T Terrance Hayes

We Should Make a Documentary About Spades by Terrance Hayes

‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades’ is written by contemporary American poet Terrance Hayes. This imaginary piece explores the theme of racism and implicitly comments on the history of Spades.

Terrance Hayes takes an interesting stance in this poem. The beginning as well as the end has something to deal with the history of the blacks. Most importantly, he revolves around the history of the game of Spades as well. The title of this piece presents wordplay. Firstly, the term “Spades” is a derogatory term for the blacks. On the other hand, the term also refers to a specific card game. The history behind the game is important to decode the meaning of Hayes’ poem.

We Should Make a Documentary About Spades by Terrance Hayes

 

Summary

‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades’ by Terrance Hayes describes an imaginary game of spades between four characters to comment on the history of the African-Americans.

This poem begins with an imaginary game of spades between four players. According to the description, they are all blacks. The game takes place on a Saturday. While the game is on, the speaker comments on black history and specifically focuses on the use of the derogatory term “Spades”. As the poem progresses, the poet throws light on the history of his family members. In the penultimate section, he makes his point clear to the readers. His motive behind making this documentary is to portray the difference between those who play the game and those who despise it.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure

This free verse poem consists of thirteen stanzas. The first stanza contains three lines and the following stanzas have four lines each. There is not any specific rhyme scheme. In some instances, readers can find the use of slant rhymes. While reading the poem, it seems as if it seems the speaker is conversing directly with the readers. It gives this piece an outlook of a dramatic monologue. Besides, it is in the first-person point-of-view. Thus, it is an example of a lyric poem. The poetic persona representing Terrance’s voice documents the game of spades played on a Saturday. Apart from that, this poem does not contain a set metrical scheme. Readers can find the mixture of iambic and trochaic meter.

 

Literary Devices

In the title of the poem, ‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades,’ readers can find the use of the pun in the usage of the word “Spades”. It refers to two ideas. One is the game itself and another is a reference to the blacks. In the overall text, Hayes makes use of enjambment. By using this device, he connects the lines internally and creates an unbreakable transition between the stanzas.

Hayes uses a metaphor in the “sun people.” It is also an example of metonymy. By using this phrase, he refers to those who toil under the sun. It is a reference to black people. There is a biblical allusion in the fifth stanza. In this stanza, the poet refers to the temptations of Christ. He uses a rhetorical question in the following stanza.

Readers come across a simile in the line, “A bid must be intuitive like the itchiness…” In these lines, “Was wrong with her, but she held a dry spot at the table/ When couples came to play” they can find the use of irony. The last stanza of this piece contains an epigram.

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people

(…)

Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,

The poem begins with a conjunction. So, there is continuity in the speaker’s thought process. According to him, they need a card deck and quartets of black people. Hayes refers to those who are found in black college dormitories. The list does not end here. The speaker says they need some more things such as vintage music, fried chicken, paper, and a pen. Only indiscriminate spirits are allowed to join this group going to play spades on a “bottomless Saturday.” In the quoted phrase, readers can find the use of alliteration. It is important to note here that the last line is connected with the first line of the following stanza by enjambment.

 

Stanza Two

A writing utensil, and a bottomless Saturday. We should explore

(…)

Of calling someone who is not your brother or sister,

The speaker uses a metaphor for referring to the pen in the first line of the second stanza. Readers can understand “A writing utensil” and a “bottomless Saturday” are all they need to begin the game. On top of that, they will discuss the origin of the derogatory word, “spades”. Those who are called spades (the black people) know how it feels to be lonely in polite company. Through this line, Hayes points at the inequality between blacks and the so-called “polite” class of humans.

They will also discuss what will be the implications of a person calling another sitting next to him, his brother or sister. This humorous ending of the second stanza evokes satire on the taste of the “polite company.”

 

Stanza Three

Brother or Sister. So little is known of our past, we can imagine

(…)

You say when our ancestors were cooped on those ships

The first part, “Brother or Sister” is connected with the last line of the previous stanza. By the line, “So little is known of our past,” the speaker ironically comments on the history of their race. Being a subjugated class of people, their history was not recorded properly. Therefore, the speaker and others like him can imagine anything regarding their past.

He thinks before enslavement, blacks might have held Spades Tournaments on the anti-cruise ships bound for colonies. While he thinks so, another member of the group says they might be cooped on those ships by the whites. In this way, Hayes explores the theme of enslavement vs freedom in this stanza.

 

Stanza Four

They were not yet slaves. Our groundbreaking film should begin

(…)

As she says, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades

The fourth stanza of ‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades’ begins similarly to the previous ones. The first section is a part of the last line of the previous stanza. Readers can find this pattern throughout this piece. In this stanza, the speaker focuses on the process of how the documentary should begin. The “groundbreaking film” will begin with a low-lit den in the “Deep South.” The location might be somewhere in southern Africa.

Then, the audience will see somebody’s grandmother holding the smoke in her mouth saying something. Her voice is “deep fried.” It is a reference to the texture of the lady’s voice. She is referring to a tactic of the Spades game by saying, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades/ In my house.” It can also be a reference to the rule that is only applicable in her house. She is using some sort of forced cheating to win over her opponents.

