American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
By Terrance Hayes
(Penguin Poets, 112pp., $18.00)
By Charles Martin
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 88pp., $19.95)
Monument: Poems New and Selected
By Natasha Trethewey
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208pp., $26.00)
In the old story, a king summons an artist to his court and commissions a painting of his favorite bird, the rooster. The artist requests a year in which to complete the work. At the end of the allotted year, the king visits the artist’s home and asks for the painting. The artist produces a blank canvas and, on the spot, paints a perfect likeness of a rooster. The king demands to know why the artist asked for so much time and money when he was able to complete the painting in mere moments. By way of answer, the artist leads the king to his studio, which is littered, floor to ceiling, with paintings of roosters. One of the story’s morals is that it takes long practice to do good work quickly. In his poetry collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes has not exactly painted a rooster (and he has certainly not done so at the bidding of any king), but like the painter in the story, he has done good work, and quickly.
In promotional material for American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Penguin Random House boasts that Hayes wrote the entirety of the book, which comprises 70 sonnets, within the first 200 days of the Trump presidency. That is more than one sonnet every three days. Or, rather, that is more than one publishable sonnet every three days, meaning that if Hayes wrote, say, a sonnet a day, then not only was he drafting over five books’ worth of raw sonnets a year but, in terms of quality, he was batting .350. Nearly all press coverage of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has passed along Penguin’s line about the speed of composition, but for the most part reviews have focused on neither the conditions nor the tradition in which the book was made. Rather, they have taken as their chief concern the book’s political argument, which is trenchant and entertaining and unmistakable in tone. Still, I wonder if this has not been a mistake. To paraphrase A. E. Stallings—like Hayes a poet and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow—sometimes questions of form disguise themselves as questions of content.
Of Western poetic forms, none perhaps has proved friendlier to adaptation than the sonnet. From the Old Provençal poets to Dante and Petrarch and Wyatt and Spenser and Shakespeare and Donne and Keats and Meredith and Gerald Stern and Ted Berrigan and Wanda Coleman and Claudia Emerson—to trace just one loose Italo-Anglo-American line of descent—the sonnet has several times changed its rhyme scheme and meter and rhetorical shape and even line count, all while retaining its essential appeal. Today, in the era of de rigueur free verse, the sonnet most often reveals itself by its characteristic length of 14 lines. Such is the case in Hayes’ book. But while Hayes forgoes the traditional rhyme and meter and volta, he also introduces a new formal constraint—beyond, that is, his harrowing production schedule.
Every poem in the book is titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” This choice imposes a constraint not on the poems’ composition but on their interpretation, inviting one continually to ponder certain themes, both hidden and overt, of the book and of the individual sonnets. Even standing alone, the title is something of a puzzle. To the casual reader, for example, the coincidence of the adjectives “Past” and “Future” might suggest that either “My” or “Assassin” is intended figuratively, if not both. But what Hayes means by all these terms becomes somewhat clearer as one reads the sonnets themselves.
In an early entry, Hayes provides a roll call of men he explicitly labels “Assassins.” The list includes both those who killed public leaders, such as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, and those who killed private citizens, some of them children, such as Addie Mae Collins, Trayvon Martin, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Emmett Till, and Cynthia Wesley. Hayes thus takes a word most often applied to those who murder major figures and uses it to elevate posthumously all victims of violence motivated (directly or indirectly) by racial animosity to the status of presidents and public orators. In so doing, he has also suggested that while he means “Assassin” quite literally, he is perhaps using “My” with a more historically inclusive meaning. He says as much with more directness in a later sonnet: “I speak for the dead. You will never assassinate my ghosts.”
