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The right poetry collection for right now: Terrance Hayes' 'American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin'

The right poetry collection for right now: Terrance Hayes' 'American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin'
Terrance Hayes. (Hannah Ensor)

Now’s the time for “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes’ electric, new book. In his five previous poetry collections — “Muscular Music” (1999), “Hip Logic” (2002), “Wind in a Box” (2006), the National Book Award-winning “Lighthead” (2010) and “How to Be Drawn” (2015) — Hayes innovates new poetic forms and hacks the codes of canonical containers, pimping them up dynamically.

His writing demonstrates a serious commitment to revising, extending and advancing American poetry while recording, celebrating and mourning black American life. These aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations also charge “American Sonnets.”

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Hayes has worked with sonnets before, most recently in “How to Be Drawn,” a finalist in poetry for both the National Book Critic’s Circle award and the National Book Award. In that collection, the poet offers “American Sonnet for Wanda C.,” an elegy for the late Los Angeles poet and critic Wanda Coleman: “Those who could hear / No music weren’t listening — and when I say it, it’s like claiming / She’s an elegy.” Rhyming “clamped” with “claims” and “calm,” Hayes names Coleman, “Miss Calamity,” a mythic wordsmith “hurling hurt / Where the moon should be and stomping into our darkness calmly.”

Coleman’s influence drapes Hayes’ “American Sonnets.” Her definition of the American sonnet (which Hayes quotes in his acknowledgments) suggests that the form ought to be issue-driven, improvisational, minimalist and fun. Hayes has taken his lessons well. For example, Hayes hears in trap music some reflection of the chaotic trappings of our degrading democratic arrangement: “America, you just wanted change is all, a return / to the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign / of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection / Of your own. You share a fantasy with Trinidad James, who said, ‘Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring, / Gold all in my watch’...” But that glittering, “metallic narcissism” is fool’s gold, it can only offer a dead gaze in return. And as Hayes inquires in a later poem, “Why give good money to Death?”

An illustration by Terrance Hayes for his book, "American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin."
An illustration by Terrance Hayes for his book, "American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin." (Terrance Hayes)

Unlike the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets — 14 lines of verse ruled by octave and sestet, iambic pentameter and volta, alternating end-rhymes or rhymed closing couplets — the American sonnet, like this peculiar political era, is governed by only the loosest relation to established, formal principles: yes, 14, at least 10 syllables each, but no rhyme or reason seems necessary.

“American Sonnets” is composed of five sections, 14 poems in each, 70 poems in all. Each section constitutes a crown or corona, typically a cyclical sequence of 14 sonnets connected by a single addressee or subject; the poems are linked by repeating the final line of the preceding poem as the first line of the succeeding sonnet. The first line of the sequence-opening sonnet is repeated as the final line of the closing poem.

Hayes’ sequences don’t quite adhere to this kind of structure. Though there are lines, ideas and images (of, say, blackbirds) that cycle in and out of view across these 70 poems, they appear according to muted musical arrangement. At the back of the book, Hayes has inserted an index of first lines for each section. If read as addendum to the crowns, each sequence can be stretched into a sonnet redoublé: a perfect crown of 14 sonnets plus one comprising the 14 linking lines in order. Bending the rules in his favor, however, away from “perfection,” Hayes’ sonnets push readers to play along, to learn his rules along the way.

"American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin."
"American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin." (Penguin Books)

How to read Hayes’ American sonnets: first, number each poem, they share one name. Then, number the lines, each one contains heat. Third, measure each line’s rhythmic pattern, beat. Note repeated phrases or images. Sing the songs out loud, noting melody. Repeat singing till the volta rings true. “Voltas of acoustics,” Hayes calls this form; “part prison, / Part panic closet,” this form. Here, “volta” is movement and argument; Ghanaian river, Italian dance, too. Hayes mounts arguments within his lyrics: about blackness, about America, too. He resolves his gambits with stunning truths: “Assassin, you are a mystery / To me, I say to my reflection sometimes. / You are beautiful because of your sadness, but / You would be more beautiful without your fear,” Hayes declares in sonnet 55.

