Elisa Gab­bert

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Elisa Gab­bert

Like by A. E. Stallings.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 137 pp., $24.00

Amer­i­can Son­nets for

My Past and Fu­ture As­sas­sin by Ter­rance Hayes.

Pen­guin Po­ets, 91 pp., $18.00 (pa­per)

The late Amer­i­can poet Bill Knott, who used to teach a class on po­etic forms at Emer­son Col­lege in Bos­ton, knew an ex­er­cise, or per­haps you could call it a trick, by which you could turn any poem into a son­net. Choose a poem (your own or some­one else’s) of about one hun­dred words, then lo­cate all the rhyming words and write them in a col­umn. You’ll find that any un­rhymed poem (take “Leav­ing the Atocha Sta­tion,” by John Ash­bery) is likely to con­tain some rhymes (bats/rats, scare­crow/ win­dow) and slant rhymes (prayer/hair, am­ne­siac/en­thu­si­as­tic). Next, try to ar­range the pairs into the rhyme scheme of ei­ther a Pe­trar­chan or an El­iz­a­bethan son­net, and re­write and re­order the lines ac­cord­ingly, us­ing syn­onyms as nec­es­sary to fill in the miss­ing rhymes. Fi­nally, nudge the syl­lab­ics, so that the lines are about ten syl­la­bles each—ex­tra points if you can make the feet iambic. You’ve cre­ated a son­net, or some­thing like it.

For the stu­dent of po­etry, this bit of magic is dou­bly in­struc­tive. It both il­lus­trates the mu­ta­bil­ity of drafts and de­mys­ti­fies the craft of form; a writer needn’t think in rhyme and me­ter in or­der to pro­duce a for­mal poem. If you make a habit of writ­ing in form, how­ever, you may be­gin to think in form. In How Mu­sic Works (2012), David Byrne ex­plains that pop songs are typ­i­cally three to five min­utes long be­cause that’s how much mu­sic fit on one side of a 78. It still feels like the right length for a pop song. Shake­speare prob­a­bly started to think in 140-syl­la­ble bursts, the way a pho­tog­ra­pher I heard about be­gan to think in In­sta­gram cap­tions— his mind au­to­mat­i­cally de­scribed the world in chunks of text of about 2,200 char­ac­ters. This is habit via rep­e­ti­tion; do­ing some­thing over and over again changes your brain. That’s why Knott in­structed his stu­dents to stick to one form for a while. Oth­er­wise, he’d scold, “you’re not learn­ing any­thing.”

In her fourth col­lec­tion, Like, A. E. Stallings, an Amer­i­can poet, clas­si­cist, and trans­la­tor who lives in Greece, demon­strates fa­cil­ity with po­etic forms of all types. Like in­cludes ex­am­ples of the vil­lanelle, the epi­gram, the ses­tina, ot­tava rima, and, of course, the son­net, of which there are sev­eral, some tak­ing more lib­er­ties than oth­ers. Even the table of con­tents is ar­ranged al­pha­bet­i­cally, to sug­gest an abecedar­ian of ti­tles—a bonus poem. This dis­play of range will feel to some read­ers like vir­tu­osic ver­sa­til­ity; to Knot­tier read­ers the fre­quent cos­tume changes might look jumpy or non­com­mit­tal.

Stallings may be so im­mersed in form that her thoughts ar­rive al­ready dressed in it—or maybe they ar­rive form­less, but she so en­joys the game of ar­rang­ing those thoughts into pat­terns of me­ter and rhyme that al­most any oc­ca­sion will do. She moves freely be­tween the mythic and the quo­tid­ian, be­tween epic and modest scales—one poem, “Lost and Found,” be­gins with a search for a mis­placed frag­ment of toy (“Some vi­tal Lego brick or puz­zle piece”) and ends up trav­el­ing to a Val­ley of Lost Things set not in Oz but on the moon. Oth­ers re­main firmly do­mes­tic; the muse might ar­rive while the speaker re­sea­sons a cast-iron skil­let (as in “Cast Irony”) or picks lice or glit­ter (two sep­a­rate po­ems, “Lice” and “Glit­ter”) from a daugh­ter’s hair.