Elsewhere in the book, the definition of “Assassin” also seems to stretch, possibly beyond the tensile limits of the title’s conceit. In one sonnet, Hayes writes “I carry money bearing / The face of my assassins,” a clear reference to the presidents and other major historical figures who appear on U.S. currency. Of course, some of these characters, like Thomas Jefferson, whom Hayes takes to task in at least one other poem, personally owned slaves and even fathered children with them. Others, like Alexander Hamilton, who opposed slavery personally and politically, nonetheless made certain accommodations with the promoters of slavery, among these signing the U.S. Constitution, which includes the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, whereby, for purposes of calculating legislative representation in slave-holding states, the census was to count each slave as three-fifths of a resident. One imagines Hayes could here be using “Assassin” to mean not exclusively ‘one who kills for reasons of racial hatred’ but rather something like ‘one who, for any reason, inflicts suffering with disproportionate racial effects.’ This latter definition is certainly more consistent with lines toward the end of the book in which Hayes offers his nemesis the dubious reassurance “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.” Of course, in the same poem, the speaker also refers to himself as an assassin, a claim he repeats later in the book: “Assassin, you are a mystery / To me, I say to my reflection sometimes.” In another poem, he even refers to America as “a land of assassins.”
Tracing the widening gyre of Hayes’ imputations, one is reminded of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of Camus’ The Fall, whose ethical philosophy—a kind of atheistic Calvinism—places every person who has ever lived on the hook for the suffering of every other person who has ever lived. For some readers, the effect of such a panoramic moral accounting may be divided between awe at the scope of the grief (“I remember my sister’s last hoorah. / She joined all the black people I’m tired of losing”) and weariness at the diffuseness of the complaint (“Something happens everywhere in this country / Every day”).
Upon first hearing the title of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, I was reminded of Jericho Brown’s recently celebrated polemic, “Bullet Points,” which promises the reader “if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me.” In contrast to Brown’s laser-sight specificity, the floodlight Hayes casts on racial injustice sometimes grows so broad as to wash out the searing brightness of his best poems. But American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is, in the end, neither a stepwise philosophical argument nor a harmonious aesthetic whole. Instead it is, like most poetry collections, a miscellany—even if this is a miscellany in which all of the poems have the same title as one another, the same title as the book, the same number of lines, and were composed within President Trump’s first 200 days in office. A number of the sonnets are addressed to Trump himself, or to his supporters, but—as with the poems that consider various definitions of “Assassin”—these have little else to do with one another and for the most part do not represent the best work in the book.
Certain loaded phrases appear again and again throughout American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, sometimes in different forms, among them the vague but evocative claim “all our encounters are existential / Jambalaya” and the slightly more ponderous assertion “But there was never a black male hysteria.” To my ear, at least, these repetitions have the chime not of refrain but of revision. For this and other reasons, Hayes’ book prompted me, while preparing this review, to reread Shakespeare’s sonnets. As always the experience was double-edged. First, and most obviously, when Shakespeare is good (say, 1–5, 15, 25, 29, 30, 60, 71, 74, 102, 106, 130) he is unbelievably good, and when he is at his best (18, 73, 116) literally no one is better. But I was also reminded of how spotty the sonnets are as a whole. Shakespeare frequently recycles rhymes and phrases, seldom to exceptional effect. He tries out the same images and conceits in poem after poem, as if hoping to learn where they might land best. He is more often middling than good, and when he is bad, he is wretched (consider 44, 45, and 46). But a poet’s worth is determined by his best writing, not his worst, so it takes nothing from Shakespeare’s reputation to say he wrote a lot of bad poems, and far fewer great ones. Likewise, it is no insult to Hayes to acknowledge that most of the poems in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin are very bad. To his credit, he wrote his sonnets much faster than Shakespeare did his.
And as with any collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin should be judged by the best poems it has to offer. By my lights, there are three of note. One is the first in the book. A meditation on history that begins with misgivings about the place of black poets in American poetry—identifying a common legacy of pathos and self-destruction that transcends race without erasing it—and ends with an image of Orpheus inventing the written word: “he sent / His beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it. / He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant / I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that, too.”
