A Prose Poem Book Review of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018)

            ‘fire with my two tongues 
            Loose
            – Terrance Hayes, ‘American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin

You say the odour of your breath / can be assassinated (p. 17). I have stuck my nose in / and tried to reconstruct / the meal you ate before you perished. / Maybe I put a bit too much / daylight in with the twilight, / skimmed the milk, / and got vaped instead of smoked. / (See again / page 17).

Most of the shape of the meat / and the bones that lived beneath / are gone; / but the cloak keeps the overall outline / bent by centuries of use. / Hayes poses and counter-poses / his jambalaya and the jumbled ire / of his assassin / within the limits of his form. / Hayes melts down Petrarch’s pedestal and petrified edifice / and leans down on the wet clay. / The bronze lady melted down / in her own green flame / and distilled into swaying scaffolds; / Hayes relaxes on the loose metal hammock / he has made. / His voltas dimly charged or discerned, / silent hinges that don’t squeak like the old ones, / at least not always so loud: ‘almost / Unhinged lyrics (p. 41.)* / Some sniff. / You can call these poems sonnets / like you can call that big electric fence / a wall / Shakespeare / Petrarch / AWOL.

The quick and quirk / of ampersands amplify the casual, / sand down your lines / denote the poet’s drafting process in the work itself, / typographic marks / to mark the urgency of his sonnets / and subjects. / As you yourself would no doubt acknowledge / a bullet is still quicker / & stills quicker, / than even a poet on fire / under fire / on a two poems a day streak / of soot and finger smoke.

The repetitions of the title reproduce the cyclical histories / indicated in the title. The repetitions of the title / pay homage to Wanda Coleman, / homes the words in American soil. / It reads like a refrain. Buries you / in American earth / and locks you / in a sonnet music box. / You are not a prophet when you say when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck’ (p. 77). / You are just state-ing a past that is sure to unite with future tense, / like there will be another poem. / Hayes ends his sonnet ‘Rilke ends his sonnet…’ saying Define life’ (p. 37). / Hayes ends his sonnet seventy times. / Seven times more / and maybe we can forgive him this.

The poems are expansive / – the pages inexpensive (I paid / £9.99 for mine) – / figure out such figures as: / Plath and Hughes / (no, not that one), / Davis & Hendrix, / Baldwin &  Dickinson, / Coltrane & Coleman, / Morrison, / Aeneas, Odysseus, / your father, Our Father, / a father searching for two sisters / to broaden their lips with God’s name, / Jesus & His sister, / the rhythmed and unrhythmed / reflecting on how to dance. / Similarly expansive is the apostrophic ‘You. / You are the reader, / the assassin, / the United States citizen, / the poet in residence / in Langston’s love chamber, / a prisoner, / a listener, / a sexual confidante, / America / & the American president.

You mention ‘Dr. Who’ (p. 77) / in passing / like the hero visiting / the world of the week and weak / and you say a sonnet is a bird in a dark box, / perhaps, you should have said / if The Donald dumped a sonnet / – hate shouted through an office shaped megaphone trumpet – / it would be like a Dalek in its trash can / firing laser bolts at random. / Seemed like a missed opportunity. / Historically / they’ve both had problems with stairs. / Stare / at the shine / of Hayes’s unglossed heteroglossic text. / Hayes is a Time Lord / lauded for the time taken to sonnet / in the time lard was a president / greased resident in the White House. / At least the eagle / had the dignity to admit it was bald.

Add to all this lonely heart ads. / Critic seeks poet / who can sum up 13 unlucky red and white lines in a fourteen line form / or at least dazzle him with starlight / enough so he can wrap his eyes in cloth / and forget about looking. / Here’s the hook: / a critic can be an assassin to a book. A critic is your ‘mother’s […] shadow’ (p. 65) / watching over you / telling you what to do / what not to do / sometimes bewildered / but trying hard to understand. / A critic wears half ‘his boy’s face’, / and like the father of pee dot 43, / tries to see out of an eye / with an X and a different sex in it.

I’ll give you five / if you’ll give me fifty.
I give you five / you give me fifty.

You don’t need my garlands. / The body of page 17 / was swiftly found / (on page 17) / and identified as you / and heaped with flowers. / The thorns we found / doled out / to prick a twenty foot baby balloon. / If we stand on each other’s shoulders / if we make a pyramid (absent the gold and gaud of his mock-Egyptian tower / – he crammed the rectangle block / into the triangle shape / of a child’s IQ test / he didn’t cram for), / we can let the air out / the old wind / in an orange flesh box.

Your voice is so strong in these poems, / I knew what you would sound like / before I ever heard you speak / though, I’ll admit, / I wasn’t expecting you to sing one / in the literal and not just the literary sense / the time I heard you read, / Newcastle, / Twenty-Nineteen. / Hayes blurs and fogs / the divisions / between music and page work. / Hayes preserves the conventional verbal cues of the sonnet, / those ‘Ohs! and ‘Ahs!updated to: / ‘Whatever. I’m just saying’ /(p. 18)./ At the penultimate / he is ‘almost grown tired of talking to you.

When you die the mourner-poets will gather / every one of them eager with a golden shovel / and fingers itching with the Midas touch. / Heavyheads / gather with grief and intellectual / pronoun-cements / a-straining / ascertaining / arse-sing / the mus-cells of their music to coin The New Famous Phrase. / Sometimes, as with Dalí / it will take ten years / (page / eighty- / two). / Dirty danglers dig / while the dirt & the seeds and the flowers talk / dirty / and the assassin cocks. / 14 rounds / ready to go / in the chamber. 

If I said it right today / I lorded under time / and said it long before.

Line your coat with these words. / On the day the assassin comes / this is just the slim volume / to stop the bullet / and leave breath’s black burn marks / across the metal skin.

This is just the outline in chalk / of the corpse of the assassinated. / Step over the border line / and the body will find you. / Poet, your pages are printed on white paper, / but when I pick up / your collection / it’s like being given my / green / card.

 

 

* FOOTNOTE. / All references waddled from the Penguin edition / pop culture / Shop Road culture / high culture / rope round the neck / and drop / low culture / and other poetic vultures. / Note the rhythm of his feet / as he dances / and holds his face / p. 18.

 



 

[Daniel Hinds won the Poetry Society’s Timothy Corsellis Young Critics Prize and he was one of the winners of the Shortlist Book Review Competition. He was shortlisted for the Streetcake Experimental Writing Prize and the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize. His poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The London Magazine, The New European, Wild Court, Stand, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, The Honest Ulsterman, Fly on the Wall Press Magazine, Finished Creatures, Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology, Newcastle University’s One Planet Anthology, and elsewhere. Twitter: @DanielGHinds.]

Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Hinds, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.