American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin
The premise of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin is interesting: a book of sonnets, all with the same title, or perhaps a book-length poem composed of many sonnets like leaves compose a tree. I think mostly it works. The sonnets are intricately crafted, full of language that pops and crackles and themes that interweave between lines and poems. Recurring words, phrases, ideas and characters tie the book together as an aesthetic whole, although without a narrative arc. This is an ambitious project, and Hayes pulls it off.
Goodreads informs me that the entire book was written after 2016, and there's some evidence of that in the writing. Several of the poems could be classed as protest poems, including a couple that are pretty scatological. But the overall effect is not focused on any one person; the 'assassin' is bigger than that, is an atmosphere, is a crowd of ghosts, is American racism. And many of the poems are intensely personal, about love and grief and hardship--like the blues, the personal made political simply by the facts of existing in an American context.
Here's my favorite of the sonnets:
You know how when the light you splatter spreads
Across her back like wings tattooed elaborately one evening
In an ink-shop beside a river, how with the raw blood
Settling again into the meat you are you slump backwards
Half thinking it is more falling than slumping, more heartbreak
Than release & how maybe it's the wings that are real
Or that will become real when you are dust, Money,
When you have slipped again into the black husk
That is not a black husk at all? That's the feeling
Of her name in my mouth. Is it like reaching a town
Bruised by headlights after too long in the darkness,
Like the feeling of one question flush against another,
The feeling of wings clasping the back of the body,
The feeling of wings clapping wind along the spine.
These poems are vivid, difficult, sensuous and incisive. They are very good.
It was discovered the best way to combat
Sadness was to make your sadness a door.
Or make it an envelope of wireless chatter
Or wires pulled from the radio tape recorder
Your mother bought you for Christmas in 1984.
If you think a hammer is the only way to hammer
A nail, you ain't thought of a nail correctly.
My problem was I'd decided to make myself
A poem. It made me sweat in private selfishly.
It made me bleed, bleep & weep for health.
As a poem I could show my children the man
I dreamed I was, my mother & fathers, my half
Brothers, the lovers I lost. Just morning, as a poem,
I asked myself if I was going to weep today.