Many readers need poets to offer them images of the natural world — birds, bees, bugs — in order for the writing to be labeled accessible. Here, though, you’ll see a “blackbird shift & shatter like / A vessel of ink”; you’ll learn that “Bird got so high on horn, he disappeared.” Hayes also metaphorizes “The umpteenth slump / In our humming democracy,” our stinging political reality, as “a bumble bureaucracy / With teeny tiny wings too small for its rumpled, / Dumpling of a body.” Hayes’ poems crawl along these pages, like bugs marching among shattered, desiccated carcasses, spreading a stinging, stinking, humming “odor, an almost / Imperceptible ode to death.”

Hayes’ speakers sometime address the past and future assassin directly, as in the mournful sonnet 69: “Can we really be friends if we don’t believe / In the same things, Assassin? Probably, / Ghosts are allergic to us.” Elsewhere, the assassin takes other shapes, including a “black-eyed animal,” the N-word, “black male hysteria,” “existential jambalaya,” a litany of infamous white male assassins (James Earl Ray, Dylann Roof, Byron De La Beckwith) and “Mister Trumpet.”

Sometimes named, sometimes implied in these sequences, Mister Trumpet symbolizes a masculine-powered dehumanization machine, a harbinger of a level disorder yet to arrive. Mister Trumpet, driven to toot his own horn, is only “Pomp & pumpkin pompadour,” Hayes writes in Sonnet 6. The poet’s sonnet 30 means to rebuke this dude: “Goddamn, so this is what it means to have a leader / You despise, the racists said when the president / Was black and I’ll be damned if I ain’t saying it too. / Is this a mandate for whiteness, virility, sovereignty, / Stupidity, an idiot’s threats & gangsta narcissisms threading / Every shabby sentence his trumpet constructs?”

A diagram drawn by Terrance Hayes.
A diagram drawn by Terrance Hayes. (Terrance Hayes)

Unlike an authoritarian politico ruling by whimsy, the poet working with the American sonnet must identify her métier, improvise rhyme and meter, and communicate resolutions in order to rule the crown. In these sequences, Hayes improvises voices and selves that challenge and attempt escape from virulent, American modes of masculinity. The poet’s hope, it seems, is to create lyric exits from that trap. See, for example, the wonderful sonnets that read like ads from a personals section: “A brother versed in spiritual calisthenics / And cowboy quiet seeks funny, lonesome, / Speculative or eye-glassed lass.” I imagine these poems look like some of Deana Lawson’s powerful photographs.

Also see how Hayes corrals, among others, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maxine Waters, Emily Dickinson, Prince and Eurydice as shields, as code words, to repel would-be assassins. Through those exits, one can revise the Orphic myths and poetry’s invention: “Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse / Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart. / As if what you learn making love to yourself matters / More than what you learn when loving someone else.” Outside that trap, one can embrace what Prince taught us: “a real man has / A beautiful woman in him.” And possibly, with the fullest freedom, you can admit to yourself what Hayes’ speaker realizes in sonnet 28: “Trumpet I can’t speak for you but men like me / Who have never made love to a man will always be / Somewhere in the folds of our longing ashamed of it.”

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Hayes’ poems are especially felicitous, because ethnic American writers often know better than the rest of us that “Something happens everywhere in this country / Every day. Someone is praying, someone is prey.” Put Hayes’ sonnets alongside Layli Long Soldier’s “Whereas” or Evie Shockley’s “Semiautomatic” or the recent Ada Limon-Natalie Diaz exchange in the New Yorker, “Envelopes of Air,” and you’ll read a chorus of voices illustrating that outside the context of brutal patriarchy there are ways of being that are fuller, more humane, more charged and alive beyond category.

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Muyumba, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, is the author of "The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism."

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Terrance Hayes

Penguin Poets: 112 pp., $18

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