Terrance Hayes‘ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is one of the most moving books of poetry I have ever read—as well as one of the strongest examples of well-executed poetic device on (simultaneously) the syllable, word, line, sentence, poem and cross-poem narrative levels.
Having been so moved, I want to signal boost Hayes’ work. Perhaps you have heard about the book and just not gotten around to it. I encourage you to request it from your library or buy it at your local bookstore.
Hayes’ book is a sequence of sonnets, all with the same title as the book, each of which delves into and shares his experience as an African-American man living in the United States.
Because I value music in my poetry, I want to praise Hayes’ poetry. There is anaphora and assonance and slant rhyme after slant rhyme, building associations of meaning through sound. It is very powerful.
Over-aged, over grave, overlooked brother
Seeks adjoining variable female structure
Covered in chocolate, cinnamon, molasses,
Freckled, sandy or sunset colored flesh
While the above excerpt exemplifies Hayes’ facility with language, it also touches on his personal socio-political experience, although not as much as other poems in the collection do. (I really love how he reclaims the thorny issue of describing skin color in terms of food here.) Hayes can definitely be more blunt:
Glad someone shot deserved to be shot finally,
George Wallace. After you send your basket of balms
And berries for the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham,
After you add your palms to the psalms & palm covered
Caskets of the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham
And because I value narrative, I want to tell you that these sonnets, taken together, do tell a story, a dramatic monologue in pieces that you, the reader, need to put together to understand what’s being said. I do not mean that in a difficult way, as some contemporary poetry can be make you guess after meaning, but that as you continue through the sonnets, you’ll see characters return and themes—whole beautiful musical phrases—return, sometimes modified and sometimes not.
It is so difficult to pick out just a few instances to share to convince you that you should read these poems. There are so many amazing poems and they are so intertwined. One sonnet begins:
Because a law was passed that said there was no worth
To adjectives, companies began stringing superlatives
Before unchanged products…
A racehorse became a horse, a horse race
Became a race. The race was made of various adverbs
And adversaries. The relationship between future
And pasture was lost. Because a law was passed,
There was no worth to adjectives, there was no word
For the part of the pasture between departure & the past.
I feel like what Hayes has given us in this book is his heart. He has shared it without holding back, shared exactly what it means to be him, in this moment in time. It’s immensely powerful and reading it will change you.