The next standout has even less to do with the titular “Assassin” than the first. A lovelorn blason set in the form of an online personal ad, it uses 21st-century slang with a vigor and virtuosity that recall the vocal ingenuity of Paul Laurence Dunbar:
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. Must ride shotgun pouring fountains
Of bass upon the landscape. Must be fat-assed, fearless,
And God-fearing, an ancestral insurgent, clean
As new money, a cryptographer, a storyteller,
A glossy sleeve…
As with The Giving Tree, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, this sonnet’s power does not come from any suggestion about how we ought to live. (I cannot, to that point, think of a tag more sinus-clearingly misogynistic than “sleeve.”) It comes instead from a truthful depiction of how we do live, and in this case, how we love: “Amid twilight / Verbiage in parking lots smelling of live wire, liquor / Hot air & fire: accompany a brother.”
The third exceptional sonnet to appear in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is the best of the three. A naked consideration of racially-motivated violence, it links a personal experience of schoolyard bullying to a greater history of institutional violence and does so with a startling compassion for all involved:
Later the white boy we once beat like a drum
Died after crashing his Camaro around a bend
Off Shop Road. He was an asshole. Ask the baby
Black boys he bullied at Robert E. Lee Middle School
Where the Robert E. Lee statue was painted white
So often over the years it looked like someone
Covered in a sheet of glue. I would not have liked
To attend a middle school named after Emmett Till
Or for that matter, any murdered black person.
When I was the age of Emmett Till, I reckoned
MLK was an old man at the age he was killed.
I am old enough now to know the drum, though beaten
Is not an instrument of violence. Nor is a banjo
Or whistle. I’m sorry I missed that white boy’s funeral.
No poet could produce in 200 days a book as rich in image, rhythm, metaphor, and wordplay as American Sonnets to My Past and Future Assassin without a rare talent. As with the roomful of rooster paintings in the old story, all of the poems in this collection are evidence of Terrance Hayes’ abundant gifts, even if only a handful are fit for a king.
* * *
Except for currently being alive, Charles Martin is not a poet of our time. If tasked with characterizing the strains of poetry dominant in America at this particular moment, I would identify (1.) performative political activism, (2.) Vaseline-lensed autobiography, and (3.) self-conscious formal experimentation, and I would add that these three tendencies often overlap. In his new book, Future Perfect, Charles Martin indulges in none of them. Instead, his poems are largely given to sifting through the past, as through the “papyrus heap” that begins the lengthy treatment of Ovid set at the collection’s center. In all, Future Perfect contains 21 poems. Seven are translations or imitations of existing texts. Of the remaining 14, one is a reimagining of the Eden story, one is titled “Variations on a Theme by Martial,” one is a reimagining of the Narcissus story, one is a dramatic monologue based on historical accounts of Anna Akhmatova’s meeting with Robert Frost, one is a reimagining of the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, and five are reimaginings of the life of Weldon Kees, inspired partly by Kees’ own Robinson poems. Setting aside the usual quotations and allusions, that leaves only four poems written on what one might think to call ‘original’ subjects. All this arithmetic only shows off Martin’s confidence and humility. (Few humans possess both, few poets either.) The best evidence of the man’s virtues, though, is the manner in which he addresses his subjects. Having Englished Catullus’ complete poems, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the Bhagavad Gita, Martin is unquestionably a good steward to dead writers, but he is also an excellent host to living readers.
After an epigraphically brief rendering from Petronius, Future Perfect begins with a sonnet. Typically, for a Martin poem, the description is spare, the speech plain, the clauses hypotactic:
When We Had It All
Our automobiles learned how to drive themselves
To our supermarkets, where the shelves
Would be restocked as soon as they went bare.
In those days, our lives were free of care;
Though limbs and organs may have atrophied,
None of us ever suffered from a need
That went unanswered by some prompt device;
Our refrigerators made their own ice!
