Terence Hayes, Rainer Marie Rilke, James Wright, Ruth Stone and Galway Kinnell

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by | Sep 12, 2019

Lines of poetic thinking are seldom straightly drawn. They arch, dip, zigzag, loop, swerve or altogether leap into other places, histories and worlds, taking us for rides, by surprise, pleasantly or not, willingly or not. And this is part of their wondrous deception, because usually when laid across the page, they appear more or less straight in length and, depending on the form employed, broken neatly into symmetries. When you lift open the thin cover of order, however, unexpected geometries emerge.

Take, for example, the poet Terrance Hayes and his volume, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. The title alone dares you to go further, to look around the corner of those words into the dark alley of what they might mean. When I pulled a copy off a bookstore shelf and weighed it in my hand, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary for a book of poems. When I flipped from front to back, I learned there were seventy sonnets, which, if literally true to form, would mean that number times fourteen lines each; and all with the same intriguing title. Hayes offers this “sample” sonnet” on the rear cover.

AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN

I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.

First, I think it an outstanding idea to offer a full poem on the outside of a book of poems. I just do and frequently look more closely at books that do this. Second, Hayes’s jacket selection here is no soft serve; rather it has heft and impact generally equivalent to the seventy other Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, even while it might seem to function as a keystone for the rest of the remarkable collection.

I seem to remember reading most of the book standing in that bookstore. (Yes, I did perform the routine sonnet line spot-check. Thumbs up on that count). Without pen or pencil, I dog-eared several pages for re-reading, including the following.        

AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN

Rilke ends his sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo” saying
“You must change your life.” James Wright ends “Lying
In a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island,
Minnesota” saying “I have wasted my life.” Ruth Stone ends 
“A Moment” saying “You do not want to repeat my life.”
A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end
And beginning of Life. After the opening scene where
A car bomb destroys the black detective’s family, there are
Several scenes of our hero at the edge of life. A shootout
In an African American Folk Museum, a shootout
In the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot,
A barn shootout endangering the farm life. I live a life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.

What appealed to me greatly about this poem—and I swear it had nothing to do with the line “A barn shootout endangering farm life”—was the building upon the work of other poets (Rilke, Wright and Stone), toward the powerful midpoint sixth and seventh lines: 

“A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end 
And the beginning of Life.” 

I wondered, how could such a line not be the final idea? And wondered how it might be pulled forward and extended as indeed it is by 

“… I live a life
That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life,
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.“

Fourteen lines containing deep histories, cultures, politics, geographies and hard questions and yet no strain in the structure that holds them!  

As for the use of lines from other poets, I think it is worth noting that these also serve together as a type of “Russian Doll” of poems within the poem itself; Wright’s and Stone’s arguably references to Rilke’s, Hayes’ inarguably a reference to those three. To allow you to judge here are the three pieces. 

“The Archaic Torso of Apollo”
Rainer Marie Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota*
James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,   
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.   
Down the ravine behind the empty house,   
The cowbells follow one another   
Into the distances of the afternoon.   
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,   
The droppings of last year’s horses   
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.   
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

“A Moment”
Ruth Stone

Across the highway a heron stands
in the flooded field. It stands
as if lost in thought, on one leg, careless,
as if the field belongs to herons.
the air is clear and quiet.
Snow melts on this second fair day.
Mother and daughter,
we sit in the parking lot
with doughnuts and coffee.
We are silent.
For a moment the wall between us
opens to the universe;
then closes.
And you go on saying
you do not want to repeat my life.

And last, because I mentioned my appreciation of poets who place a work on the outside of their books, here is a piece from the back cover of Galway Kinnell’s Strong is Your Hold, which I like to think belongs in this grouping. 

EVERYONE WAS IN LOVE

One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful, 
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake tails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts with heads raised and swaying, 
alert as cobras. They were writhing their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, moist human skin.
Maud and Fergus were deliciously pleased with themselves.
The snakes seemed to be tickled, too.
We were enchanted. Everyone was in love.
Then Maud drew down off Fergus’s shoulder,
as off a tie rack, a peculiarly
lumpy snake and told me to look inside.
Inside the double-hinged jaw, a frog’s green
webbed hind feet were being drawn,
like a diver’s, very slowly as it into deepest waters.
Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue,
Maud said, “Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere.”