Review: Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018)

Only the Dead are Slaves


What can you do with 14 lines? What can you do with any formal constraint? Questions like these are perhaps implicit in the writing of verse, though one worries that in the postmodern milieu they’re more often phrased ‘What’s the point?’ Tradition and fashion aside, what Terrance Hayes does with 14 lines, over and over, is what seems necessary: the focussing and finessing of a complex voice – by turns melancholy, crass, urbane, incensed – into a mode that keeps his train-of-thought moving while calling at every stop.


Rhythm and momentum in poetry are not the same (too much of the former is repetitive, too much of the latter is moronic) but Hayes seems to have found a successful balance in this mode, and the result is an unlikely page-turner of a book. The holidays are coming and I dare you to greet a family member with ‘Merry Christmas, I bought you 70 sonnets.’ Even a cultured person would probably prefer to see some Instagrams from your recent vacation – but then they’d have no idea just how entertaining American Sonnets can be, or how relevant.


The sonnets themselves are, like the United States, relatively free and relatively diverse. They’re free in that they’re mostly unrhymed, and that’s probably a good thing: if Hayes’ hyper-alliterative wordplay – ‘The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk / Stumps us’ – was unleashed on countless iterations of ABBA ABBA, things might get out of hand. But no, this is the verse of registers, in which repeating versions of a voice take the place of formal iterations. These versions include the gentle soul – ‘I was raised / By a beautiful man. I loved his grasp of time. / My mother shaped my grasp of space’ – the wisecracker – ‘Yes, you funky stud, you are the jewel / In the knob of an elegant butt plug’ – and the intellectual – ‘Maybe I was too hard on Derek Walcott.’


Not all of his characters are likeable, however:


A brother versed in ideological & material swagger
Seeks dime ass trill bitch starved enough to hang
Doo-ragged in smoke she can smell & therefore inhale
And therefore feel.


This aggressive scourge of the classifieds may be a pastiche but he’s not as funny as the self-deprecating counterpart who confesses that ‘On some level, I’m always full of Girl Scout cookies’. (To be fair, there is behind these masks a sensitive moral compass rejecting the idea that ‘what you learn making love to yourself matters / More than what you learn when loving someone else.’) Elsewhere, the Philosopher Hayes can come across as glib: to say that ‘When the wound / Is deep, the healing is heroic’ may be true but it also smacks of the inspirational meme. Nevertheless, the sheer diversity of voices on offer here is impressive.


The other, more pressing sense in which these are American sonnets for a past and future assassin is that they are, well, poems about dying in the US. True to the polyphony of Hayes’ personae, however, the book’s subject is more complex than the kind of figure stalking the zeitgeist, e.g. the homicidal cop. Rather, the assassin – variously embodied as the poet’s own heart, the grim reaper and, yes, the white shooter – is a kind of anti-muse whose inspiration is terror.


To capture the assassin, Hayes locks it ‘in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.’ Thus confined, the spectre of death is poked and prodded, though the hinted-at rapprochement won’t come easy. ‘It is not enough / To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed’, Hayes admits, setting up a dilemma he’ll return to again and again: hatred and death can be neither accepted nor rejected; they must be come to terms with. Thus the poet wrestles with his own vitriol, telling White America that ‘May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust’ (to which one is tempted to reply ‘And then what?’) before making about as diplomatic an observation as one can, given the insane circumstances:


In this we may be alike, Assassin, you & me: we believe
We want what’s best for humanity […] Do you ask,
Why you should die for me if I will not die for you? I do.


Elsewhere, sheer frustration bursts forth with ‘Goddamn, so this is what it means to have a leader / You despise’, an acknowledgement that he has, perversely, stepped through the Birther looking glass. Trump is one variation on the spectre of death, inevitably, though he is never referred to by name. This is understandable: Hayes is right not to tarnish his poetry with such a brand, and besides, there must already be a thousand simplistic protest poems calling ‘the Donald’ out directly. When he moves on from the subject of you-know-who, we’re relieved that this President ends up where he belongs: beneath contempt.


One ought to be very careful about taking the political pulse of someone for whom this state of affairs is especially galling, but there are hints that Hayes is not fully aligned with the radical left. Scrutinising a stage-show that seems to corroborate fellow black poet Robin Coste Lewis’ characterisation of race as a ‘fetish’, Hayes makes the startling announcement that ‘I have sent tickets of this show to my white friend / Who is determined to write about black people / And to my black friends determined to police him.’ That such a high-profile artist would appear to throw down the gauntlet to intersectionality – the prevailing progressive worldview – is remarkable.


This is not to say that Hayes has no progressive or provocative ideas. A claim such as ‘men like me / Who have never made love to a man will always be / Somewhere in the folds of our longing ashamed of it’ seems designed to bait sceptics, though there’s no denying it says something about the reformation masculinity is undergoing, for good or ill. (‘Prince taught us a real man has / A beautiful woman in him’… Alas, we can’t all be Prince.)


