times.
There is a painfully emotional line at the end of the sixth stanza when the speaker says that his friend “wouldn’t know” him now. This is an admission of the amount of time that is passed between his youth and where he is today. But, it does not seem that it’s just age that has changed. The speaker has lost something of this pure, youthful joy that he used to experience on a regular basis. Seeing the men interact in the club has brought a degree of that feeling back to him.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
at the edge of these lovers’ gyre,
into the mouth of an old one,
The speaker is standing at the “Edge of these lovers’ gyre.” He’s not metaphorically jumping into the dirty stream with no regard for consequences any longer. He’s distant from the joy and beauty of friendship and love that he used to know as a child.
It’s the fact that he’s not in the “gyre” himself that makes him think that his friend Curtis would not recognize him. It’s not based on what he looks like or their age; it’s based on how the speaker moves through the world and the degree of joy and freedom he allows himself to experience.
The stanza is dedicated to an image-rich depiction of the scene, including a description of a young man slipping his thumb into the mouth of an older man. There is no regard at this moment for who might be watching or judging. These men are free in the music’s spinning light. The reference to the men as “sexless” in the previous lines connects to the speaker’s experience and how he’s more interested in describing a type of experience or emotion than he is in delving into the details of this scene specifically.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
& I am not that far away.
each breathless as a boy
In the next two stanzas, the speaker describes a time when Curtis cut his foot open when they were playing barefoot together, and he had to carry his friend on his back home. It was a terrible cut, one that’s described as a “gash” and as “raw.” This is the same feeling that the speaker to when he observes the dance floor. It, too, is as “raw and delicate” as the young boy’s wound and as “breathless” as the speaker was when he had to carry his friend home.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
carrying a friend on his back.
better than I remember
Curtis’ foot was in a bad state on the way home, already swelling with “green” from the sewage in the creek they’d been playing in. This reveals that that was the last time they played together in that place; they were likely because of this traumatizing event. But, to this day, the speaker has a very clear memory of his friend’s weight on his back. The poet begins a line saying that the friend’s weight is something the speaker remembers better than… before cutting the line off (a great example of enjambment).
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
my first kiss.
into each other,
He reveals what it is that is less memorable to him than his friend’s weight. It is, he notes, the feeling of his first kiss. This drives home the emotional poignance of this beautiful memory and the effect it has had on determining the speaker’s identity and the way that he interprets experiences.
He starts to bring the poem to its conclusion in the fourteenth stanza when he speaks on the impossibility of not finding the men on the dance floor beautiful. There is no way that he could look at the scene and not think that the way that they dive and spill “into each other” is beautiful.
Despite the seeming distance between the club and his youthful memory. Lines like this help readers draw connections between the physical intimacy the men are experiencing on the dance floor and the experience he had with his friend.
the way the dance floor
wet & holy in its mouth.
The dance floor, the speaker concludes, takes the men “wet & holy” in its mouth. The dance floor is personified in these final lines, becoming a needy, living creature that (like the men on the floor) consumes entirely. It takes the men into its mouth (a way of describing the dancers’ seeming dedication to living in the moment) and lets them exist in the beauty of their lives without judgment.
It’s a religious experience of sorts or at least a spiritual one. As the previous lines reveal, the speaker feels like he’s seeing something important playing out in front of him, something that is fundamental to human existence. It is a way of living, depending on others, and feeling the joy that he had forgotten about since his youth.
There are a number of important images in ‘At Pegasus.’ The first is that of Orpheus being torn about by Thracian women. Another features the speaker’s friend, Curtis, cutting his foot open on some glass in a sewage-filled stream.
The memory at the heart of ‘At Pegasus’ features a speaker as a young boy, along with a friend named Curtis, playing in a dirty, trash-filled stream as children.
This poem is important because of the ways that it alludes to identity and how one’s identity is formed and changes over their life. This speaker is forced to analyze who he is now and how he understood the world when he was a child.
This contemporary poem by Terrance Hayes describes a speaker’s experience at a gay club as a straight man and the way that the men on the dance floor reminded him of an emotionally poignant memory from his youth.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Terrance Hayes poems. For example:
- ‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades’ – explores themes of racism and the history of Spades.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen – alludes to themes of war, loss, and the purpose of life.
- ‘For Some Executors of Gay Writers’ by Dan Vera – a unique poem that explores the prosecution of gay writers throughout history.