American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is the title of a poetry collection, the title of each sonnet that appears in the collection, a political statement and a riddle. What is an American sonnet and who is the assassin, Terrance Hayes asks. And why would anyone want to write their assassin a love poem?
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin RandomHouse 2018)
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here.
Ye Olde Sonnet
The sonnet originated in Italy during the 13th century. The little song was popularized by Petrarch before being co-opted by Shakespeare in the 17th century. For those of us who were educated in the Anglophone world, you may have traumatic memories of parsing the Shakespearean sonnet.
A sonnet is typically a love poem, an ode, praises in verse to that special someone or something. The form requirements are rigid: 14 lines in iambic pentameter (da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM) with a repeating rhyme scheme (say, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). It sounds like something an old dead white guy would write. So why does a hip and happening Black man like Hayes choose to write inside such a tight fitting box?
Every sonnet consists of a proposition and a resolution. The first part is a proposition that poses a question or problem. Between proposition and resolution, we find the volta or sudden turn, a new argument that can change our perspective.
[…]From: I lock you in an American sonnet
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.
An American sonnet
According to Hayes, the volta is what makes a sonnet implicitly American: the ability to change your mind, the willingness to change your course. The subject matter of his poems is, of course, largely rooted in the American experience. They were written in direct response to the election of Donald Trump as the US president in 2016. Is he the titular Assassin?
On some level, I’m always full of Girl Scout cookies
In the land of a failed landlord with a people of color
If every sonnet were addressed to the current resident of the White House, Hayes’ collection would be little more than a rant. But this collection is far more complex than that. Hayes speaks, among many other topics, about being Black in America today.
It feels sadder when a black person says Nigga
Because it sounds like Nigger. It feels sadder
When a brother or sister says Nigga because
It sounds like Nigger. I have never heard either
Word in the mouth of my mother or father.
This wouldn’t be a proper sonnet collection if Hayes had not included some true love poems. To the women in his life, old and young, real and imagined.
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.
Hayes sings of his heroes: Maxine Waters, James Baldwin, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. And to his antiheroes, too.
I pour a pinch of serious poison for you
James Earl Ray Dylann Roof I pour a punch of piss
For you George Zimmerman John Wilkes Booth
Robert Chambliss Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr
Bobby Frank Cheer Herman Frank Cash your name
Is a gate opening upon another gate I pour a punch
Of perils I pour a bunch of punches all over you
I pour unmerciful panic into your river I damn you
With the opposite of prayer
This is a sonnet written for the 21st century. Rather than iambic pentameter, listen for a jazz bass line. Look for the rhymes flying free from the ends of lines. Take these words into your mouth and roll them around like cool marbles. Now, sing.
2 Nov 2020 | Karen Kao