Now, in the absence of all that, we crave,
As we’d been taught to. Some of us still wave
Those plastic cards we used to buy our stuff,
When all we had was never quite enough.
Useless, though we crave still—not what we’ve bought,
No, never that. That gets no further thought.
The title prepares us for a nostalgic tour of good times past, but the first line swiftly reorients us, setting this lost heyday in our present, or even our near future. The poem is a satirical treatment of our current circumstances, and Martin uses its form to good effect. He passes up all of the sonnet’s traditional rhyme schemes and replaces them with couplets, so that—as with the needs of the poem’s impatient consumers—every rhyme is answered as soon as it appears. This scheme, of course, does not break the poem into just two sonic units, but Martin puts white space between the eighth and ninth lines anyway and places his volta there, calling to mind the Italian sonnet’s conventional division into octave and sestet. Tradition assigns to the octave the articulation of a problem and to the sestet the expression of an answer or consolation. Built into this structure is the inadequacy of the six-line consolation to the eight-line problem. In Martin’s sonnet, this order is apparently inverted, with the good old days recounted in the octave and the disappointing present in the sestet. But if the joy of the past was having one’s desires satisfied without delay, the pain of the present is losing the satisfaction while retaining the desire. So, the terrible (six-line) problem is really just an abbreviation of the original (eight-line) consolation. The concealment of formal sophistication by a simple, almost homespun presentation is, like so much in this poem, characteristic of Martin’s great skill.
“When We Had It All” is one of the four original poems in Future Perfect. And although a work of notable accomplishment, it is far from Martin’s best. I suspect this is because, being original, it relies on original argumentation, which is not one of Martin’s strengths. Naturally, he is a reframer, a restorer, a rediscoverer of lost treasure. “When We Had It All” ends with a quip: “…we crave—not what we’ve bought, / No, never that. That gets no further thought.” Like most lyric observations, this thought is far from new. It is, though, both on-topic and well-put. Why, then, does it fall so flat? Because it does not follow. The poem’s speaker is looking back from a time of scarcity to one of abundance. (Seven lean cows remembering seven fat.) The problem Martin identifies in the last couplet—that in a consumer culture, one’s attention is drawn ever forward to the next acquisition and away from all that one already possesses—is a genuine problem. But according to the poem’s own structural logic, it is a problem that belongs to the octave, not the sestet. A more appropriate closing note would be, say, the recollection in the starving present of some object from the glutted past—an object of pleasure previously taken for granted or even disdained, a pleasure that would, if only it were now at hand, be prized beyond imagining. Horace’s Caecuban wine, Housman’s “garland briefer than a girls’,” Hecht’s “Two little woolly birds,” or something in that neighborhood. Of course, the poem is Martin’s, and the end belongs to him alone. But this is my point, which I make not as a criticism but as an exacting appreciation. Martin’s peculiar talent yields far greater results from others’ investments than it ever does from Martin’s own.
Later in Future Perfect, Martin assumes the voice of Anna Akhmatova, addressing Robert Frost during a Soviet-supervised meeting between the two elderly poets at the end of their lives. Set free by the confines of a borrowed voice, Martin writes of Akhmatova’s poems with startling force and feeling:
“Some still exist, others have been burned
By ‘the responsible organs of the state,’ or
Were copied out and given to be learned
By those who could be executed, later.
You’ve always had the freedom to make free,
And yet you write, as though somehow you hadn’t:
‘The strong are saying nothing till they see.’ [sic]
But over here the strong are always prudent,
For long ago the strong learned not to speak
Until the strongest raised his hand and voted.
Theirs is a concentration that the weak,
Whose speech may be ignored as it is noted,
Can somehow never manage to achieve.
The weak are free in their own estimation
And may smile back at smiles meant to deceive,
Or note the censure in the long ovation…
But here we are, two poets of our time,
Each one a cipher, really, to the other.
