Examining Allusion and Apparition in Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

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. 

Book cover of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by American poet Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, 2018.

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).

Works Cited:
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.

Examining Structure in Tiana Clark’s “Nashville” From I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood

In the poem “Nashville” the narrator is walking down Second Avenue in Nashville with their white husband when a racial slur is yelled at them from an unknown source (Clark xiii-xv). The poem hinges on this moment. The “four violent syllables stabbing my skin” sets Tiana Clark on an investigation into the legacy of Nashville that is gentrified by people who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre” (xv, xiii). The narrator also examines their own history—“my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name, / a slave from Warrior, North Carolina” (xiv). Clark uses sound, rhythm, and concrete imagery to great effect in “Nashville.” Further to this, the author’s structural choices strengthen and unify themes of place, public and private histories, memories, race, family, and mythology.

Tiana Clark’s most recent book of poetry, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, 2018

“Nashville” consists of fourteen quatrains with equal line length, except in the last stanza. The poem is sectioned into two parts with the racial epithet used as a bridge and a barrier to connect and contrast two histories. The first section refers to the city of Nashville and the second is a personal reflection. The structure of the poem’s stanzas can be looked at in a 6,1,6,1 formation.

The first six stanzas investigate the legacy of Nashville by comparing it to “hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame covered spice / for white people” (xiii). Here the enjambment is such that the stanzas merge into each other: “or maybe // they’ve hungered” and “where freed slaves lived // on the fringe of Union camps” (xiii). What is interesting is that the lines have freedom to move into the next stanzas. Contrast this with the social divide of the South where their own food— “hot chicken” is now curated by white people and their economic resources taken from them with the “I-40 that bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete” (xiii).

The seventh stanza is where the racial slur occurs and in the same stanza: “Again. Walking down / Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back / of my husband” (xiv). This stanza acts as a link to the next section of the poem, triggering the narrator to reflect on their personal history. Had the racial slur been placed at the start of the poem, the bridging and contrasting of the two legacies as well as the poem’s shift towards a personal response would have made less of an emotional and intellectual impact because the racial slur would be decontextualised.

It is worth noting that while the seventh stanza acts as a bridge to the poet’s personal history it also acts as a barrier between the gentrified people in the first six stanzas who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre”(xiii). In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder states, “life is mirrored in…our use of language: we start forgetting the true significance of words and using them quickly, thoughtlessly, to function socially, and to stand in for certain experiences” (42).

But Clark’s refusal to not “give a damn”, embodied by the narrator asking “Who said it?” shows the responsibility that a poet has in not forgetting the importance of language and how it is used (xiv). Clark says: “there is always a word I’m chasing inside / and outside of my body” (xiv). Not only is Clark chasing a word and its importance but she’s also in control. Clark is doing the chasing and the questioning.

The next six stanzas continue to flow into each other as Clark searches for definitions and histories of words, “scanning // the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots” (xiv). However, the thirteenth stanza ends with a full-stop— “four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamoured with pain” (xv). This throws the structure off kilter, offering no exit.

The last stanza’s first line is of similar length to the rest of the poem but the last three lines are shorter and repetitive referencing the “breath…panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair” in stanza thirteen (xv). “I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself: /Who said it? / Who said it? / Who said it?” (xv)

While the seventh stanza is significant because this is where the racial slur occurs, it is in the final stanza that the structure shifts. The formation of 6,1,6 offers a barrier with the structure mirroring the experience of Clark, who is outnumbered by the mob. In the last stanza there is no circling back as the structure has made this impossible. However, the structure of 6,1,6,1 offers the poet a way through the mob to get to meaning, no matter the pain that her search for “Who said it” causes herself (xv).

Works Cited:

Clark, Tiana. “Nashville.” I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. University of Pittsburgh Press, September 18, 2018, pp xiii-xv. (You can read or listen to her poem “Nashville” on The New Yorker)

Zaprudur, Matthew. Why Poetry. Harper Collins Publishers, 2017, pp 42.

Essay by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press

Placemeant: The Impact of Form on Content in Aritha van Herk’s “In Visible Ink”

At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic.

Aritha van Herk’s In Visible Ink, 1991

How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers.

“In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion.

After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth).

After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course).

Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet.

As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression.

Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail.

The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic.

The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness.

The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them.

The Arctic exists outside of the boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a writer’s reflection in the ice.

Works Cited:
van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.

Essay by Allie McFarland, RVRB Editor and co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Allie writes novel(la)s—concise, women-centred blends of prose and poetry.