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‘American Sonnets’ grapples with the complex American identity

| Thursday, November 15, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

It’s 2018, and nearly everything is political. Terrance Hayes’ sixth poetry collection, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” uses that as energy to explore the current political climate. This collection of 70 sonnets was written during the first 200 days of the Trump presidency, and attempts to grapple with what it means to be American now, considering events of the past and events yet to come. Following a dramatic election season, these poems are particularly pertinent.

The sonnet is a 14-line poem that originated in Italy. While it exists in many forms, the sonnet traditionally has some sort of rhyme scheme and a strict syllabic structure. Hayes Americanizes his sonnets, rejecting most of these conventions in favor of a style that is truly his own. Each is titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” and has 14 lines, but their contents vary beyond what these basic similarities might suggest.

Hayes addresses both the distant and recent past, criticizing and praising the historical moments that have led up to this point in time. In one of the most poignant statements of the collection, he writes, “America, you just wanted change is all, a return / To the kind of awe we experienced after beholding a reign / Of gold,” likely referring to the changes that took place between the past presidential administration and the current one.

The present serves as the unfamiliar middle ground throughout the collection. “Something happens everywhere in this country / Every day. Someone is praying, someone is prey,” he writes astutely. The present is an ambiguous character while its events are not. The topic of race manages to connect it to the time periods actually referred to in the title. As a black man, Hayes often addresses the racial tensions that have existed throughout history and continue to exist today, directing his anger at those who perpetuate this racism and other inequities by preying on others.

In some sonnets, the speaker refers to numerous different individuals and entities as his “assassin.” Sometimes this assassin is named, including Dylann Roof, George Zimmerman and John Wilkes Booth. Another assassin addressed in “American Sonnets” is Donald Trump, who is referred to with mocking monikers such as “Mister Trumpeter” and “Humpty-Dumpty.” Despite these attacks, Hayes spreads his criticism to past presidents as well, writing, “I carry money bearing / The face of my assassins.” In other sonnets, Hayes uses the ambiguous “you” to address the one who acts as his assassin. These effectively critique anyone to whom some blanket accusations might apply.

Between the charged lines are the occasional bits of general wisdom. Writing lines like “Probably all our encounters are existential / Jambalaya,” Hayes reflects on the incomprehensibility of contradictions that make up American life. Actions of violence penetrate many of these poems, while American cultural staples like Girl Scout cookies are found in others. These are juxtaposed to create a complicated image of what it means to be American.

“American Sonnets” isn’t for everyone. It’s angry, politically charged and far from neutral, with these factors working together to make the work hard to read but nonetheless compelling. In his anger at the black experience in America, Hayes manages such eloquence that even this negative emotion is beautiful.

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