Two old people, practitioners of rhyme,
Sitting in our wicker chairs together—
Perhaps we’re not that unalike at all:
The curtain that so long ago ascended
On our age is now about to fall
After the toasts and banquets have all ended…”
This middle portion of “Letter from Komarovo, 1962” is all the more heartbreaking for being set in quotation marks, as a hypothetical speech Akhmatova proposes when writing to a friend, a speech that, being in the company of Party representatives, she could never actually have made to Frost himself.
When I say that Martin’s abilities favor the expression of old thoughts with new words, I do not mean to imply that lines like those above were somehow reproduced by rote or merely (to use the unctuous term favored by practitioners of Concrete Poetry) ‘massaged.’ As far as I know—instructed as I am by Martin’s note on the poem’s historical context—there is no direct source for “Letter from Komarovo, 1962.” The structure and the imagery are Martin’s own. I only note that the historical subject and perspective provide the type of shape around which Martin’s gifts are best revealed—like the rebar cage that skeletons a concrete pillar.
Martin’s direct translations likewise go beyond mere clerical versification. Anyone who has seriously attempted such work knows that even the most faithful translation requires more or less the new construction of a self-sufficient poem. The biggest differences between writing original poetry and writing translated poetry are (1.) writing original poetry does not require knowing a foreign language, (2.) writing translated poetry does not require starting from scratch, and (3.) when you publish an original poem, no one will write an angry e-mail informing you that you have mangled it. The trial of translation is not slighter than the trial of original composition, it is just different. And it is the crucible in which Martin’s talent burns brightest.
So it should be no surprise that the most affecting piece in Future Perfect is a speech brought over from Euripides’ Medea. In it, a messenger describes the horrifying effects of Medea’s vengeful wedding gifts on her ex-husband’s new bride: a beautiful gown and tiara, both drenched in poison. The messenger tries to impress on Medea the gravity of her actions, framing his story with compassion and moral horror. Medea, though, is giddy at the news of her rival’s fate and relishes every awful detail. The speech is filled with the verbal carnage one expects from a tradition that abstained from onstage violence, but Martin grounds the nightmarish spectacle always in the experience of the human beings inhabiting it, and chiefly in those of the doomed bride and her father:
….. But when her father, who had not yet heard
Of the calamity that had occurred,
Came in and stumbled on her without warning,
He clasped her body in a last embrace,
And as he kissed her desolated face,
Maddened by grief, cried out these words of mourning:
“O my unlucky darling, my poor dear,
Which of the gods has treated you this way,
Has shamed you like this on your wedding day?
I am bereft, a walking sepulcher!
O daughter, daughter, let me die with you!”
But when his lamentation had at last
Ended and the king attempted to
Lift his aged body to his feet once more,
He found himself stuck to the gown, held fast
By the subtle stuff that drew him toward the floor,
Clinging to him as ivy clings to bay.
He struggled, but he couldn’t get away.
Note the contrast between the formal modesty of the messenger’s speech and the stilted loftiness of the king’s, paradoxically showing with words the inadequacy of words in the face of death. In the king’s speech, note particularly Martin’s choice of the word “shamed,” which by diminishing and misattributing Medea’s crime against the princess both betrays the king’s shattered expectations and, in prompting our resistance, confronts us again with the unspeakable nature of the loss. Note the line break that splits the infinitive “to / Lift” and thus enacts the king’s insulted discovery of his sudden incapacitation. Note the understatement of the phrase “subtle stuff,” which conveys both the deep learning that allows Medea to employ such devices and the innocuous appearance of these devices to the uninitiated. To say nothing of the translation of the whole speech into rhyming pentameter, which is so far from tripping up the sense or sentiment of the original that I stopped noticing it except where it provided special emphasis, as in the lines, “They lie there side by side / In death, an agèd father, a young bride.” The diction is so simple here, the syntax so inevitable, that, if he were not careful, a casual reader might mistake Martin’s high art for humble craft. Subtle stuff, indeed.
