“a box of darkness with a bird in its heart”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

4 of 100: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018, Penguin Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I write sonnets more than any other form. They’re perfect little containers, as far as I’m concerned, so when I heard Terrance Hayes talking in interviews about this book when it was forthcoming, I knew I’d grab it up. And as someone disgusted and distraught by the mess behind the desk in the Oval Office, its subject matter appealed to me, as well. None of that appeal — form, topic — prepared me for the brilliance of this book.
  • Technically, this front-to-back reading is a revisiting this book for me. When I first got it — and since it’s been on my shelf — I’ve flipped through several times, reading random poems. Between that and encountering the poems in journals, I was familiar with probably about 25% of the work in the book. The cover-to-cover reading — the megapoem, as they say — reveals the collection’s incredible depth and makes clear how the narrator’s experience plays out across time, how the grief and frustration accumulates (past) and how the anticipation of its continuance (future) exhausts.
  • Like the narrator in Carmen Gimenez-Smith’s Be Recorder, the voice in this book documents a painful past, a painful present and a painfully redundant future. It positions us in this time and in time itself. The repetition of themes/lines throughout appropriately creates echoes that force us to reconcile the following: this isn’t the first we’re hearing of these experiences and yet what has changed? And what will change tomorrow? Anything?

Lines I want to remember:

  • “As if a bird / Could grow without breaking its shell.”
  • “I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat / Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone. / … As the crow / You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night / In the shadows of the gym. / … 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.”
  • “Our warriors, weirdos, antiheroes, our sirs, / Sires, our sighers, sidewinders & whiners, winos, / And wonders become dust. I know a few of the dead. / I remember my sister’s last hoorah. I remember / The horror of her head on a pillow.”
  • “Like no / Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants / Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists. / May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents / Of Midas. I wish you the opposite of what Neruda said / Of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.”
  • “I believe / 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.”
  • “I ain’t made at you, / Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave / I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid.”

What the back of the book says:

  •  “In seventy poems bearing the same title, Terrance Hayes explores the meanings of American, of assassin, and of love in the sonnet form. Written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, these poems are haunted by the country’s past and future eras and errors, its dreams and nightmares. Inventive, compassionate, hilarious, melancholy, and bewildered — the wonders of this new collection are irreducible and stunning.”

What others have said:

  • New York Times: “Sonnets that reckon with Donald Trump’s America” / “In his new book, he set himself the challenge of writing political poems in the guise of love poems. Each one is distinct: Some are sermons, some are swoons. They are acrid with tear gas, and they unravel with desire. In some poems, the assassin of the title is that most prolific killer of all, time itself. Others address Donald Trump directly — ‘Mister Trumpet,’ ‘Humpty-Dumpty, ‘failed landlord with a people of color/Complex.'”
  • The New Yorker: “The sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.” / “The conflict between flight and confinement is built into the form he has chosen.” / “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse.”
  • Los Angeles Times: “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.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!


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