The title of Terrance Hayes’s new book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, provokes a series of questions: Sonnets? Why? What makes them American? Past and future, but not present? How? And most pressingly, who is out to kill beloved poet Terrance Hayes?
The last question might be easiest to answer. One of the abiding images in this collection of nearly eighty sonnets (all of which share the collection’s title) is that of the black body, so often consumed, caricatured, and recycled by the American artistic and literary idiom it’s helped to create. The culture in which these “American Sonnets” exist could itself be the assassin. Here is some of Hayes’s biting testimony, from the thirteenth in the sequence:
The earth of my nigga eyes are assassinated.
The deep well of my nigga throat is assassinated.
The tender bells of my nigga testicles are gone.
You assassinate the sound of our bullshit & blissfulness.
The bones managing the body’s business are cloaked
Until you assassinate my nigga flesh. The skin is replaced
By a cloak of fire. Sometimes it is river or rainwater
That cloaks the bones. Sometimes we lie on the roadside
In bushels of knotted roots, flowers and thorns until our body
Is found. You assassinate the smell of my breath, which is like
Smoke, milk, twilight itself. You assassinate my tongue
Which is like the head of a turtle wearing my skull for a shell.
You assassinate my lovely legs and the muscular hook of my cock . . .
If the assassin is, in one sense, the reader, why then “past and future?” The poem’s last line helps to clarify:
Still, I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.
There’s an element of Faulkner here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Pound, too, whose Cantos show how all cultures and history can exist simultaneously in the poetic imagination, eliding the present: “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage / Whose world, or mine or theirs or is it of none?” This isn’t mere poetry: Hayes has stood witness to our culture, learned from its history, and now brings the full force of his poetic intelligence to bear upon it.
And these truly are “American” sonnets; subverting our Puritan heritage, Hayes “locks” his reader in close proximity to sex, so that these poems are “part prison / Part panic closet . . .” Hayes opens the fifteenth sonnet with an assumption that I, at least, had yet to make, that Emily Dickinson “loved to masturbate.” This is a natural preoccupation; the sonnet is traditionally concerned with eros and the psychology of desire. The poem moves from Dickinson to Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow” to some “bear in a deep image poem.” In all cases, the subject—poet, saint, bear—brings what it touches—pig, salmon, self—to ecstasy. When Hayes’s speaker conflates sex and death, he’s not exactly plowing new ground: orgasm as la petite mort has been played to the point of cliché. But his language makes it seem almost fresh, and new: “The fish convulse like the flesh flooded with blood / And the dark blue crush of touching yourself to death.”
These serious little songs are colored by the racial and political context of our time, our anxious vacillation between online activism and lived apathy: “I ain’t mad at you, / Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave / I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid.” Binaries—courage and fear, sex and death, good and bad, past and future—inhabit many of these poems, because Hayes deals in facts that shouldn’t bear repeating, but desperately do. He enacts this in several poems; the ninth in the sequence literally repeats itself: “You don’t seem to want it, but you wanted it / . . . You don’t seem to get it, but you got it.” It’s a poem of essential truths, buttressed by contradiction, that near-anaphoric “You don’t . . . but you do . . .” The last line repeats the sixth: “You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted.” The second time the line appears, it rings like a hammer blow, that dull, insistent final “d” sound like a coming headache.
Absent any real formal variation, the book drags toward the end. The sixtieth sonnet is a list of things done, each line after the first beginning with the words “I was.” A few lines are refreshingly quotidian: “I was chopping wood out back / . . . I was smoking below the boat deck / . . . I was on the toilet with a magazine,” but others trouble the limits of poetic imagination: “I was out driving around the stars / . . . I was practicing the trumpet while drowning.” Juxtapositions of the abstract and the everyday are sometimes revealing, of course, but here they seem contrived, dreams described without analysis. Another begins musically: “Over-aged, over grave, overlooked brother / Seeks adjoining variable female structure.” There’s the setup: man seeks woman. But the eleventh and twelfth lines: “Must be willing to raise orchids / Or kids . . .” is a cheap pun for a poet usually so aware of the weight of his words, their music and meanings. Or this image from the book’s final poem: “The orchid’s / Mouth is the shade of pussy.” Maybe Hayes should avoid writing about orchids altogether.
Still, there’s abundant craft on display throughout the collection, especially when Hayes attacks the political present. One poem begins with a list of literal assassins, killers of black men, women, children, and civil rights leaders—it helps to remember that assassination is an inherently political act. From James Earl Ray, John Wilkes Booth, and Dylann Roof, the poem moves into brilliant oratory:
Love trumps power or blood to trump power
Beauty trumps power or blood to trump power
Justice trumps power or blood to trump power
The names are alive like the names in the graves
That incantation, “trumps beauty or blood to trump power,” is pure pyrotechnics. Hayes’s speaker is preaching, his language possessed of a fire and syncopation that makes for marvelous reading. This is spellcasting against “Trump power,” against the vitriol of the sociopolitical present that’s long stewed in our cultural conscience. Of course, the political is little more than the accumulation of millions of individual experiences, humiliations, triumphs, and frustration at the yet-to-be achieved. Hayes’s speaker wears these experiences openly, but is skeptical of the poet’s ability to enact change. The lines “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues” from the first sonnet are addressed near the close of the collection, when Hayes’s speaker, addressing his “assassin” as “friend,” “brother,” “sweetness,” and, finally, “heart,” admits to the self-erasing that makes up so much of the poetic endeavor: “Poor, ragged Heart, blind, savage / Heart, I’ve almost grown tired of talking to you.” We are just as much our own assassin as any stranger with a gun. But Hayes’s speaker won’t go quietly; he’s almost tired of talking, not all the way there. If this book’s 1,148 uneven but often stunning lines prove anything, it’s that the threat of hate, the hope for personal redemption, and the possibility for reconciliation can be as much alive in art as they are in the culture that creates it. With American Sonnets, Hayes has made agile and intelligent poetry of our culture’s facts, failures and potential, a painfully honest record of contemporary American life.