* * *
For evidence of Natasha Trethewey’s capacity to entertain, one need only look to a short poem called “Flounder,” which appears in the first section of her latest book, Monument: Poems New and Selected. The poem is about fishing with her aunt, and in it Trethewey evokes with wit, verve, and jaunty music the cognitive strain of growing up biracial in the Deep South, then closes with a smart, unsettling metaphor:
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
‘cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.
The lines are short, the images are clear, the sentences are to the point. The story is easy to follow, and the subtext is impossible to miss. The poem appeared in Trethewey’s 2000 debut, Domestic Work, and had she wished to, she could easily have written poems of just this sort for the rest of her career, and delighted many readers along the way.
But beginning two years later, with 2002’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, one sees a new tendency begin to dominate her work. In these poems about New Orleans prostitutes and the men who frequent them, pure physical description takes a larger place on the page. From one angle, this is perfectly natural. E. J. Bellocq was a photographer, and his portraits of Storyville women provide the occasion for this book, much of which is straightforward ekphrasis. But this shift of emphasis, from lyric to exposition, introduces a more lasting change in Trethewey’s poetic style. Here is “Spectrum,” one of a series of unrhymed sonnets that make up the long, loosely narrative poem “Storyville Diary”:
No sun, and the city’s a dull palette
of gray—weathered ships docked at the quay, rats
dozing in the hull, drizzle slicking dark stones
of the streets. Mornings such as these, I walk
among the weary, their eyes sunken
as if each body, diseased and dying,
would pull itself inside, back to the shining
center. In the cemetery, all the rest,
their resolute bones stacked against the pull
of the Gulf. Here, another world teems—flies
buzzing the meat-stand, cockroaches crisscrossing
the banquette, the curve and flex of larvae
in the cisterns, and mosquitoes skimming
flat water like skaters on a frozen pond.
This snapshot of the city is skillful and bracing, bringing to mind Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower.” It also shows off some syntactical idiosyncrasies that, in the years to come, appear more and more often in Trethewey’s work. First, her sentences get longer; the shortest in this short poem spans three lines. Second, she more often omits the verb to be, as she does in two of this poem’s four sentences (the first being compound). Third, she adopts a peculiar grammatical pattern: a short independent clause followed by a long absolute phrase. She uses this construction in three of the poem’s four sentences. (The only reason I cannot say she uses it in all four sentences is that in the third sentence she also omits the verb to be.)
These choices have a palpable effect. They slow down the process of reading. They supplant rational claims with physical reality. They add weight—in all directions. The poems that use the tactics cited above are heavier, thicker, and—some might argue—richer than the poems one finds in Trethewey’s first book. And speaking for myself, I also find my easy pleasure is disturbed. I have to focus slightly harder to follow the argument. I am more likely to become distracted, and then I am more likely to have to think consciously about what it is I am reading. In one sense, I feel less like I am reading a book of poems and more like I am attending a poetry reading. As if to signal that this effect is no accident, Trethewey includes in “Letter Home,” the second poem in Bellocq’s Ophelia, a digression that reads as either an apologia or a self-deprecatory Easter egg. In 1910, a young woman writes home to tell her family about her first four weeks in New Orleans, most of that time spent searching for work. When she reminisces about her education, her memory of learning to read sounds curiously like a description of Trethewey’s own, widely noted, sometimes lampooned reading style:
………. …my schooling a gift—even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J—. How
I’d come to know words, the recitations I practiced
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends.
The epistler goes on to recount the value of such mimicry and repetition in her life beyond the schoolroom, suggesting that, for her, book-learning is a discipline that lives in the body and cannot simply be put down once the lesson is finished:
…………………………………. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth.
When Trethewey’s poems grow self-aware, one can almost hear the ghost of Bertold Brecht, setting the vice of aesthetic immersion against the virtue of aesthetic confrontation:
The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.