The father figure is of course involved in all of this, though Hayes is ambivalent about its role. ‘My father remains a mystery to me’, he confesses, before abruptly adding that ‘Christianity is a religion built around a father / Who does not recognise his son’, as though blurting out a Freudian slip. Elsewhere, he claims that for a son to look at his father is to ‘see who he was / Long before he had a name, the trace of / His future on earth long before he arrived.’ Is this theory or observation? We can’t be sure. The idea that to be in relationship to one’s father is ‘To be dead & alive at the same time’, however, does temporarily put the Assassin in check.


But does the Assassin win in the end? The idea that ‘To be free is to live because only the dead are slaves’ (one of the most loaded lines in the book, perhaps) makes it clear the stakes couldn’t be higher. But when living feels like slavery, what’s the difference? ‘Can we really be friends if we don’t believe / In the same things, Assassin?’ he asks, virtually summing up the impasse at which liberals and conservatives find themselves. But it’s not the poet’s job to answer such a question, especially when he has ‘almost grown tired of talking’.


Another review could paint a very different picture of American Sonnets; that’s how rich it is. Hayes’ sister dying, Coltrane and Davis jamming, Emily Dickinson masturbating – hopefully these mad, sad scenes and more would get their due. Could the collection be improved? Absolutely: I worry that the (admittedly pleasing) conceit of having each section comprise 14 sonnets (a ‘meta-sonnet’, so to speak) meant that weak pieces were allowed to stay just to make up the numbers. But it’s an essential text at this time, and one whose idiosyncrasies more or less fulfil Hayes’ own maxim: ‘The song must be cultural, confessional, clear / But not obvious’.


A redacted version of this review appears on the Poetry School blog.


Review: Hannah Sullivan, Three Poems; Wendy Cope, Anecdotal Evidence; Sophie Collins, Who Is Mary Sue? (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Uncertain Hosannas


Three new Faber titles show that while the smaller presses’ privilege is perhaps specialisation, a relatively mainstream house can be a broad church. Thus a trio such as Hannah Sullivan, Wendy Cope and Sophie Collins approach overlapping subjects from diffuse schools – roughly modernist, populist and postmodernist, respectively.

Part essay, part memoir, Sullivan’s Three Poems is an ambitious work that should appeal to anyone who admires a poet like Olds but would like to see her themes – sex, death, family – explored by a more incisive intellect. Not one to live the unexamined life (‘The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’), Sullivan is a sifter of minutiae, hence the long-form nature of these pieces. The drawback to this approach is that Three Poems is not exactly a pick-up-and-put-down collection; the text doesn’t so much wash over you as waterboard you. On the other hand, this means that when she takes a breath and pares things down, they crystallise beautifully:

You think of Alabama at noon,
A quiet clapboard church,
White shirts rolled up, dust motes
Antsy on the windows, in the heat,
An uncertain hosanna.

These uncertain hosannas punctuate the collection, most strikingly at the end of ‘You, Very Young in New York’. Having reflected on such novelties as millennial gentrification and booty calls that are both risqué and mechanical, you almost want to thank her when she brings the episode to a close and, ‘through tears, you are laughing’. Maybe it’s ‘the snow’s / Huge act of world-effacement’ but there’s something a little cold about the ruthlessness of the gaze, as if Sullivan considers her past self a stranger. Who’s to say, though, that this is not correct? The self is you, after all.

Beginning with the adage that you can’t step into the same river twice, ‘Repeat until Time’ presents a thorny poetics in which ‘Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer’ – the second line in a rhyming couplet, ironically enough. It’s hard to judge a poem that implies so-called lyric shame while delighting in the ‘eternal kernel rigmarole’, play-language worthy of Stevens. But its two-line proclamations establish a grounding motif, while fusing medium and message in brilliant ways:

True form is overlaid, like moss on broken tiles.
But scoured and weeded back, a mosaic face peers out and smiles.

Perhaps it’s not lyric itself that Sullivan distrusts but lyric used as cover for sophistry, cf. ‘Another dubious rhyming poet: Shelley’. Here we see how a consideration of the canon is not (only) academic but sheds light on the timeless tendency of some men to talk ‘crap’. And if Three Poems’ largely diaristic style veers into the prosaic, it’s perhaps a natural byproduct of her refusal to romanticise: she practises what she preaches.

‘The Sandpit after Rain’ takes this de-romanticising to the extreme, describing childbirth as ‘like dying at the hairdressers’ and ‘[not] even like cancer [but] more like adenoids’. Meanwhile, Sullivan exposes the reader to what seems like genuine taboo when, in the midst of her father’s dying, she admits to ‘Willing it all to end […] Willing [him] still, wishing for silence, wishing this life lost’. Quite the confession. (A line like ‘Dying is what the dead pass on’, however, takes itself too seriously.)

The overwhelming sense having read Three Poems is, I think, one of gratitude: it’s not an easy read, but you can be sure it wasn’t an easy write, and neither act should be taken lightly. The aforementioned coldness doesn’t exactly help things along, but it makes sense that in a process of catharsis the feeling should come at the end.