These more hum­ble po­ems some­times al­lude to graver prob­lems: “now it’s per­sonal, it’s/chem­i­cal, it’s war,” she writes in “Lice”; “Mankind will never/ be rid of them; like the poor/they’re al­ways with us.” But in the poem’s fi­nal line she ad­mits the pests are “harm­less,” em­bar­rass­ing but not dan­ger­ous. In this very so­cially con­scious time, such ref­er­ences might be­tray an au­tho­rial worry: Are these po­ems rel­e­vant enough?

The po­ems de­pict­ing a home and a fam­ily life that seems en­vi­ably lov­ing of­ten con­tain an un­der­cur­rent of anx­i­ety. As Robert Bur­ton ad­vises in The Anatomy of Melan­choly, Sper­ate mis­eri, cavete fe­lices—“Hope, ye un­happy ones; ye happy ones, fear.” In “Em­pa­thy,” Stallings writes, “My love, I’m grate­ful tonight/Our list­ing bed isn’t a raft/Pre­car­i­ously adrift/As we dodge the coast guard light.” Grate­ful too that her chil­dren are safe in their bunks, un­like the drowned refugees for whom she writes a “pro­posed epi­taph” later in the book. It’s part of a poem that also con­tains an ap­pen­dix of “use­ful phrases in Ara­bic, Farsi/Dari, and Greek,” found in a vol­un­teer­ing guide—po­ems within po­ems. This “Refugee Fugue” deals di­rectly with an on­go­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, but of course sign­posted “rel­e­vance” is not the only way for po­ems to be po­lit­i­cal.

Like also in­cludes prose po­ems, and they too can feel like son­nets. Take “The Con­cu­bines,” one sec­tion of the five-part “Bat­tle of Plataea: Af­ter­math,” based on the His­to­ries of Herodotus. This block of prose seems ready-made for son­net trans­for­ma­tion, 116 words long and full of rhymes both ex­act and slant: We heard the Greeks had won. At once I went and decked my­self with ev­ery bracelet, ring, gold neck­lace that I owned, and rouged my cheeks, and hastily had my maids ar­range my hair. The other con­cu­bines slumped in de­spair; but I’d been snatched from Kos; my peo­ple, Greeks! Dressed in white robes of silk, we fled the tent, and drove through corpses, far as the eye could see, un­til I saw Pau­sa­nius, the king. I stepped with golden san­dals through the gore, the lady that I was, and not the whore, and knelt, a sup­pli­cant, Please set me free. The roar of blood like si­lence in my ear, un­til: “Lady, arise, be of good cheer.”

The rhymes pop right out: Hair/de­spair. Gore/whore. And the first ten syl­la­bles are per­fectly iambic: “We heard the Greeks had won. At once I went.” The poem even ends with a rhymed cou­plet, or what would be a cou­plet if the poem were bro­ken up into lines. It reads as though Stallings had done Bill Knott’s ex­er­cise in re­verse, writ­ing a son­net first and then de­con­struct­ing it to ob­scure the un­der­ly­ing form.

Most of Stallings’s po­ems have end rhymes, but she works in free verse too, and these more un­pre­dictable po­ems are among my fa­vorites; be­cause the book teaches me to ex­pect a form, I search for one and am pleas­antly de­nied. The in­clu­sion of a free verse poem in a book so for­mal also en­cour­ages us to think of free verse as an­other avail­able form, the way we can think of literary fic­tion as a “genre” with its own con­ven­tions. The rule in this case may be no set rules, but “Art Mon­ster,” a poem in ter­cets and rel­a­tively short lines, is in a tra­di­tion with Sylvia Plath through its shape on the page alone—I au­to­mat­i­cally think of Ariel. Stallings must count her as an in­flu­ence; Plath was also very for­mally in­clined, and Stallings in her po­ems uses cer­tain sig­na­ture Plath words like “de­noue­ment” and “fathom” (as in “Full Fathom Five”) and “jilt” (two of the po­ems in the “Ju­ve­nilia” sec­tion of Plath’s Col­lected Po­ems in­clude the word “jilted”), as well as words that just seem Plath-y even if Plath never used them, like “pul­chri­tude.” “Art Mon­ster” is a ref­er­ence to Jenny Of­fill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Spec­u­la­tion, in which the nar­ra­tor pro­claims:

My plan was to never get mar­ried. I was go­ing to be an art mon­ster in­stead. Women al­most never be­come art mon­sters be­cause art mon­sters only con­cern them­selves with art, never mun­dane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own um­brella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

The phrase “art mon­ster” ges­tures to­ward com­pli­cated gen­der and class pol­i­tics, sug­gest­ing the priv­i­lege in­her­ent in hav­ing the time to write or be cre­ative. You could use it as an in­sult or an ac­cu­sa­tion, in par­tic­u­lar if you’re talk­ing about a man, but as with re­claimed slurs like witch or slut, some women find the ep­i­thet ap­peal­ing; they yearn to be as self-im­por­tant and de­mand­ing and pro­tec­tive of their time as men. Stallings’s “art mon­ster” is the Mino­taur, and the poem is told through his voice: “My mother fell for beauty,/ Although it was an­other species,/Ox­eyed, dew-lapped, groomed for sac­ri­fice.” Many of Stallings’s rhyming po­ems be­gin this strongly, with a strik­ing open­ing; what fol­lows can feel more per­func­tory, ful­fill­ing the set ex­pec­ta­tions. But “Art Mon­ster” re­mains en­gaged with it­self through­out, as though it needed to jus­tify its lack of reg­u­lar for­mal prop­er­ties with ex­tra sonic sur­prises and lin­guis­tic in­ven­tive­ness in ev­ery line (see “De-mon­ster the dark­ness,” which sug­gests “demon­strate the dark­ness”: re­mov­ing the de­mon would cre­ate a black hole to make black­ness even blacker). Like Plath’s “Daddy,” this is a poem that con­tends with the bur­den of parental in­flu­ence, and it’s also Plath-like in its macabre play­ful­ness (“my hir­sute//hair shirt” re­minds me very much of “you do not do/Any more, black shoe”). “It is heroic to slay,” Stallings writes, re­call­ing Plath’s “Daddy, I have had to kill you” and “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two” (both her fa­ther and hus­band, per­haps). But what makes the Mino­taur an art mon­ster, specif­i­cally, is that he’s a writer: “I bow to the yoke/of mak­ing, scratch­ing this ear­li­est of in­scrip­tions// On a pot­sherd, down here in the mid­den.” (A “pot­sherd” is a shard of pot­tery, but I kept want­ing to read it as “post­card,” a mes­sage mailed from the labyrinth.) Here Stallings iden­ti­fies with the Mino­taur the way Of­fill iden­ti­fies with Nabokov, as a crea­ture more selfish than self­less, one who must com­pul­sively cre­ate what­ever the cost: “Writ­ing left to right...as a bro­ken beast fur­rows a field.” That cost may be part of the source of Stallings’s anx­i­ety, an anx­i­ety of priv­i­lege. She may be grate­ful that her chil­dren don’t face the strug­gles of refugees, but she feels guilty about it too: “Em­pa­thy isn’t gen­er­ous,/It’s selfish.” That is to say, other peo­ple’s pain is painful in­so­far as we imag­ine it could be our own.

