some thoughts on sonnets, but first on breaking silence

I’ve been reading through The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and loving it so much more than even I thought I might. In part, of course, because I’ve quite fallen for this form, although I’m still no where having even one come together for me in my own writing life. And in part because the book has women. Contemporary women, sure, but not only—women who published sonnets and sonnet sequences hundreds of years ago. Women who seemed to not exist when I was an English major in college in the early 1980’s. And who certainly didn’t exist when I was at UC Irvine in 1985-86 and was told I couldn’t write about women writers in the 1700s because there were no women writers then—a statement made even more sexist-piggish because, in fact, all the male writers we were studying said that one particular woman was the best poet of their time. Odd how there was a best poet yet she didn’t exist? And the professor who proclaimed this was a scholar of exactly that group of male writers. Had he not read them? Or did he just have some awful brain disorder that couldn’t process female pronouns?

All those years of feminist scholarship have made this huge difference, and even such a mainstream anthology now includes women writers, and talks about their work seriously. Yes, the legacy of male writers is still far greater, or perhaps just far less suppressed, but that utter silence is gone.

Or is it just that this amazing anthology is edited by a woman writer?

In any case, the editor, Phillis Levin, has written a great introduction, with pretty much anything you’d need to know about the sonnet in English. A few highlights I am writing so I will remember:

The easiest thing to say about a sonnet is that it is a fourteen-line poem with a particular rhyme scheme and a particular mode of organizing and amplifying patterns of image and thought; and that, if written in English, the meter of each line usually will be iambic pentameter. Taken as a whole, these fourteen lines compose a single stanza, called a quatorzain, the name given to any fourteen-line form. But though a sonnet typically has fourteen lines, fourteen lines do not guarantee a sonnet: it is the behavior of those lines in relation to each other—their choreography—that identifies the form.

Whatever its outward appearance, by virtue of its infrastructure the sonnet is asymmetrical. The dynamic property of its structure depends on an uneven distribution of lines, of the weight they carry. It is top-heavy, fundamentally. Opposition resides in its form the way load and support contend in a great building.

In Italian, volta (a feminine noun) can refer to a change that is temporal, as in prossima volta, “next time,” or spatial, as in “a bend.” In architecture, it is the term for a vault, which forms the supporting structure for a roof or ceiling—an apt metaphor, as the volta supports and defines the structure of the sonnet. Turning marks time and its passage: in an Italian sonnet, the poet has less time before the turn arrives, but more space in which to make the turn, more time to amplify the aftermath.

Shakespeare is clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme. He begins with the assumption that love is like nothing else but itself: it is beyond compare, beyond comparison. Yet this reflection beyond reflection mirrors the self-reflexive nature of the sonnet, its tendency to implode in its solitary cell. The unrepeatable instant is suspended and refracted in verbal and acoustical repetition; the unreproducible being produces an echo of everlasting absence.


it will not be simple, it will not be long

from Contradictions: Tracking Poems by Adrienne Rich

Final Notations

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple

You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives

it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will

This is just to say I have eaten the eco-tourist

from the website Obsidian Wings special issue on crocodile poetry

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the eco-tourist
that was in
the river

and whom
you were probably
relying upon
to pay your guide fees.

Forgive me
he was delicious
so crunchy
and screamy.

— Obviously Not William Carlos Williams

Bees and Morning Glories

Bees and Morning Glories
by John Ciardi

Morning glories, pale as a mist drying,
fade from the heat of the day, but already
hunchback bees in pirate pants and with peg-leg
hooks have found and are boarding them.

This could do for the sack of the imaginary
fleet. The raiders loot the galleons even as they
one by one vanish and leave still real
only what has been snatched out of the spell.

I’ve never seen bees more purposeful except
when the hive is threatened. They know
the good of it must be grabbed and hauled
before the whole feast wisps off.

They swarm in light and, fast, dive in,
then drone out, slow, their pantaloons heavy
with gold and sunlight. The line of them,
like thin smoke, wafts over the hedge.

And back again to find the fleet gone.
Well, they got this day’s good of it. Off
they cruise to what stays open longer.
Nothing green gives honey. And by now

you’d have to look twice to see more than green
where all those white sails trembled
when the world was misty and open
and the prize was there to be taken.


from this week’s Writer’s Almanac. I really love this poem. Gotta go buy the book.


by Nick Lantz

Would it make a difference to say we suffered
from affluenza in those days? Could we blame
Reaganomics, advertainment, the turducken
and televangelism we swallowed by the sporkful,
all that brunch and Jazzercise, Frappuccinos
we guzzled on the Seatac tarmac, sexcellent
celebutantes we ogled with camcorders while
our imagineers simulcast the administrivia
of our alarmaggedon across the glocal village?
Would it help to say that we misunderestimated
the effects of Frankenfood and mutagenic smog
to speculate that amid all our infornography
and anticipointment, some crisitunity slumbered
unnoticed in a roadside motel? Does it count
for nothing that we are now willing to admit
that the animatronic monster slouching across
the soundstage of our tragicomic docusoap
was only a distraction? Because now, for all our
gerrymandering, the anecdata won’t line up for us.
When we saw those contrails cleaving the sky
above us, we couldn’t make out their beginning
or their end. What, in those long hours of ash,
could our appletinis tell us of good or of evil?

“POSTMANTERRORISM” by Nick Lantz, from The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House. © The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

The Bull Sea Lion

to hear me reading this poem at the Drew 2010 Winter Residency, click

to read much earlier drafts of this work, go to here

The Bull Sea Lion

Ocean-skinned in neoprene, bug-faced,
web-footed, descending, cold, searching,

gasping at my sudden shadow,
all looming black lithe ton of him.

Every nerve screams flee in the face
of his face, of his mass, but mammal flesh

draws mammal flesh. Yearning, a fear unfelt—
I reach my human hand to him.

What he could do he does not. He considers
me, rolls belly up, leans into me rumbling

I knew your mother once, surges muscle
and dives. His bulk becomes

a churn of bubbles, each an egg sac bursting
empty, each my selkie child unconceived.

The first time,

To hear me reading a slightly different version of this poem at the Drew 2010 Winter Residency, click

The first time,

in the Rittenhouse Radisson, was to
be wicked hot, me and her and her girl-
friend who even then was coughing up blood
and hiding it. I kissed the one and then
the other, the first time, when our worry was
jealousy. The first time she hid her blood-
stained panties in tangled sheets for the first
time. Each hand deep in a competing cunt,
she howled and whooped, the first time, three days
after the report said melanoma.
We were innocent, the first time, with more
hands than Kali but not enough to shield
liver and lungs, spleen and spine. The first time
we had a great time, time we would not have.

Well, damn, it’s a relief to be a slut

Marilyn Hacker, from Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Sonnets can be damn fun, oh yes they can.

Well, damn, it’s a relief to be a slut
after such lengths of “Man delights not me,
nor woman neither,” that I honestly
wondered if I’d outgrown it. Chocolate
or wine, a cashmere scarf, a cigarette,
had more to do with sensuality
than what’s between my belly and my butt
that yearns toward you now unabashedly.
I’d love to grip your head between my thighs
while yours tense toward your moment on my ears,
but I’ll still be thankful for this surprise
if things turn out entirely otherwise,
and we’re bar buddies who, in a few years,
will giggle about this after two beers.