Wendy Cope is not averse to the romantic in poetry, her latest collection taking its name from lines that describe the form as an essentially emotive artefact: ‘It’s anecdotal evidence / About the human heart’. Her epigrammatic style is well-established, such that it might seem churlish to demand from the plainspoken anything other than, well, plain speaking. Nevertheless, it’s frustrating reading lines like ‘I love you and I want to make you happy. / I promise I will do my very best’ when you know she’s capable of something that seems to channel Li Po via W. C. Williams:

The day is so still
you can almost hear the heat.
You can almost hear
that royal blue dragonfly
landing on the old white boat.

So it’s a bumpy ride – but one worth taking if you focus on the subtext. Now on her eleventh collection and seventieth year at time of writing, Cope is in reflective mood, making room alongside affectionate Shakespearean sonnets for some painful candour:

I open my Christmas list,
find their names
and type d. 2016.
I could remove them

but that would leave
no trace of them
and I am not quite ready
for them to disappear.

Like Sullivan, she has an eye for past details; she just doesn’t care to exercise it very often. It’s a shame, because when she zeroes in on specific memories or artefacts (e.g. ‘The Damage to the Piano’), she compels the reader to pause. I defy anyone not to be moved when, being reminded of the old children’s song ‘Little Donkey’, she presents us with the image of ‘All those hands in the air / begging to be chosen / to make the sound of his hooves.’

Sophie Collins’ Who Is Mary Sue? might be the most disorienting work I’ve encountered since seeing Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, and it’s no coincidence that both take pains to undermine a sense of self. Quintessentially ‘meta’, it takes its name from fan-fiction discourse in which a Mary Sue is a ‘thinly disguised version of the author’s idealised self’; or, as Collins has it, ‘an unwitting embodiment of the double standard of content’. In my view, it’s (also) a fresh take on the unreliable narrator trope, to which Collins’ genius for the unpredictable is well-suited. Cautioning that ‘Everything is poetry. Everything is trompe l’oeil’, she performs a series of illusions, her metaphors like sleights of hand. The effect is ‘at once ludicrously vague and full of detail’, surreal, perverse yet ethereal, like Bosch projected on tissue paper:

I learned the names of the Earth’s artificial satellites and began to worship them as saints.

I had incestuous dreams.

There’s a difference between the elusive and the merely evasive, and Collins tends to avoid the latter. At its best, in fact, WIMS? makes the case for poetry-as-intrigue, dedicating whole pages to single riddle-like scenes:

The village is always on fire.
Men stay away from the kitchens,
take up in outhouses with concrete floors,
while the women – soot in their hair –
initiate the flames into their small routines.

It puts the ‘pace’ into ‘space’, so to speak, though it would probably come off the rails without the ballast of palpable imagery like ‘the desire to bite down onto raw clay’; or without the rewards of Collins’ surprising insights. Indeed, one of the book’s strongest sections begins as a dry analysis of Story of O but ends in a thrilling semiotic theory about the titular ‘O’ that is too perfect to spoil – you have to read it.

Extract from The Gallows-Humored Melody (2016)

A Constant (A Villanelle)

‘Not the artwork itself…
but the little clearing the theater makes.’
Ben Lerner

Something that doesn’t degrade –
in the absence of this, we hold
to things that haven’t been made

incarnate, yet seem always to take
shape. Songs on the radio. Is a mould
something that doesn’t degrade?

The children haven’t taken our looks
away just yet, but soon they’ll take

them on, believing they’re the mode

and the model of this form – shining

right back at a sun that gutters,

filters down at flattering degrees.

A sun that doesn’t know it’s just a star

in this factory-turned-museum
where no more stars are made.

Where radio waves resound with news
that one in three of us will lose our minds.
Where something that doesn’t degrade
is something that hasn’t been made.


Extract from The One-Sided Coin (2018)

Bear and Fish


We knew something was wrong
because the ice was a red
we hadn’t seen before,
and the bear was out of breath.

It stopped us in our tracks.
(Picture turning a street
corner and coming face-
to-face with a stray dog

the size of a gas-guzzler…)
Something spooked her, though,
and we watched her outline fly
like a dog-eared white flag

into the no-man’s-land
of quicksilvered wastes,
which Dyrvik liked to call
‘the thawed horsemen’.


We knew something was wrong
because, on our approach,
the kill took on a shape
and size we couldn’t place:

this was not the corpse
of recorded polar prey,
unless the bear had mauled
some seal down to a stump.

(The flayed, stretched rictus…)
‘A dolphin,’ someone said.
And sure enough it was:
he must have ventured north

when he felt the waters
warming, opening,
and come up for air at this
blinding hole in the ice.

We photographed the scene
and left the bear to its meal.


We knew something was wrong,
because nobody spoke
on the way back. And it was
a while before we recalled

the dolphin’s outsize brain
expanding through the cleft
in its skull as it froze,
how it sparkled like ore.

(Based on observations made by scientists in Svalbard, Norway in 2015.)