 

Stanza Five

In my house.” And at some point someone should tell the story

(…)

And definitely your skinny cousin Mary and any black man

In the documentary, the audience can find at some point someone telling the story of Jesus and the devil playing the Spades as partners. They are seen traveling the juke joints of the 1930s. The depiction of Christ and the devil seems to be a commentary on the ideals of Christianity.

The makers of the documentary will then interview the speaker’s uncle Junior and the implied listener’s skinny cousin Mary. They will also talk with all the black men sitting at the card table wearing shades.

 

Stanza Six

Sitting at a card table wearing shades. Who do you suppose

(…)

Across the table. Pay attention to the suits being played.

The sixth stanza begins with a humorous rhetorical question. The speaker asks who would win if Booker T (a WWE superstar) and MLK (Martin Luther King Jr) were matched against Du Bois (an American sociologist, civil rights activist, and writer) and Malcolm X (an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist) in a game of Spades. Hearing this question, the listeners would prohibit him not to talk across the table. He should pay attention to the suits being played in the game. The presence of the silent listener makes this piece an example of a dramatic monologue.

 

Stanza Seven

The object of the game is to communicate invisibly

(…)

Way? This should be explored in our film about Spades.

In this stanza, Hayes talks about the objective of the game of Spades. It is to communicate with the teammates without giving the opponents any hint of their move. That’s why an audience should concentrate on their game to understand their moves. While the game is on, the speaker thinks why he was there. He might be there because he feels lonely in some “acute diasporafied way.” Through this line, he highlights the unequal treatment of the blacks in his country. Therefore, the speaker wants to explore this theme in his film about Spades.

 

Stanza Eight

Because it is one of the ways I am still learning what it is

(…)

Of the two partners, and the total is the number of books

In this section, he exemplifies the reason for which he wants to explore this theme. It is one of the ways the speaker is learning how it feels to be black in a country dominated by whites. For this reason, he wants to master the game of Spades. In the following lines, he refers to a few rules of the game that he is trying to learn. According to him, four players bid on several books in the game. Then each team adds the bids of the two partners. After totaling the counts, one can find the number of books that the team must try to win.

 

Stanza Nine

That team must try to win. Is that not right? This is a game

(…)

Of the your upper lip before you sip strange whiskey.

To verify what he has said earlier, at the beginning of this stanza, the speaker confirms whether he is right or not. He thinks this game tests the boundary between mathematics and magic. If one asks him about the game, he will say what he has just said. Readers should take note of the repetition of the “m” sound in this section. It is an example of consonance.

In the game, a bid must be intuitive. The poet compares this intuition to the itchiness of the upper lip before a person sips strange whisky. This gustatory image gives readers a feeling of the taste of such a peculiar kind of whiskey.

 

Stanza Ten

My mother did not drink, which is how I knew something

(…)

But this probably should not be mentioned in our documentary

In this section of ‘We Should Make a Documentary About Spades,’ the speaker refers to her mother. He says his mother did not drink. It seems that something was wrong with her. When he noticed his mother holding a dry spot at the table when couples came to play, he thought in that way. The inequality between humans for their complexion somehow pained the speaker. Whatsoever, it is not the only case with his mother. Rather, it’s a scene from black history. But, this should not be mentioned in the documentary about Spades. It does not align with the subject matter of the film.

 

Stanza Eleven

About Spades. Renege is akin to the word for the shame

(…)

With your palm, not hitting the face of a drum with a drumstick.

This section begins with the usage of the word “Renege”. It means to retreat or fall back. According to the speaker, this word is akin to the shame one feels watching someone else’s humiliation. Through this line, the poet refers to the reluctance of others while one of their fellows is facing unjustified humiliation. It seems to him that the experience is similar to slapping a card down. The sound is as dramatic as hitting the face of a drum with the palm, not hitting it with a drumstick. Besides, the use of auditory imagery is important in this section.

 

Stanza Twelve

You say there may be the sort of outrage induced

(…)

I suspect winning this sort of game makes you feel godly.

The silent listener of the poem can say there may be outrage induced by liquor. The players can indulge in trash talk and choose a poor strategy to defeat their opponents. But this outrage of the players will fade like the watermark left on a table by a cold glass. In the last line of this stanza, the speaker suspects winning this game of Spades makes a player feel godly. In each game, players on the side of victory always feel this way. 

 

Stanza Thirteen

I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing

(…)

In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not play.

In the last stanza, the speaker says he is good and ready for whoever plays this game against him. He tries to imagine his enemy and he knows the person is not going to be his real enemy. Besides, there is a saying that there are no enemies in the game of Spades. As Spades is a game the enemies of the blacks do not play. In this way, the poet ends on an ironic note.

 

Historical Context

This poem appears in “How to Be Drawn”. It was published on 31st March 2015 by Penguin Poets. The poet of this piece, Terrance Hayes has published seven poetry collections including the one mentioned above. This poem is often regarded as one of the best Black History month poems. Readers can find a reference to the history of the Spades, both the game and the derogatory term, in the text. Besides, Hayes talks about how blacks were treated. They were not counted as members of the sophisticated society. For this reason, the poet excludes those who have done that to them before. There are only African American voices and the poet highlights their lives.

 

Similar Poetry

The following list of poems is similar to the themes and subject matter of Terrance’s poem.

You can also read these moving poems on slavery and the poems featuring freedom vs confinement.

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About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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