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Poem of the week: American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes | Books

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American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin

I only intend to send word to my future
Self perpetuation is a war against Time
Travel is essentially the aim of any religion
Is blindness the color one sees under water
Breath can be overshadowed in darkness
The benefits of blackness can seem radical
Black people in America are rarely compulsive
Hi-fivers believe joy is a matter of touching others
Is forbidden the only word God doesn’t know
You have to heal yourself to truly be heroic
You have to think once a day of killing your self
Awareness requires a touch of blindness & self
Importance is the only word God knows
To be free is to live because only the dead are slaves

Terrance Hayes began writing this innovative “crown” (or “corona”) of sonnets the day after Donald Trump was elected US president, and Trump himself is clearly among the company addressed. The crown of sonnets originated in the 15th century; more recently, the form was employed by Marilyn Nelson in her children’s book, A Wreath for Emmett Till. The crown is a daisy-chain-style connection, where the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. But Hayes does his own thing with the form, avoiding the above convention to find new unifying devices. First and most visibly, 78 of his 82 sonnets bear the same title (also, in the plural, the title of his collection), with the final four built from all the sonnets’ first lines in consecutive order. The result is ingenious.

In the collection, Hayes acknowledges the poet Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) with “tremendous gratitude” for the term American Sonnet, and quotes an interview in which she interestingly describes how she would set the form as a writing assignment. “When asked for a definition she called poems jazz sonnets ‘with certain properties—progression, improvisation, mimicry, etc,” he adds (Coleman’s American Sonnet 35 can be heard here) and concludes: “I decided to have fun — to blow my soul.”

The “volta” is a key component in his own renovation of sonnet form, and this week’s poem takes the technique to soul-blowing extremes. It’s is a constant unfurling of voltas – “turns” or double-takes – conjured by raising the power of syntax over punctuation. If any reader is, like me, tempted to look for a credo, the poem keeps warning us to hold on.

The political and emotional angle throughout Hayes’ collection is as subtly and variously registered as the face of the assassin. White aggressors are excoriated with fierce, alliterative wrath, but not every poem is single-mindedly wrathful: even the aggressor is permitted shades of guilt and “blindness”. Hayes’s long conversation with cherished Black writers and mentors turns some of these sonnets against their dedicatory “assassin” into praise poems. There seems to be more oppositional clarity in the poet’s concept of God. But to read this poem simply as an attack on religion would seem a rash judgement of a virtuoso performance that delights in pulling the hassock from under the reader’s knees.

But here are a few out of many possible – and obvious – questions. Is the poet sending word to “my future” or to “my future self”? Do we connect the first two words of line two as “self perpetuation”? Is “the war against Time” also a war against “Time/ Travel”, and perhaps a war against nostalgia? Is “blindness” or “time/ Travel (…) essentially the aim of any religion”?

Humorous, profound and biting aphorisms are almost flirtatious line-crossing interlopers: “Black people in America are rarely compulsive/ Hi-fivers”, or “to truly be heroic/ You have to think once a day of killing yourself”. The comfortable words of both scripture and self-help manual mingle but fail the sore wounds in the body politic: binaries fold into a surreally poetic question with no question mark: “Is blindness the color one sees under water.” God, briefly, seems pleasantly radicalised (“Is forbidden the only word God doesn’t know”), and then debunked. (“self/ Importance is the only word God knows.”)

The line-opening capital letters add impact. Understanding this sonnet is like crossing a dual carriageway, with many nervous, dizzying looks right and left as you timidly set out. But I suspect an intentionality behind certain lines, a wish for hard-learned wisdom; not one attained by merely flowing by, like water or traffic.

Time has passed since Hayes’ American Sonnets were conceived: Trump’s era, we hope, is done with. But the sonnets are ageless and current. Our time is living there, too. It’s impossible not to see the death of George Floyd foretold among the multiple allusions gathered in line five of this week’s poem: “Breath can be overshadowed in darkness.” And there’s the final, heart-stopping line which settles and holds against all ensuing silence: “… God knows/ To be free is to live because only the dead are slaves”.

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