American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
by Terrance Hayes
Penguin, 2018; 112 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is Terrance Hayes’ best book, and that’s saying a lot. Hayes has set the bar very high for himself, having won the National Book Award, NEA and Guggenheim grants, the Whiting Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship, to name just a few he’s earned with his six previous collections.
These jazzy takes on Wanda Colman’s American Sonnets, who Hayes quotes by way of explanation in his Acknowledgements, fulfill her criteria with gender-shifting voicings, socially engaged “shadings of attitude,” a rich musical and literary playlist, and enough structure to make the form feel familiar but enough improv to stay dialed in. Fusing the personal and the political, Hayes is one of our world’s true unacknowledged legislators.
His politics are active, with references to “Mr. Trumpet” and the grabbing of p----sy and so many more that the book rings as timely as any. One sonnet (they all have the same title as the book) starts, “Goddamn, so this is what it means to have a leader / You despise…” And yet, because “home is the mess laid bare,” these are not editorials, but poems. Hayes seems to be arguing with himself, declaring, “I carry a flag bearing a different / Nation on each side.” Even the poem about the despised leader acknowledges that this sentiment is exactly what “the racists said when the president / Was black.”
Hayes has created 5 sonnet crowns, or sequences of 14 sonnets, but the table of contents lists one entry, so it’s all one song, only rougher. The individual poems don’t rhyme, but there’s plenty of mouth-music; they don’t have a classic box-clicking resolution of a traditional sonnet but Hayes makes sure that the music does resolve. These features fulfill what he says, “The song must be cultural, confessional, clear / But not obvious.” He goes on to delineate other rules of the game—compassion, “a record of witness & daydream”—but most essentially, the music is “Where the heart is torn or feathered & tarred, / Where death is undone, time diminished.” And this is what Terrance Hayes has done.
In jazzy, meandering poems, Hayes invokes his Assassin. Sometimes, this is white America (the “white boys who grew into assassins”) or some aspect of the threat inherent in our culture, which is never abstract and no longer subtle (if it ever was for those subject to it). This threat is one mothers teach their children to be alert to. That makes Hayes’ capaciousness remarkable; for example, he says, “we may be alike, Assassin, you & me: we believe / We want what’s best for humanity.” Imagining and declaring a bond between threat and threatened humanizes the whole dynamic, making these issues workable.
You can see this when he addresses his subject and admits, “Assassin, you are a mystery / To me” he writes, “I say to my reflection sometimes. / You are beautiful because of your sadness, but / You would be more beautiful without your fear.” This voice is definitely “clear, / But not obvious.” This is an outstanding song for and from our time, and for our tomorrow.