In a re­cent thread about son­nets on Twit­ter, the poet and critic Dana Levin re­marked that tra­di­tional forms “have resurged.” She added, “Why is that? Is it the way it can hold all our scream-

ing?” When we feel help­less, do met­ri­cal forms of­fer the il­lu­sion of con­trol? Or are we drawn to tra­di­tion it­self, be­cause it’s fa­mil­iar, and there­fore com­fort­ing? The New For­mal­ists of the 1980s and 1990s were a school of re­ac­tion, but they seemed to be re­act­ing to what you might call anti-es­tab­lish­ment trends in po­etry, not so­cial un­rest. In the preface to their an­thol­ogy Rebel An­gels (1996), Mark Jar­man and David Ma­son wrote:

It is no sur­prise that the most sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment in re­cent Amer­i­can po­etry has been a resur­gence of me­ter and rhyme, as well as nar­ra­tive, among large num­bers of young po­ets, after a pe­riod when these es­sen­tial el­e­ments of verse had been sup­pressed. Sup­pressed sounds a lit­tle be­lea­guered, as though pow­er­ful bod­ies were cen­sor­ing for­mal po­ems, when they’d just got­ten less pop­u­lar for a while. The cur­rent vogue for nar­ra­tive in par­tic­u­lar feels dif­fer­ent; there’s a sense that for­mal in­no­va­tion would be a dis­trac­tion from the un­der­told or ac­tively sup­pressed sto­ries we’re al­most starved for.

There can be no ques­tion as to the time­li­ness of Amer­i­can Son­nets for My Past and Fu­ture As­sas­sin, Ter­rance Hayes’s sev­enth book—it’s a col­lec­tion of po­ems writ­ten dur­ing the first two hun­dred days of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. There’s a coun­ter­tra­di­tion of ar­bi­trar­ily call­ing any poem a son­net—“XXXVI” from Ted Ber­ri­gan’s The Son­nets, for ex­am­ple, is twenty lines long—but ev­ery poem in this book, in ad­di­tion to car­ry­ing the same ti­tle, “Amer­i­can Son­net for My Past and Fu­ture As­sas­sin,” is rec­og­niz­ably a son­net. They do not all fol­low a typ­i­cal rhyme scheme, but some do, and sev­eral end with the clas­si­cal El­iz­a­bethan rhyming cou­plet: “I love how your black­ness leaves them in the dark./I love how even your sound-bite leaves a mark.” An­other, more slant: “It’s not the bad peo­ple who are brave/I fear, it’s the good peo­ple who are afraid.” Hayes bor­rows the con­cept of the Amer­i­can son­net from the in­flu­en­tial Cal­i­for­nia poet Wanda Cole­man, who sup­plies the book’s epi­graph (“bring me/ to where/my blood runs”). Cole­man, who died in 2013, pub­lished most of her books with the in­de­pen­dent, avant­garde-lean­ing Black Spar­row Press, dealt with racism and poverty ex­plic­itly in her work, and took a “jazz” ap­proach to tra­di­tional form with son­nets that in­volved, in her words, “pro­gres­sion, im­pro­vi­sa­tion, mimicry.” In an in­ter­view with Paul E. Nel­son, quoted on Hayes’s ac­knowl­edg­ments page, she said, “I de­cided to have fun.” And they are fun—“a mys­tic gone bal­lis­tic, not home but blood/on the range” she writes in “Amer­i­can Son­nets: 91.” Hayes too seems to be hav­ing fun, treat­ing the writ­ing, al­most like Stallings, as a kind of play, although his sub­ject mat­ter is fre­quently dev­as­tat­ing.

If Stallings’s com­bi­na­tion of cul­tural in­flu­ences is Amer­i­can and clas­si­cal Greek, Hayes’s could be the poet­ics of white­ness and of black­ness, which ar­rive in con­flict in the lines that open the book:

The black poet would love to say his cen­tury be­gan With Hughes or God for­bid, Wheat­ley, but ac­tu­ally It be­gan with all the po­etry weirdos & wor­ri­ers, war­riors, Po­etry whin­ers & winos fall­ing from ship bows, sun­set Bridges & win­dows.

Hayes might be sug­gest­ing that his first ex­po­sure to verse was not to black verse, not to Langston Hughes or Phillis Wheat­ley, a slave and the first black poet to pub­lish a book in Amer­ica, but to the white canon of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury—those sui­ci­dal, al­co­holic “whin­ers & winos” like Hart Crane (who jumped off a boat; in an im­pos­si­ble irony, his fa­ther in­vented the Life Saver, not the flota­tion de­vice but the candy) and John Ber­ry­man (who jumped off a bridge). Or he might be say­ing—I’m hon­estly not sure—that he, to his own re­gret, was read­ing the white po­ets in­stead by choice.