The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop –The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.
trans. John Willett
Brecht wished to alienate his audience from the story at hand, to shock them into assessing it objectively. I do not presume to know Trethewey’s intention, but at times the effect of her poetic style is to keep her readers at arm’s length, using structural tedium and indeterminacy to nudge us into reckoning with the reason for the poem’s existence, rather than merely nodding our heads to the beat.
In Trethewey’s later collections, the Short-Independent-Clause + Long-Absolute-Phrase formula persists. There are variations involving appositive phrases or subordinate clauses, but the pattern rarely abates. The poems can almost seem to be made up of small orienting statements glittering in a sea of roaming participles, rootless images, and oblique attributions. One cannot read them passively and expect to understand them. Consider a set of (typically Southern) disorienting driving directions excerpted from “Theories of Time and Space,” the first poem in 2007’s Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Native Guard:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on the mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry—tome of memory,
its random blank pages.
The first sentence consists of an independent clause followed by an absolute phrase, the next three of an independent clause followed by an appositive phrase. These phrases work on the attention like standing water on bald tires. It is not that Trethewey does not want us to follow the course of her poems, not exactly. It is just that she does not want the process to be effortless.
This difficulty serves a function, as one finds if one tries to tamper with the poems’ structure. “Invocation, 1926,” from 2014’s Congregation, is a long poem mostly consisting of subordinate clauses that start with “How.” Of its 37 lines, only six contain independent clauses: “…they went… / I saw the girl… / bless those hands… / Bless the travelers… / Bless the laborers… / bless us…” Reduced to these few statements and imperatives, the poem takes on an eerie elegiac quality. But something is missing, and more than just the identifying details that fill the gaps between the paired predicates and (sometimes implied) subjects. Missing also is the experience Trethewey designed for the reader—the mile markers ticking off the minutes of one’s life, the weight of specificity felt in the mouth. Throughout nearly all of Monument, Trethewey sticks to her program of declarative paucity and overmastering description. Her chosen subjects—historical injustice, racially-motivated violence, personal tragedy—bear up well under the burden of this strategy. These are matters that should not be taken lightly. And Trethewey ensures that, within her poems, they cannot be.
Even so, from time to time she seems unable to resist returning to a less sophisticated mode, one that evokes pain while causing pleasure. She performs this feat nowhere more perfectly than in “Genus Narcissus,” a poem from Native Guard (to which she pins a fitting epigraph from Robert Herrick, that old Greek in English clothing). Despite being set in free verse, “Genus Narcissus” is a poem planted squarely in the shadow of the old canon, taking its subject from classical myth, nodding dutifully to such antecedents as Wordsworth and Housman, and bearing sentiments suited to an ancient model of the lyric. It is Trethewey’s least radical poem, if by radical (from the Latin radix) we mean changed from the root up, leaving no trace of what came before. There is nothing lyrically or politically new about “Genus Narcissus.” It is a sad, pretty poem in which flowers represent life’s fleeting joys. Anyone can understand it without need of explanation. Yet no one but Trethewey could have written it:
The road I walked home from school
was dense with trees and shadow, creek-side,
and lit by yellow daffodils, early blossoms
bright against winter’s last gray days.
I must have known they grew wild, thought
no harm in taking them. So I did—
gathering up as many as I could hold,
then presenting them, in a jar, to my mother.
She put them on the sill, and I sat nearby
watching light bend through the glass,
day easing into evening, proud of myself
for giving my mother some small thing.
Childish vanity. I must have seen in them
some measure of myself—the slender stems,
each blossom a head lifted up
toward praise, or bowed to meet its reflection.
Walking home those years ago, I knew nothing
of Narcissus or the daffodils’ short spring—
how they’d dry like graveside flowers, rustling
when the wind blew—a whisper, treacherous,
from the sill. Be taken with yourself,
they said to me; Die early, to my mother.
