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Love Poems to a Troubled America

In his latest collection, the poet Terrance Hayes finds common ground with the many threats to our democracy.
Terrance Hayes poet

At a writing workshop recently, I was instructed to compose a poem to my enemy. As I did so, I realized that my enemy shared my name, my love for books, the color of my hair. It became harder to hate her.

Terrance Hayes' new book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, carries out a similar experiment on a larger, more difficult scale. He writes poems to malignant figures—Donald Trump, George Wallace, Dylann Roof, "the good people who are afraid." In an era of intense political polarization, Hayes finds surprising and sometimes disturbing points of connection between himself and the assassins who stalk these pages.

A book of 70 sonnets written within the first 200 days of the Trump administration, American Sonnets addresses some of our most divisive political issues: race, gender, what freedom means, and how we regard the vulnerable. Hayes, the author of four previous poetry collections and the winner of a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship, is part of a wave of prominent contemporary poets whose work engages directly with politics. And for African-American poets like him, writing poetry has never been apolitical. Slaves, of course, were forbidden to read and write. It can hardly be a coincidence that American Sonnets was released on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of the last slaves in the United States.

There's a common conception that the sonnet is as white as Levittown. But black American poets since the Civil War have used the form for their own ends, as Hayes does here. Some have used it to write themselves into an exclusionary canon and gain credibility with a white audience; others subvert it as a means of delivering radical content, as Claude McKay did with his incendiary "If We Must Die."

Hayes' American sonnets owe a debt to those of "the great" black poet Wanda Coleman, as he writes in his acknowledgments. You may not have heard of Coleman; her bold, inventive, uncompromising American sonnets, published as an ongoing series across several of her books, haven't achieved canon status, perhaps in part because of her race and gender. And, as Dora Malech has pointed out in the Kenyon Review, they haven't been included in major recent sonnet anthologies.

Like Coleman's sonnets, Hayes' are loose examples of the form. They have the traditional length, 14 lines, but here he's ditched the strict rhyme scheme of Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets. Nor does Hayes adhere to the traditional one-volta-per-sonnet rule; rather, his song must have a "clamor / of voltas." The volta, or turn, is the moment in a sonnet where the poet swerves, offering a new, surprising strand of argument in response to the lines that came before. Hayes' poems are nimble, constantly turning to consider a thought or feeling from a new angle or to introduce a new strand of thought.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

As Coleman's American sonnets do, Hayes overlay "issues ... rhythm ... tones ... [and] musical taste." They draw on hip-hop, protest chants, and jazz, borrowing those forms' techniques of riff, mimicry, and, especially, repetition and progression. Each sonnet shares the title "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin," and some even share lines, like "Probably all our encounters are existential / Jambalaya." Small changes between poems put such lines in new contexts: There's a powerful difference between the statement, in one poem, "Which is to say, / a n*** can survive," and the question, a few dozen sonnets later, "Which is to say, can a n*** survive?"

Also like Coleman, who drew inspiration for her sonnets from Shakespeare, Melville, and jazz, Hayes' sonnets mix forms, rhythms, and cultural references from black and white America. Hayes has said that this poetic alchemy is meant to recall the ideal of America the melting pot; to my mind, it also fights against the idea that racial purity was ever, or could ever be, possible or desirable in this country. Instead, these sonnets remind us of our deep and sometimes painful ties to one another. "America, you just wanted change is all," one sonnet begins. Hayes is addressing Trump voters, but the sentiment is equally applicable to those who helped elect Barack Obama.

Slyly, Hayes moves from critiquing Trump and his followers' "metallic narcissism" to a reminder that the allure of lucre cuts across color lines: Trump voters "share a fantasy" with rapper Trinidad James best described by James' song "All Gold Everything." Hayes further unsettles the black/white, us/them dichotomies with a line from Gucci Mane that name-checks "yellow Lambs"—gaudy sports cars—along with "yellow bones"—light-skinned black women—as status symbols. Light-skinned black Americans are often the product of interracial unions, and some are the descendants of enslaved women forced into sex by their masters. "Like no / culture before us," Hayes writes, "we relate the way the descendants / Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists."

Some readers have a tendency to conflate free verse with freedom, and formal poetry with constraint. But Hayes' sonnets combine imaginative daring and a sense of barely contained power within the form, suggesting the limits of a vision of freedom—like that held by conservatives—that rests on eliminating constraint. Brilliantly, Hayes enacts this political debate via poetic tools. Using repetition between poems, his sonnets reach beyond their 14-line frames and reverberate off one another. They're dense and allusive, capable of sending you to Google again and again, stretching from the mythic past to the hard-to-believe present.

Hayes multiplies meanings by means of homonyms ("I make you both gym & crow here,") as well as through a more obscure poetic strategy called the kenning. A kenning, associated with Old Norse, Icelandic, and Old English, is a circumlocution used to replace a noun. Some are fairly simple: "Whale road is a kenning for sea," Hayes writes. Others are more complex and intensely evocative in their refusal to state the noun they replace. In a poem written for George Wallace, Hayes asks, "Can you guess what black / Folks passing empty cotton fields feel, George Wallace? / I damn you with the opposite of that feeling."

Unless you are a black person raised in a cotton-cultivating area, you can only guess how it feels to walk past the place where you once labored in the heat for little or no pay. Would you call that feeling joy? Elation? Something beyond words? You start to wonder whether Wallace was capable of guessing this feeling, as Hayes asks him to do. You consider what the opposite of that feeling might be. By using a kenning, rather than a direct statement, Hayes deepens his meaning, awakens empathy, and inevitably leaves you somewhere unexpected.

The most famous sonnets throughout history are love poems, addressing a beloved "you." In an interview with the Palm Beach Daily News, Hayes has said that his sonnets, too, are love poems. They're "sonnets for people who are trying to threaten me or my America or the progress we've made, but they're still sonnets. They are love poems to my enemy." But why do such a thing? Why write a love poem to someone who is trying to kill you?

"Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within," writes James Baldwin, who is the subject of a straightforwardly loving poem in Hayes' collection. "I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but ... in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth." To love, in other words, is to embrace one's difficult and painful history, the parts of oneself—whether coded as vulnerable, feminine, dark—that one has banished or tried to kill. "America's struggle with itself / Has always had people like me at the heart of it," Hayes writes. "You can't / Grasp your own hustle, your blackness, you can't grasp / Your own pussy, your black pussy dies for touch."