How should we read that “God for­bid”? Wheat­ley’s writ­ing be­trays some in­ter­nal­ized racism; her poem “On Be­ing Brought from Africa to Amer­ica” be­gins “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pa­gan land,/Taught my be­nighted soul to un­der­stand/That there’s a God.” Per­haps “God for­bid” is ironic pro­jec­tion, a chal­lenge to the an­tic­i­pated “per­for­ma­tively woke” reader. Hayes’s use of form feels al­most ironic, a way of turn­ing the canon back on it­self. (In Lucinella, Lore Se­gal’s satir­i­cal novella about Yaddo, the black poet New­man pro­claims, “Tech­nique is racist.”) Hayes’s poem goes on: “In a sec­ond I’ll tell you how lit­tle/Writ­ing res­cues.” (So much for the life­saver.) “My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/Es­pe­cially fun com­pany.” This line ac­com­plishes

a lot: it’s a pretty good jab (“I de­cided to have fun”) but also sets up an un­easy ten­sion in the com­par­i­son of Wheat­ley, a lit­eral slave, to Plath, whom we tend to think of as a vic­tim—the vic­tim of misog­yny at large and more lo­cally of a cruel and ma­nip­u­la­tive spouse. It also retroac­tively makes that “Hughes” ref­er­ence am­bigu­ous; now Ted is in the room too!

After seem­ing to in­sult her (“A drama queen, thin-skinned,/And skit­tery”), Hayes then comes to Plath’s de­fense: “she thought her po­ems were or­di­nary./What do you call a vi­sion­ary who does not rec­og­nize/Her vi­sion?” As a volta—the son­net’s tra­di­tional rev­er­sal or swerve—this is truly sur­pris­ing and a lit­tle thrilling. It seems ab­surd to call Plath un­der­rated, but I do, all the same, think she’s un­der­rated. There’s so much fo­cus on her per­sona, on the cult of Plath, that it’s easy to for­get that her po­etry is bril­liant—I hope in my life­time to write five words in a row as good as “I eat men like air.” If you are a white per­son read­ing this, do not get too com­fort­able; we don’t all get off as easy as Plath. This book is both largely about and ad­dressed to the white su­prem­a­cist sys­tems in Amer­ica that his­tor­i­cally sup­ported slav­ery and now dis­en­fran­chise black vot­ers and al­low cops to kill black peo­ple with im­punity. The mur­der­ers of Hayes’s an­ces­tors, who­ever might mur­der him or his fam­ily—how are these po­ems for them? They are not writ­ten in ded­i­ca­tion—they are more like an ed­u­ca­tion (see, for ex­am­ple, a son­net that ex­plains the con­tours of James Bald­win’s face) and a plea (for at­ten­tion, sur­ren­der, kind­ness, mercy, shared fury). Hayes writes:

Some­thing hap­pened In San­ford, some­thing hap­pened in Fer­gu­son

And Brook­lyn & Charles­ton, some­thing hap­pened

In Chicago & Cleve­land & Bal­ti­more & hap­pens

Al­most ev­ery­where in this coun­try ev­ery day.

That sar­cas­ti­cally vague “some­thing” that just “hap­pens” is the ul­ti­mate eu­phemism for state-sanc­tioned mur­der, which ev­ery black man is taught to fear and even ex­pect: “The names alive are like the names/In graves.” Some po­ems ad­dress Trump di­rectly: “Are you not the color of this coun­try’s cur­rent threat/Ad­vi­sory?” They try to op­er­ate as weapons or traps: “I lock you in an Amer­i­can son­net that is part prison,/ Part panic closet, a lit­tle room in a house set aflame.” (Son­nets are of­ten com­pared to boxes; stanza is Ital­ian for room.) But they are aware of their own fu­til­ity: “It is not enough/To love you. It is not enough to want you de­stroyed.” Should we come to­gether? Burn ev­ery­thing to the ground? Both love and hate fail as strate­gies.

