Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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Sites of Exchange

Both aimless and purposeful, walking sounds the rhythm of heartbeats and breath, iambic footfalls that lend sonnets their rhythms. For much of my life, I’ve traveled on foot, a mode of transportation offering infinite possibilities and, if one has adequate time for walking, an opportunity for abandonment. Since I did not own a car until a few years ago—or drive at all, for that matter—most of my solo adventures necessitated slow travel by bus or train, trips punctuated by incessant stops and long stretches of waiting. As a writer, my process frequently unfolds in these episodes of slow transport. The sweep of languages, postures, and scents animating these public spaces in motion and pause form a strange human narrative in which I occupy a single passenger seat.

Sonnets are similarly conducive to slowness. Their historical roots dating back to the Renaissance encourage careful intention and entail homage. Calling the sonnet a “scanty plot of ground,” Wordsworth muses, “In truth the prison, into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is.” The refrains of long-ago sonnets charge the form itself with sonic imprints. For me, a poem’s “strangest of theatres”—so called by Elizabeth Bishop—opens outward from the haunted, half-lit stages of platforms, terminals, and depots, sites of exchange to which one can neither lay claim nor be denied occupancy. Amtrak stations, bus terminals, mall food courts, city streets, and supermarket checkout lines often stage the small, innocuous, human dramas flush with images and ideas for poems.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I took an agonizing, cramped bus ride from Rochester, New York, to Houston, Texas, sandwiched between a large family that appeared to be Mennonites and a man who worked seemingly endless shifts on an oil rig in Waco. The whole ordeal lasted nearly thirty hours. As this man confided in me the details of his divorce—he said he was to blame—a group of children in dirty jumpers who had never watched television or used an iPhone ate Cheez-Its out of a plastic bag, staring at me as if I were equally strange to them. I felt relieved to be anonymous, to see that other image reflected back at me, though I admit that when we came to a wooden roadside convenience store abutting a rice field somewhere in Arkansas, I wished I had sprung for the plane ticket.

Yet, it is the arbitrary arrangement inside a bus that makes my theatre possible. I am grateful for the pedestrian, astonishing, repulsive, and always magnetizing human carnival. The sonnet is another vehicle for embracing mingled order and chaos, a microcosm of drama in which the conditions of the writer condition the poem. Years ago, in Kathleen Graber’s creative writing workshop, I wrote two braided sonnets on a whim. While I initially resisted the obedience the form demands—sonnet writing felt spooky—small sequences soon assumed the shape of my life. They were small reflectors rotating in a hallway of mirrors. The events that sidled their way into sonnets were both subversive and discursive: I found a magazine with a spread about John Muir; I visited a cemetery; I rode my bike almost exclusively; I exchanged letters with my sister in Morocco; I watched a girl take a picture of a dead bird and pronounce it beautiful. I was happy; I was heartbroken; I spent a lot of time in my house; I went for long walks; I read about geometry and space; I drank too much; I didn’t wear a watch. As the sonnet’s legislation became clear to me, counting syllables and playing with line endings became an intoxicating game. I was a tenant in a rented room who spent the night arranging and rearranging a very limited amount of furniture.

Eventually, two or three poems collaged from imaginary scenes, ephemera, and life events furiously cartwheeled into a heroic crown of sonnets whose individual poems explore different aspects of traditional themes addressed to a single person. In this sense, the heroic crown published here in Blackbird fulfills the historical ambitions of a corona of sonnets and appeals, as all poems do, to someone other than the poet. And, yet, the human ear lends a lyric poem its own uncanny, intuited associations, and any sonnet’s straightforward contract allows a degree of adaptability. Instead of opening each sonnet with the last line of the preceding one, I opted for more flexibility, selecting only a couple of words or a single phrase for repetition. I also varied the syllable counts at whim so each sonnet may not conform to iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme, however, remains faithful to Shakespeare’s English sonnet. In the fashion of a heroic crown, the final, fifteenth sonnet melds the first lines of the preceding fourteen sonnets in order. It encapsulates, in a dissonant way, the central concerns of the sequence by disorienting the reader.

For me, a longer sequence begs a kind of obsessive endurance by asking the poet (and the reader) to forgo a fear of laws in order to find abandonment within them. In this relationship, form and subject matter operate symbiotically on stable but shifting ground. The transparency afforded by the sonnet’s design thus favors a productive ambiguity. As the reader steps on stage, he or she shuffles backward and forward into the next word or next line, and then sideways as the rhymes change, magnify, or undercut the meanings of the preceding lines. Then, all of a sudden, we’re dancing.  

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