Sonnets That Reckon With Donald Trump’s America

Posted June 19, 2018 3:41 p.m. EDT

There is a notion — best expressed by Harry Lime, the genial psychopath played by Orson Welles in “The Third Man” — that bad times make for good art. “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,” Lime says. “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Any real accounting of the art emerging from our own current terrors would be premature, but “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin,” the new book by Terrance Hayes, has a claim to be among the first fully-fledged works to reckon with the presidency of Donald Trump — and one of the most surprising. These 70 poems were written after the election of 2016, in the shadow of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a nationwide surge in hate crimes. “Something happens everywhere in this country,” Hayes writes. “Every day. Someone is praying, someone is prey.”

Hayes received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2014, and won a National Book Award in 2010 for his collection “Lighthead.” He is sensitive to the uses and abuses of political art, and his career has been a hunt for forms that might protect him from easy certainties. His poems have been influenced by riddles, anagrams and Japanese slide shows called pechakucha.

In his new book, he set himself the challenge of writing political poems in the guise of love poems. Each one is distinct: Some are sermons, some are swoons. They are acrid with tear gas, and they unravel with desire. In some poems, the assassin of the title is that most prolific killer of all, time itself. Others address Donald Trump directly — “Mister Trumpet,” “Humpty-Dumpty,” “failed landlord with a people of color/Complex.”

Hayes revisits lifelong obsessions: the cage of masculinity, the gulf between fathers and sons (“Christianity is a religion built around a father/Who does not rescue his son. It is the story/of a son whose father is a ghost”). There are paeans to the beauty of Jimi Hendrix and Prince. One sonnet addresses “Seven of the ten things I love in the face/of James Baldwin.” But his inquiry also deepens and turns more daring. One narrator addresses the president: “Trumpet I can’t speak for you but men like me/Who have never made love to a man will always be/Somewhere in the folds of our longing ashamed of it.”

There’s a saying attributed to Flannery O’Connor, that to be a painter, you must first love the smell of paint. Hayes loves language; he loves the round vowel and crisp consonant. He loves to stuff a line full of sound (“the lunk, the chump, the hunk of plunder”), to write for the ear as well as the eye. His words call to be read aloud, to be tasted.

The collection may be, as one sonnet puts it, “a record of my raptures,” but it’s also a chronicle of ambivalence, attuned always to “the scent of rot at the heart/Of love-making.” And nothing so invites ambivalence for this poet as America: “It is not enough/To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.”

The sonnet has long been a home for Hayes; it’s the form he has returned to most often. “As a person raised by a soldier and a prison guard it would make sense that I would like boxes and structure a little too much,” he has said, half-jokingly. His highly contained poems invariably comment on the idea of containment. From the new book:

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.

There’s a direct line between the sonnet and the body in Hayes’ work. Just as the sonnet, derived from the Italian “sonnetto” for “little song,” can contain, in its courtly way, immensities of experience and feeling — so does the body, until the point of breaking. These poems play with different registers, but they return to lamentation, to annihilating grief for “all the black people I’m tired of losing,” one narrator says. “All the dead from parts of Florida, Ferguson,/Brooklyn, Charleston, Cleveland, Chicago,/Baltimore.”

Hayes’ project was inspired by Wanda Coleman’s series of “American Sonnets,” but his conception of the form is very much his own. For him the excitement of the sonnet stems from its insistence on change: It must include a volta — a sudden turn, a new argument. It’s what makes the sonnet implicitly American, Hayes has said, with admiration and naked hope — the ability to change your mind, the willingness to change your course.

Publication Notes:

“American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”

By Terrance Hayes

91 pages. Penguin Poets. $18.