Over the last couple decades Terrance Hayes has been building one of contemporary poetry’s most expansive, virtuosic bodies of work. In 2010 his book Lighthead won the National Book Award. His newest is called American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. These 70 sonnets, each titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” are American in that they see the form as something to be bent. Each has 14 lines of similar length, yet they eschew iambs and rhyme schemes in favor of play, with music, with words, with concept. One runs down the alphabet; another is about Scrabble. Others form litanies. Hayes wrote the sonnets during the first 200 days of the Trump presidency, a time when the forms and rules that we’d been working with seemed to fall apart. But they’re also about an America that’s always fought the restrictions of categorization and form. It's those tensions that the book inhabits.
Hayes reads from the book on Wednesday, June 27 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. It's fitting: Hughes himself hovers over the proceedings here. The book’s first lines read, “The black poet would love to say his century began / with Hughes or God forbid, Wheatly, but actually / It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors.” Yet comparison to Whitman also feels fitting. Trump might’ve been the catalyst for this book, but Hayes’s poems roam between voices, between opposing points of view, returning again and again to themes of blackness, of Americanness, of violence, and of love, so that by the end he seems to have encompassed much of a nation.
It’s a political book (what book isn’t?), and in the hands of a less gifted poet, it could read as a flat rant against the administration. But the “assassin” of the title shifts between poems, between lines even. The aggressor is not simply one man. And even when Hayes’ killers become clear, the lines are anything but flat:
I pour unmerciful panic into your river I damn you
With the opposite of prayer Byron De La Beckwith
Roy Bryant J. W. Milam Edgar Ray Killen Assassins
Love trumps power or blood to trump power
Beauty trumps power or blood to trump power
Justice trumps power or blood to trump power
The names alive are like the names in the graves
Wed, June 27, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, free