There is a risk to writing about grave matters in a pleasing style. One worries that the reader’s delight may diminish the weight of the subject, or that his satisfaction may obscure the subject’s lack of resolution. These are serious concerns, which writers wiser than I have taken up in settings solemner than this. Lucretius tells us that his message, a godless atomism, is a cup of bitter wormwood and that his verse is honey sweetening the brim. Of the mixture of horror and hope found in the African-American musical tradition, W.E.B. Du Bois writes “the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.” And then there are the words of Robert Penn Warren, a poet Trethewey invokes more than once in the pages of Monument, not always in flattering terms (and to whom she devoted her penetrating last lecture as Poet Laureate). Warren suggests that the most affecting poems are those that test their sentiment in “the fires of irony”:
…a good poem involves the participation of the reader; it must, as Coleridge puts it, make the reader into ‘an active creative being.’ Perhaps we can see this most readily in the cases of tragedy: the determination of good or evil is not a “given” in tragedy, it is something to be earned in the process, and even the tragic villain must be “loved.” We must kill him, as Brutus killed Caesar, not as butchers but as sacrificers.
Whatever one makes of Trethewey’s dominant poetic style, she touches a bruise in “Genus Narcissus” that elsewhere in her poems goes mostly untouched, at least till the end of the book. What I mean here is the painful question of personal fault.
The conflict in Trethewey’s poems almost always originates outside the speaker, whether or not that speaker is the poet. It originates in the racist laws against which her parents’ marriage and her own birth gave resistance; in the stepfather who murdered her mother at the age of forty; in the faceless justice system that confined her brother like an animal; in natural disasters; in poverty; in racism past; in racism present; in the thoughtlessness of strangers; in the thoughtlessness of friends; and, more and more as the book approaches its end, in Trethewey’s own father, an educated man, a man who flouted race laws in pursuit of love, a man who still speaks with deep longing for Trethewey’s mother, but also, as the poems make clear, a white man, a self-serving fantasist, and—even with regard to his own beloved daughter—a hopeless racist. The pain that Trethewey’s poems confront, the pain caused by these external sources of conflict, is real and weighty and deserving of confrontation. But when, occasionally, the poems touch on the poet’s own weakness, they come to life in a new way, a way one did not think to miss while it was missing.
This is not because her sins are especially great. Far from it. The failings Trethewey finds in herself are slight: petulance, resentment, vanity, a love of liquor, and a tendency to live (in Donald Hall’s formulation) as if life were a fishing expedition and poems were the fish. As we know, it is much harder to offer one’s own blemishes for inspection than to point out the gaping wounds of the world at large. But when Trethewey acknowledges her own moral involvement in this world, her habit of clamping leaden sinkers to her sentences relents, and the lines fly with a sudden lightness. Poems like “Flounder” and “Genus Narcissus” are, by one measure, the shapeliest to appear in Monument. But the last poems in the book, the newest poems, in which Trethewey cuts her father down to size not as a butcher but as a sacrificer, numbering all the while her own flaws as a daughter, these are the poems that live most violently, most vividly, and—as in this passage from “Reach”—with the least concern for any truth but the ragged, unreasoning truth of the heart:
……………………… We are at it again, father
and daughter, deep in our cups, rehearsing
the long years between us. In the distance
I hear the foghorn call of bullfrogs,
envoys from the river of lamentation
my father is determined to cross. Already
I know where this is headed: how many times
has the night turned toward regret? My father
saying, If only I’d been a better husband
she’d be alive today, saying, Gwen and I
would get back together if she were alive.
It’s the same old song. He is Orpheus
trying to bring her back with the music
of his words, lines of a poem drifting now
into my dream. Picking the first chords,
my father leans into the neck of his guitar,
rolls his shoulders until he’s lost in it—
the song carrying him across the porch
and down into the damp grass. Even asleep,
I know where he is going. I cannot call
him back. Through the valley the blacktop
winds like a river, and he is stepping into it,
walking now toward the other side where
she waits, my mother, just out of reach.
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