American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

by Major Jackson

Terrance Hayes is probably the most innovative poet addressing the complexities of race in America today. In all of his work, five poetry collections to date, he ferociously unearths the layers of racist thinking and its harmful effects, often using the poem’s form as his tool. And his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is no exception. With its publication, Hayes joins a distinguished group of poets—among them, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ted Berrigan, John Berryman, Gerald Stern, and Natasha Trethewey—to successfully redress the sonnet for contemporary audiences. This is not the first time Hayes has used the sonnet form as metonymic history of racialized violence. A poem in his collection Hip Logic simply titled “Sonnet” repeats fourteen times: “We sliced the watermelon into smiles.” Except here it is as if he exposes the whole nexus of historical, cultural, linguistic, and ideological thought that yields and builds and justifies white supremacy, American-style, with its “people of color complex.” Here are poems that praise the fallen and the resisters, such as James Baldwin; that curse assassins from James Earl Ray to Dylann Roof; that perform apotropaic magic in dramatizing the psychic reality of black people who—I know it’s hard to believe for some—feel like prey. However, it is Hayes’s intention to avoid becoming a temporary headline; he ultimately aims “to leave / A record of my raptures.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.