With his new book American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes released a collection of sonnets, American sonnets, that hew to the fourteen-line requirement of tradition, but they are more jazz than baroque. So much of modern poetry is about throwing off those old, formalized limitations, but sometimes there is freedom in limitations. Think of going to the grocery store and seeing 100 different kinds of cereal and picking just one. Then think of going to the corner store where you choose from just three. Sometimes that limitation frees you and that seems to happen with Hayes because this is a stunning and generous collection of poetry with seventy–yes seventy–sonnets.

I am struggling with how to share my excitement about this collection of poems. I want to just quote and quote and could easily end up just pasting sonnets with the instructions to “Read This!” But let me speak to the music of his poetry. It’s not just that he sometimes references Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it’s the rhythm of this poem titled “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin:”

“The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk
Stumps us. The lunk, the chump, the hunk of plunder.”

That is not the title poem or rather every poem is the title poem. All the poems are named “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin.” Hayes is aware that black men are endangered, threatened by racism, police, each other. Several poems open with the line, “But there never was a black male hysteria” addressing the very real fear. Another poem offers an alphabet of fears,

“Aryans, Betty Crocker, Bettye LaVette,
Blowfish, briar bushes, Bubbas, Buckras,
Archie Bunkers, bullhorns, bullwhips, bullets,
All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lillies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.”

I love the “Z” comes from sound and wonder why Bettye LaVette, though she is fierce.

Trump’s election may have inspired the poems and concern about white supremacy rising is woven into many poems, but Hayes only makes him front and center a few times, but when he does…

“Are you not the color of this country’s current threat
Advisory? And of pompoms at a school whose mascot
Is the clementine? Color of the quartered cantaloupe
Beside the tiers of easily bruised bananas cowering
In towers of yellow skin? And of Caligula’s copper-toned
Jabber-jaw jammed with grapes shaped like the eyeballs
Of blind people? Light as a featherweight monarch,
Viceroy, goldfish. Pomp & pumpkin pompadour,”

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is a grand collection of poetry that speaks to American society, the racism that endangers people of color and elected a white supremacist. I am fascinated by his choice to use the sonnet form. Fourteen lines give his poems urgency. I also love that he is a Dr. Who fan and has two poems for Whovians. He is a Time Lord.

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