Why I Chose Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Terrance Hayes’s new collection is made up of seventy sonnets written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency. But while some of the poems deal pretty clearly with the current inhabitant of the White House—the sixth sonnet in the book calls him “Light as a featherweight monarch, / Viceroy, goldfish. Pomp and pumpkin pompadour,”—these poems aren’t limited to just this moment in history.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Terrance Hayes, you’ll need to to subscribe by May 20!

The opening poem in the collection begins:

The black poet would love to say his century began
With Hughes or God forbid, Wheatley, but actually
It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors
Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset
Bridges & windows.

This is a long, painful history Hayes is invoking here, reaching back beyond Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to be published as a poet, into the most active period of the North American slave trade. But he’s not just reaching back through time. This poem also invokes Sylvia Plath and Orpheus, and ends with a metaphor about the difficulty of communicating what you mean in language:

Orpheus was alone when he invented writing.
His manic drawing became a kind of writing when he sent
His beloved a sketch of an eye with an X struck through it.
He meant I am blind without you. She thought he meant
I never want to see you again. It is possible he meant that too.

Later poems in the collection directly address the Assassin from the title, and this had the effect of making the book more intimate to me. It asks me as a reader to stand in the place of the Assassin, and as a white male, that can cause some discomfort. But poetry should make us uncomfortable at times, especially those of us who are able to bumble through life blissfully unaware of the damage we (or at least those who look like us) do to everyone else just by not challenging the status quo.

This is a complex book and one that I’m going to have to sit with before our talk with Hayes at the end of May, but it’s worth the work. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me in June as we read and discuss American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, first together and then with Terrance Hayes in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by May 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →