May 1, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureReading

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part XIX: The Pure Products of America)”]

Now that I have my hands on the whole of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, I want to focus on it specifically for one more post before proceeding to look at other recent collections of contemporary sonnets. As I’ve said in past posts, these American Sonnets aren’t “traditional” sonnets in the sense of fixed iambic pentameter and end-rhyme scheme, but their musicality, rhetoric and turns, and fourteen-line frame ask the reader to reckon with them in conversation with that tradition, as do the American Sonnets of Wanda Coleman, whose epigraph (“bring me / to where / my blood runs”) opens Hayes’s collection. In these poems, the “Americanness” is both formal (an “American” or perhaps more specifically African-American subversion of a canonical received form of European origin) and thematic—Hayes began writing these American Sonnets in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and while not every incarnation of the titular “assassin” is Trump himself, we can feel the shaping pressure of our political moment throughout.

For long-time readers of Hayes’s work, this collection comes as an interesting pendulum swing back away from the multi-page experimentation and sheer formal variousness of 2015’s How to Be Drawn; these new poems are a little bit reminiscent (for me) of some of the tight linguistic play in his “A Gram of &s” series from 2002’s Hip Logic. Each poem in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has the same title and the same number of lines; even the “Sonnet Index” at the end of the collection, which lists each poem by first line, creates five more fourteen-line “poems” —fragmented, of course, and at times absurd or nonsensical, but still provocative in their juxtapositions. For those coming to Hayes’s work for the first time with this collection (there can’t be too many of you though, I hope?), you will find all of his signature pleasures and provocations in this new collection: dense lyricism, associative word play, the political, the interpersonal (particularly connections or occlusions between parents and sons), explorations and interrogations of race and gender and sex and the body and violence and power and history and time, pop culture, music both in the language itself and in allusions to musical artists across genres, literary nods and riffs, and humor and irreverence that goes hand-in-hand with awe and big questions.

Recurring thematic and linguistic threads bind the individual poems to each other across the collection, giving the sensation that, while many of these poems are incredibly powerful standing alone outside of the context of the collection, within the collection, they function as permutations, different attempts at addressing a core set of personal and public anxieties. For example, I felt drawn to the questioning of the centering of male stories and male figures at the expense of female ones (in one poem: “No one / mentions Jesus’ sister”; in another poem: “I believe / Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse / Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.” There are phrases that reoccur throughout the collection without ever entirely “decoding” themselves (“But there never was a black male hysteria”; “Probably all my encounters are existential jambalaya”), and one senses that these repetitions are not functioning as thesis statements or summaries but as a record of the poet’s mind rooted in certain uncertainties.

Within any given poem, there are tongue twisters (“Otherwise home is the mess laid bare, / The less made air, the addressless there / Less clear”), there are mind benders (“Like a mother lovingly calling her son, a son / of a bitch”), and there is plain truth (“Anger / Is a form of heartbreak”). Within any given poem, there are a multiplicity of potential assassins. To love those who do not love you, or who would do you harm, is the work of faith—that turning of the other cheek. But to hold one’s assassin by both shoulders and turn him or it around, to look closely at one cheek and then the other, to explore the assassin (whether he is -ism or nation or man) inside and out, facet by facet, and then to do the same with the self (that great threat and great love)—that is the work of poetry.

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American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin will be published by Penguin Random House on June 19, 2018.

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[Continued in “Age of Glass”]