Terrance Hayes’s poetry collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is a compendium of America’s ghosts. Published in 2018, the collection contends with America’s past, present, and future selves from the vantages of racism (on micro and macro levels), systemic oppression, and toxic masculinity in the age of the Trump presidency.
Hayes takes inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s work on defining the American Sonnet (Hayes 91); throughout the collection, Hayes’s seventy poems then critically resist and embrace the traditional form, seeking to forge his own American definition. The sonnet, pioneered by the likes of Petrarch and Shakespeare, typically contains fourteen lines; a set, regular rhyme scheme; the volta (or turn); and a thematic emphasis on love or romanticization. Here, Hayes mostly conforms, writing each sonnet with fourteen lines and many with identifiable turns. In the collection’s entirety, however, he abandons rhyme, opting instead for free verse. Each poem bears the same name—“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin—and through this recurring title and form, Hayes’s poems immediately challenge their reader: “How do you even begin to write love poems to your once and future killer?”
Additionally, once you are killed, what do you become? Ghosts are a recurrent motif in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes channels ghosts in both literal and figurative, direct and indirect, meta and intertextual levels; often, Hayes’s ghosts work on all planes simultaneously. In one sonnet, for example, he writes of ghosts directly: “After blackness was invented/ People began seeing ghosts. When my father/ Told me I was one of God’s chosen ones,/ He was only half bullshiting. Probably each twilight/ Is as different as a father is from his son” (39). Here, Hayes reflects on the hysteria of racism and othering, as white Americans turn black Americans into bogeymen, or “ghosts.” Hayes then draws a parallel to his father, both men of twilight, both half bullshitting, both not God’s chosen, but both certainly bogeyman to fear, bogeymen that haunt.
Moreover, this example of Hayes’s ghosts works indirectly as an allusion, as well. In American media, ghosts are a common image in referring to the Ku Klux Klan, given their white hoods and robes. The subject, “people,” can alternatively be understood as black victims experiencing “ghosts,” or racial hatred and extremism, for the first time, as race became a permanent social construct in American society with the invention of blackness (39). Here, the “ghost” is figurative and invoked indirectly.
Truly, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a trove of allusion, a device that is the collection’s driving force. Hayes’s reliance on allusion builds the collection’s compendium of specters—where politicians, poets, protests, and history are evoked (some named and others not) as apparitions, left to repeatedly echo within the confines of Hayes’s sonnets and across their pages.
At times, when celebrating protest and/or blackness, Hayes embraces the sonnet’s traditional romantic intentions. In one poem, Hayes shapes the sonnet into an ode as he proclaims his love for U.S. Representative Maxine Waters. Hayes writes:
“Maxine Waters, being of fire, being of sword/ Shaped like a silver tongue. Cauldron, siren,/ Black as tarnation, black as the consciousness/ Of a black president’s wife, black as his black tie/ Tuxedo beside his black wife in room after room/ Of whiteness. My grandmother’s name had water/ In it too, Water maker” (23).
Later, Hayes intertwines a second allusion, writing to Waters, “I love your mouth,/ Flood gate, storm door, you are black as the gap/ In Baldwin’s teeth, you are black as a Baldwin speech” (23). Like other black thinkers, writer James Baldwin is a figure returned to again and again throughout the collection. Baldwin is even given an ode of his own, where Hayes admires Baldwin’s wrinkles like “the feel and color of wet driftwood in the mud” (16).
From Ginuwine to James Baldwin, from Langston Hughes to Odysseus, Hayes’s use of allusion also alters the very form he has chosen by resisting the romanticization of the sonnet and invoking more angry or even somber voices. In some poems, he namelessly references Donald Trump. In one instance, he writes, “Are you not the color of this country’s current threat/ Advisory? And of pompoms at a school whose mascot/ Is the clementine” (10); later, the sonnet turns: “You are the color of a sucker punch/ […] a contusion before it swells & darkens” (10).
In other poems, Hayes transforms the sonnet into elegy. “Suppose we cannot/ Forget about what happened in Money. Suppose/ You’re someone who celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s/ Birthday. Suppose he was someone whose love/ For a black woman was blinded by blackness,/ Hers & his, yours & mine. I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave/ I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid” (63). In this example, Thomas Jefferson sits at the forefront of the sonnet; however, the poem has tragedy deeply embedded within its lines. First, tragedy is buried within the allusion of Money, the town in Mississippi where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one of America’s worst hate crimes. Second, the poem alludes to Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and later discovered to be the mother of six of his children. Till and Hemings emerge here as unnamed apparitions, echoing at the edges of the piece, their memories distant and their experiences haunting—echoes which Hayes reiterates throughout the collection.
Taken together, Hayes’s allusions beg the question: who is his assassin? Between his father, Waters, Trump, and so many others, Hayes’s assassin is a shapeshifter. Sometimes, when Hayes writes conversationally, “I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin,” the antagonist becomes the reader herself (63). Ultimately, Hayes’s assassin is not one person or one thing but again the collection’s compendium of ghosts. Hayes’s assassin is America: her history; her hate; her culture; her love; her past, present, and future zeitgeist (a word which translates literally from German as “time ghost,” by the way). The collection’s assassin is framed by the work’s recurrent title, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” where the present is disregarded and the past and future are regarded as one in the same. In the sonnets’ titles, time is rendered simultaneous, even absurd. Be it Trump or Till’s murderers, America’s toxicity and racial inequity constant; they, too, are merely shapeshifters. Or maybe time travelers.
In fact, Hayes bolsters this greater theme with yet another allusion: the television show Doctor Who. In one of the collection’s final poems, Hayes declares, “In a parallel world where all Dr. Who’s/ Are black, I’m the doctor who knows no god/ Is more powerful than Time. […]/ A brother has to know how to time travel & doctor/ Himself when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck” (77). In America, black men must always be prepared to return to a Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights era, where violence is imminent, because, despite illusions of progress, violence still is.
With his clever artistry of allusion, Hayes manages to craft an ultimate, meta allusion, which is used as the very scaffolding and premise for his entire collection. In his evocation of Baldwin and his usage of the love-addled sonnet, Hayes enacts Baldwin’s own poem, “A Lover’s Question.” Himself alluding to “America” by Samuel Francis Smith, Baldwin cries to America, his unrequited, even abusive lover: “I have endured your fire/ and your whip,/ your rope,/ and the panic from your hip,/ […]/ yet, my love:/ you do not know/ how desperately I hope/ that you would grow/ not so much to love me/ as to know/ that what you do to me/ you do to you” (Baldwin 60-1). Just as Baldwin questions America’s torrid affair with its black citizens, Hayes writes America love poems—some unrequited, some hurt, some scornful, some mournful, some even celebratory. Hayes begs Baldwin’s question: how can you, a black man, love a country that derides you? How can you forgive a country that can’t (or won’t) reckon with its ghosts? How can you serenade your home that is also sometimes your Hell? Nearing the end of the collection, Hayes concludes, “This country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his” (71).
Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014. eBook.
Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Penguin Poets, 2018. Print.
Essay by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Her work has appeared in Mystery Tribune and the Nexus Lit Journal. You can find Hope on Twitter.