“I talk to myself like a witness”: Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets

Penguin Random House
June 19, 2018
$18.00; 112 pp.

By Ryan Boyd

When it comes to introducing Terrance Hayes, the nice thing is that he doesn’t need much introduction. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program, he has taught at elite schools like Carnegie Mellon; he has received MacArthur and Guggenheim grants; he publishes in the best literary journals and is in the Penguin Poets stable; he has been racking up prizes for a while now, having won, among other things, a National Book Award for his marvelous 2010 collection Lighthead. Of course, many a flower is born to blush unseen—plenty of talented poets never attain a wide readership. Awards by themselves don’t establish much. But in Hayes’s case, the rep matches the reality, and his newest book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, only reinforces this.

Perhaps the first thing a reader notices about Hayes is that his poems are situationally intelligible. In other words, you can actually tell what a speaker is doing or experiencing, no matter how weirdly the language twists. And it definitely twists. Hayes’s diction is surprising, strange, and world-bending, his imagery feverish and brooding, evoking the fundamental weirdness of what lyric poems allow us to do: momentarily inhabit another consciousness. Whenever we read such a text, no matter the subject or occasion, we are on unfamiliar ground. Even the quotidian becomes unexpected. His poems in turn resist synopsis—you cannot adequately recapitulate them in prose.

There are two main characters, as it were, in the book: the unnamed speaker, meditating on life in the contemporary USA, and the silent Assassin to whom he sometimes addresses himself. This renders the speaker’s snippet monologues a bit less lonely. But it also puts the reader in an uncomfortable position, because she too is being addressed, as though she might also be a killer. At times, however, it is unclear whether the Assassin is even a separate presence or just part of the speaker’s/poet’s own self: as one poem has it, “I’m a camera / With no cameraman, my own personal / Assistant & assassin.” This raises something unsettling, namely that the world conditions us to be our own tormenters. Our minds, the passage suggests, have been colonized by violence, by structures of what the feminist critic and theorist bell hooks calls “dominator culture.” 

True to the book’s title, Hayes uses a consistent form throughout. But it is an open version of the sonnet, still fourteen lines but with a meter that is looser and more variable than true iambic pentameter, sometimes metrical but usually more like free verse. Rather than full end-rhymes, he more often utilizes internal sound pairings (e.g. calling America a “junk country”), partial rhymes (“the poems he wrote / About you but never published or spoke”), and alliteration (“Job’s / Afro silvering with suffering”) to make his music. Like most contemporary poets, his aesthetic is also heavily visual. The whole book is full of hot lines (“Air / Touches your skin like medicine & you disappear) and striking images (“my father’s crippled pistol”).

Hayes explicitly draws the term “American sonnet” from the poet Wanda Coleman (1946-2013), who also called this form “jazz sonnets,” emphasizing both continuity with the European verse tradition and a radical break into territory where a black, democratic, American voice predominates. Tension is cooked into the lyrics at the level of both subject matter and repetitive structure. This is an emergency, where “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.”

At their core the American Sonnets are responding to life under the Trump regime. There is no way for a morally responsible American writer to avoid this. But Hayes isn’t in the business of writing ideological screeds or explicit polemics, and he approaches Trumpism laterally, working by suggestion and association. By foregrounding individual experiences that are often occluded by repressive hierarchies, his lyrics present a horizontal, decentralized way of looking at and being in the world.  

The book’s title also suggests a continuity of violence that envelops Donald Trump. Hayes does not make the liberal mistake of treating our “President of blank sucking nullity” (as the journalist David Roth memorably calls him) like an anomaly. Here, Trump is as American as apple pie and segregation. In an early poem, “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous,” the speaker runs through a list of cities—Ferguson, Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore—where black men and boys have been murdered by police officers (the broader point being that this describes every American city), and observes that “The names alive are like the names / In graves. Probably twilight makes blackness / Darkness.” A few pages later, almost the same line about names closes out a poem that lists infamous killers of black people, like Dylan Roof and George Zimmerman. The poem puns on the verb “trump,” while its syntax breaks down and a baleful repetition evokes panic and despair, a malign force pushing against words like “love” and “beauty”:                       

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 alive are like the names in the graves

Later, a sonnet that calls to mind Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant” gestures toward Trump and his fellow authoritarians around the planet: “Because he’s a kettle of oil about to boil, / It’s all the more touching when the despot / Pets a pet. The skin breaks so easily, he says.”

Still, to write poetry in the first place is to have hope, because it presumes a future in which people will still be drawn to literature. The book’s atmosphere is flecked with bits of optimism. Hayes assembles a tradition of radicals, many of them American, many black, many artists: Nina Simone, Emily Dickinson, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Saint Francis, Sylvia Plath, Gucci Mane, Maxine Waters, Pablo Neruda, and James Baldwin, among many others, inhabit these pages. Baldwin, indeed, is a central presence. One Whitmanesque hymn underscores “the spiritual / Elasticity of his expressions” and locates the dead genius within the earth itself—“Mud is made of / Simple rain & earth, the same baptismal / Spills and hills of dirt James Baldwin is made of.” As a writer and a black American, Hayes is one of Baldwin’s closest comrades, leveraging “a silver tongue in the war we wage against death” and “willing to raise orchids / Or kids in a land of assassins.”

Hayes’s work also raises a question that dogs African American writers: What does it mean to be a black creator within a culture industry still dominated by white writers, artists, editors, publishers, critics, and readers? In a recent Harper’s essay on the difficult position of black critics and scholars, Mychal Denzel Smith contends that “the white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance.” The same is arguably true for African American artists, given that white people often value black art more than black lives. As one sonnet has it—the challenging syntax evoking dense, painful networks of racial identity and interrelationship—“Like no / Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants / Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.” The pun on “relate” implies telling as much as it does biological and social kinship. As the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott emphasized in his own poetry, a black writer in the Americas is usually forced to employ the language of colonizers, of the men who carried out genocides. To write in English, for example, is to use a tongue imposed by a blood-soaked British empire. Yet “this country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his,” another poem says ambiguously.

One the one hand, a literary artist has special capacities. In their hands colonizing language is broken apart and remade such that it can begin to articulate the experience of oppressed human beings. But on the other, producing art for majority-white audiences risks giving away something of oneself to people who misunderstand things even if they try not to.

Perhaps the most interesting sonnet to explore this tension is the eleventh in the book. It imagines a well-meaning white person consuming black language and music, engaging in a voyeurism that reproduces structures of inequality and gulfs of misunderstanding.

Even the most kindhearted white woman,
Dragging herself through traffic with her nails
On the wheel & her head in a chamber of black
Modern American music may begin, almost
Carelessly, to breath n-words. [. . . ] 

                                    Even the most made up
Layers of persona in a two- or four-door vehicle
Sealed in a fountain of bass & black boys
Chanting n-words may begin to chant inwardly
Softly before she can catch herself.

Art, then, may simultaneously be a bridge and a barrier. 

Hayes also mounts an implicit defense of poetry as something that defies capitalist modernity, articulating a substantive role for it in The Real World of markets, debt, bank accounts, buying and selling. In this respect he follows the Romantics, who liked poets more than anyone and asserted their cultural centrality even as economic and political forces diminished it. He is also aligned with the US Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, who has argued that poetry contests a frantically hyperlinked, violent, precarious world by slowing things down and creating space for critical, imaginative thought that challenges the present conditions of the world even if it cannot magically change them. Poems are thus “a jewelry of wooing” (Hayes’s phrase) charged with erotic energy. “What if it were possible to make a noise so lovely / People would pay to hear it continuously for a century / Or so,” asks another poem that name-checks Odysseus and Aeneas alongside Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and which conspicuously doesn’t use an actual question mark. It’s a statement, not a query.

That said, Hayes has a dry sense of humor about the cliché of poets as dashing Romantic figures who can change the world. In one facetious confessional, “I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser / With time. I love poems more than money & pussy.” In another,  

                                    I’m good company
And pretty fun for a little while. A whirlwind,
I tend to repeat my mistakes. I’m a camera
With no cameraman, my own personal
Assistant & assassin.  

Like John Berryman in his Dream Songs, Hayes sees poets and their lyric stand-ins as somewhat comical figures. They are lit up with vision but also sodden with longing and loneliness, like most people. 

There is, at least to my mind, no better technology than lyric poetry for articulating the conditions of selfhood embedded in social worlds, although the nineteenth-century novel has its proponents. Hayes makes a compelling case for expending energy on it and thus better knowing our assassins. Granted, when the speaker informs us that “In a second I’ll tell you how little / Writing rescues,” he isn’t lying (W.H. Auden is largely right that poetry makes nothing happen) but to speak/write is to contest forces that would otherwise crush and humiliate the individual: “You will never assassinate my ghosts.” These sonnets onto something. There are worse ways to live a life in America.