The idea of com­plic­ity runs through the book like a leit­mo­tif. One son­net notes: “Even the most kind­hearted white woman . . . may be­gin, al­most/ Care­lessly, to breathe n-words . . .When she drives alone . . . be­fore she can catch her­self.” Noth­ing is harm­less, Hayes sug­gests: “Of course,/After that, what is in­ward, is ab­sorbed.” Read­ing this as a white woman, I won­der if I’ve done that my­self. Then, two pages later, there’s a poem that con­tains the n-word sev­eral times over (al­beit with a slightly more ac­cept­able spelling vari­a­tion), and I am forced to say it, if only in the si­lence of my own head; in Amer­ica, I’m re­minded, par­tic­i­pat­ing in evil is un­avoid­able. (Hayes hates to hear him­self say it, too; a poem later in the book de­clares, “Noth­ing sad­dens me more.”) One of the most damn­ing son­nets uses litany and anaphora to great ef­fect, each ac­cusatory line be­gin­ning with “You don’t seem”:

You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it.

You don’t seem to want it, but you won’t ad­mit it.

You don’t seem to want ad­mit­tance. You don’t seem to want ad­mis­sion. You don’t seem to want it, but you haunt it.

You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted.

The pre­cise mean­ing of these lines changes de­pend­ing on who we imag­ine the poem is ad­dress­ing—Trump? Any Amer­i­can? The poet him­self?—but the gen­eral mean­ing is clear: it’s about com­plic­ity and de­nial. The turn comes, as in Shake­speare’s son­nets, just be­fore the last cou­plet, when Hayes sud­denly in­tro­duces African-Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar English in the twelfth line: “You don’t seem to pray but you full of prayers.” This has an as­ton­ish­ing ef­fect on the last line, which is iden­ti­cal, ver­ba­tim, to the sixth line, as above. Here’s the full fi­nal cou­plet: “You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it./ You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted.” The first time we read the line, we un­der­stand “haunted” as a verb in the past tense: You did haunt, you have haunted. The sec­ond time we read the line, we un­der­stand “haunted” as an ad­jec­tive, a past par­tici­ple: You are haunted. This rev­er­sal adds a new shade of mean­ing that deep­ens and dark­ens the poem. It’s like look­ing at the neg­a­tive of a pho­to­graph, how the faces grown un­canny and skull-like. In that first poem, full of the ghosts of Amer­i­can po­etry’s past, Hayes tells us that “Or­pheus was alone when he in­vented writ­ing.” The poem that be­gins the book’s sec­ond sec­tion brings in an­other white (and onanis­tic) ghost: “We sup­pose Ms. Dick­in­son is like the aban­doned/Lover of Or­pheus & too, that she loved to mas­tur­bate/Whis­per­ing lonely dark blue lul­la­bies to Death.” Dick­in­son, like Plath, is of­ten read through a bi­o­graph­i­cal lens—as a jilted lover and a woman de­nied due fame in her own time. She—Emily—wrote in the poem usu­ally num­bered 341, “After great pain, a for­mal feel­ing comes.” I thought of this line while read­ing these books. For many Amer­i­cans, it’s been a time of great pain. For oth­ers, the idea that life has got­ten sud­denly worse since the 2016 elec­tion is laugh­able. Per­haps cer­tain kinds of pain have just be­come more vis­i­ble. “We’re here for the time be­ing,” Stallings writes in Like’s first poem, pre­sum­ably re­fer­ring to Athens, and then, para­phras­ing a Greek proverb: “Noth­ing is more per­ma­nent than the tem­po­rary.” Hayes writes, “This coun­try is mine as much as an or­phan’s house is his.” He could mean both Amer­ica and the son­net. Stuck in tem­po­rary, haunted, in­hos­pitable hous­ing, you might de­cide to have fun, to in­habit it as fully as pos­si­ble for as long as you’re there.

A.E. Stallings, Athens, Greece, 2011

Ter­rance Hayes, Pitts­burgh, 2012

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