Book Review: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

Book Review: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

Poetry: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

 

I will admit that I have been preparing for social distancing for years. Long before it became trendy with the arrival of a pandemic, I was the person who would be invited to a party, force myself to go, then sit in the corner. I was the child who brought a book to his friends’ birthday parties (true story). I am the awkward observer, happy to be invited, glad to attend, hoping to not talk to anyone.

 

Usually I can lose myself in a book. That is an invitation that I welcome, a world I can enter with abandon. But there are some books where I feel like that observer again. I see what is happening around me, and I respect it, but I recognize that I am an outsider, perhaps welcome but also wary.

 

Terrance Hayes’s poetry does that for me. His poems are stark, painful, sometimes angry, sometimes tragic, but always sharing an experience that color and privilege and other-ness has spared from me. That is not to say I do not enjoy or appreciate them. I do! They open a world to me that is bleaker than my suburban childhood and college-town residence reveals. They show me a world that is informed by absentee fathers and police brutality and social inequity. It is one thing to watch this on the news, to be aware of it in the abstract, to protest verbally and in the voting booth. Terrance Hayes does not allow that distance. In American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins he brings you into his world, forces you to see it through his eyes, hear it through his ears, feel it in his pain and his anger and his loss.

 

Hayes wrote these poems after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. For many African Americans, that election was a gut punch. After the euphoria of our first black president, seeing the country–no, seeing white Americans–retreat to elect someone who appealed to the apparently not-so-latent racism and xenophobia present among us was a bitter blow. That is not to say that Obama was perfect, nor did America become a racial utopia under his presidency. But he epitomized hope, hope that America did belong to all of us. Trump has never pretended that he believes that.

 

But Hayes’s “assassin” is not just Trump (or “Mr. Trumpet” as he calls him in some of the poems). It is white America. It is his own father. It is his own reflection. Despite the rejection he feels from society–white society–Hayes expresses the longing that most of us feel, the longing to belong, to be part of it. Not that he wants to be white, or even be part of white society. But the poems express a longing to be an accepted and welcomed part of the world, and an anger that the poet is not.

 

I could go on and on, but I won’t do them justice. All of them bear the same title as the book, though they cover the gamut of emotions and experiences of the poet in late 20-teens America. Hayes allows us to see the world with him, but in doing so he also demonstrates just how large the gap may be between white and black America. I welcome his invitation to the view. I also appreciate that this is a book which I can best support by sitting in the corner and listening and observing.

 

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

Book Review: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes

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