Book Review: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
Friday, December 14, 2018
Whenever anyone who doesn't like poetry learns that I love poetry, there is always a sort of bafflement in their response. It seems it is hard to understand, for the person who doesn't love poetry, why someone loves poetry. I assume that can be true of all things; I don't, for example, understand why people love stamp collecting, tole painting, or playing golf.
Except, I can imagine why they love it: the beauty of a foreign image or mystique of something from other countries, the pleasure of creating, the joy of moving your body outside.
But loving poetry seems to be the thing that many (most?) people have the hardest time understanding.
Which of course is something I in turn can't understand, because I cannot imagine a life without poetry. The beauty of language and the way a wise poet can tease out so many meanings in sound, imagery, metaphor, structure, rhyme...I don't understand not loving poetry.
One of the deepest and most abiding reasons I love poems is for how you can read one written by someone almost completely unlike you and yet find something that resonates deeply with you. As if that person who is not the same gender, race, nationality, who has a very different lifestyle or life philosophy, who didn't even live at the same time as you still, somehow, has a piece of you within herself. You find those pieces while reading poetry and you don't feel quite as alone in the world.
So maybe I love poetry because it helps us see that in some form or another, we are all at our deepest sense the same because we are all human.
But as I read this book of poetry, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, as I continue to think about it, I find myself doubting this reason for loving poetry, even though it has held true for the majority of my poetry-reading experiences.
I loved these poems; they shook me right down to my core poetic identity. They made me wonder: ARE we really all the same in our basic humanity?
The book is a collection of 80 sonnets, all with the same title: "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin." Terrance Hayes wrote them in response to trump's election, and some of them address "Mister Trumpet" himself. Many of them speak to the current time itself, to a nation who could elect such a person, to the people whose racism vibrates to the hum of trump's, as in these lines: “America, you just wanted change is all…A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection/Of your own.” Mostly white people made this choice; a huge swath of my demographic—educated, middle class white women—chose to vote for him.
So I started the book, and immediately enjoyed the poems (especially these lines from the first one: “My hunch is that Sylvia Plath was not/Especially fun company. A drama queen, thin-skinned,/And skittish, she thought her poems were ordinary.” I’d like to have a conversation with Hayes about this idea.) But I found myself thinking “but not all white people are racists!”
This thought repeated itself several times until I really started paying attention to it. Not to the actual protest, as I think this poet is wise enough to know that racism isn’t the defining trait of all white people. But to what in the poems was sparking that thought in me, and why it seemed so important that I felt like this poet writing these poems knew, somehow, that I—a white, middle-class woman—don’t believe that my whiteness, or anyone else’s, makes me “better than” in any way.
But really, what good does that do for the people who live with the effects of racism every single day?
So as I read, instead of protesting “not me!”, I just tried to absorb. I tried to take my own identity out of the reading experience, to not, this time, make reading poetry about finding pieces of myself in the poems, but about catching a glimpse and perhaps even a tiny bit of understanding of how someone else really is not like me. How not just the contemporary experience of racism affects lives, but the history of it, too. I thought about one of my ancestral lines, which was a wealthy southern family of plantation owners, and how, if I am proud of my other ancestors (the woman hanged for witchcraft, the long, solid Scottish line descending from ancient clan chiefs), I also have to claim my shame that I am a descendant of people who owned slaves.
But there I go again, making the reading about me and not about the poems themselves. See how easy it is, to slip back? See how difficult it is, to remove my white ego?
I learned something from this book, from the experience of reading this book. I am still struggling to put it into words, honestly. But it changed me. It is a thing I learned about myself, and about this society I live in. Stick with me with this analogy, but it feels like the day I realized, when I was a kid, that men’s bathrooms all have urinals. It was like discovering another world that exists in the same space that I exist in, and made me wonder how else my experiences are different from men’s.
Hayes’s book gave me the same feeling. We live on the same planet, in the same country, but our lived experiences are totally different. The fact that I think racism is wrong and shouldn’t be a part of our society doesn’t change the existence of racism. He and I don’t live in the same worlds, and this fact brings me great sadness.
The reading experience itself will stick with me, as will many of the individual poems. Images (the white woman singing along to black music), lines (“Of course/After that, what is inward, is absorbed.” “My problem was I’d decided to make myself/A poem” “Moving through the tangle of bramble on your way/To scrap with Death at the pier, remember to sing/A battle song”). There are a million pieces to be gathered here. But what I want to remember the most is coming to the sonnet on page 81, which starts “I remember my sister’s last hoorah.”
This poem, like all good sonnets, has a turn, wherein two ideas are introduced and then, somehow, connected. It starts with this line: “Can we really be friends if we don’t believe/In the same things, Assassin?” Can we really understand each other, reader and poet, white woman and black man? Is poetry large enough to make that connection? He asks “because we are dust/Don’t you & I share a loss?” and of course, the answer is both yes and no.
I left that poem knowing that, even unwilling and unwittingly, I am the assassin.