The Revolutions of a Sonnet: frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss

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The poet Robyn Schiff once remarked in a workshop, with a glow of mischievous joy, that writing in form as a woman poet is like drinking out of the Stanley Cup. Arms outstretched, Schiff grasped and lifted the imaginary trophy before her, implying that writing in form as a woman-identifying writer is a transgressive, subversive goal to aim for—something that requires both skill and daring. I think of the women poets who have foundationally transformed the formal tradition of the sonnet in America, each subversively intrepid in their work—poets like Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Patricia Smith, Monica Youn, and now Diane Seuss with the publication of her recent frank: sonnets.

One of my first thoughts, when I began reading frank: sonnets and experienced the crash and powerful undertow of Seuss’s lines, is that readers of poetry are sure to soon see imitations of Seuss’s sonnets abounding in literary journals and online—the experience of reading frank: sonnets feels very close to writing; it is a heady, intoxicating experience. Seuss understands the labor of a sonnet’s particular space—the intensity and the balance, the anaphora and the rhyme that can gallop wild inside the sonnet’s field. Like a mid-air dancer, Seuss makes the leap look easy, but as a late sonnet in frank notes:

Takes time to get to minimalism, years lived through, eau de
suffering, yes, I’m in that camp, as Orr writes, we move from
choked silence to blurted speech to diary with its useless key
to story to poetry, the most shaped, therefore most distant from
the original crime…

With her long lines (two sonnets are so wide-limbed they unfold from the book) that seem able to hold everything a life can, Seuss transforms what we think of as the sonnet’s landscape. And while one should never discuss any poet’s content at the expense of their chosen form, the content vitally matters when it comes to the tradition of the sonnet’s form—a form still regularly dictated and prescribed, boxed and narrowed to accommodate a particular formal lineages (and often the sonnet practitioner’s educational privilege). Seuss’s sonnets hold addiction and disease, poverty and death, abortions and caesarean birth equally in formal view, and in doing so, they brim with particular life the way the blues brim with song. And as with all art, Seuss’s engagement with the sonnet is still about choosing particulars and limit: “The sonnet,” writes Seuss, “like poverty, teaches you what you can do / without. To have, as my mother says, a wish in one hand / and shit in the other.”

In frank: sonnets, Seuss refuses to gloss over suffering or hardship directly related to class, gender, and America’s health crises, even—perhaps especially—when recounting moments of happiness or comfort, or estimating the speaker’s own skills, as in the sonnet beginning:

The small stuff, the care and feeding of things, chameleons.
I choose melons well and adequate to the job of reviving
the dead, I’ve done it, officially, three times. Nails: their pounding.
I remember a time I was bad at everything but rhyme, the teacher
slapped me for peeing myself, she had breast cancer so all is forgiven,
such as when she forced kids to eat the things they hated in hot
lunch until they heaved.

The lines quickly turn from good to ill, hinging on the brief, iambically percussive sentence, “Nails: their pounding.” The length of a sentence across lines is a revolving surprise in frank: sonnets. Sometimes the catalog of memory works by way of punctuated lists, and sometimes it runs to a sonnet-length sentence. Part of the joy of reading frank: sonnets is the incredible variety of grammar and form—you never know how the next sonnet on the page will operate; the repeating form is not repetitive, and wastes no time on sameness or uniformity.

That Seuss’s sonnets are gendered sonnets makes a difference in the sonnet’s formal history—the tits are the speaker’s (“You know what living means? Tits out, tits in the rain. Tits / in the cereal bowl. Tits ablaze.”), the perspective one that only comes from living in precarious and sometimes disastrous relationship to power. The sonnet “The famous poets came for us they came on us or some of us” is a poem addressing abuses within the literary community (perhaps better to say “scene” than community), in which the young and less protected are preyed on by older and more established writers. I don’t want to make this sound like it is an academic subject, because it’s not, and though Seuss’s sonnet is framed by past tense, the reader hears its present truth:

at least on some of us they did not come their poems were beautiful
or not but either way we learned to call them beautiful they came
like honeybees to hyacinths to some of us they came in some of us
the ones they called unreadable but fuckable or readable and fuckable

When this sonnet was published online in 2018, a collective gasp went around Twitter. A number of women writers thanked Seuss—surviving abuses of power is a collective and not an individual experience, a truth that Seuss’s sonnets key into. For a powerfully ejecting and rejecting sonnet that perhaps offers counterweight to the imbalance of power in “The famous poets came for us…,” look no further than one of the sonnets on the book’s fold-out page, the first line (none of the sonnets are titled): “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were, crackheads, I exiled them is what I did, from my son’s basement apartment, they’d come to feast of what was left.” The speaker recounts the birth of her son in 1985—an awake caesarean, her child wailing into life—and tells how “I hoisted those two dealers, I excised them, I pulled them like two bad teeth, and I didn’t have to use my hands, the smoke from the crack draped / in their hair like cobwebs.” It’s a double-wide sonnet that will hold your breath for you until the end, where the speaker also defends herself from potential violence from her son: “something in me rose up, like a deer I once saw that stood up on its back legs and roared, I excommunicated him, hoisted him, my will by then was / like a jackhammer or a god, or one of those queens who wears a dress made of stone, so don’t ask for my touch is what I’m saying, don’t ask me now to walk among the people.” The sonnet’s close holds the reader in the wake of the speaker’s power—you can feel the tremble of the poem’s concentric shocks.

“All lives have their tropes over which we have minimal control,” wonders another sonnet, “Maybe beauty / is your trope. That’s a good one.” Later in the sonnet, the examples grow darker and more cruel:

__________________________Maybe you’re marked as maudlin, or the one
who marks others as maudlin with a big fat pen. Or a couple hundred years ago
your people were owned. Or your people owned people. Your people were burned.
Or your people lit the match. The evils wriggle through the generations
like corpse worms. My great-grandfather beat to death a plow horse
in a field of grain. No wonder everything since has reeked of peasantry and pain.

The richly historied form of the sonnet is a powerhouse for holding the past. As the above sonnet closes on the internal/end rhyme of “grain/pain,” the speaker’s reading of their personal history is given the concluding weight and sonic latch of a rhyming couplet (invoking the ghost of the Shakespearean sonnet). In another sonnet, tracing a similar causal understanding of narrative and history, the speaker says, “We all have our trauma nadir, the umbilicus from which / everything originates and is tied off and turns black / and the cord eventually falls away.” Here, the extended metaphor of natal tissue (not a gendered metaphor, yet the attention to it is gendered) propels the argument forward, and falls away as the dried umbilicus falls. I doubt you can find Seuss working the same way twice inside of frank: sonnets—it’s less correct to speak of a volta in a Seuss sonnet, and better to speak of the many revolutions and turns each sonnet takes, courts, rejects, abates, welcomes and brushes aside, just as it is better to speak of rhythms than of any one meter, and line lengths rather than a particular number of feet. frank: sonnets is a tour de force and essential reading for those thinking about the many ways of the sonnet—Seuss’s sonnets are polychromal, polyvocal, manifold in shape and size, abundant in internal and slant rhyme. Seuss has not just drunk from the Stanley Cup, but from the waters of other dimensions and other versions of herself. The object of the sonnet rotates in Seuss’s hands, ever refracted and refracting. We see this in the sestet from “There is a force that breaks the body, inevitable,” with lines that show better than I can say the way Seuss winds her sonnets’ logics and song on a spinning bobbin of associative rhyme:

ironing out the kinks in despair, turning it to hairdo
from hair, to do, vexing infinitive, much better to be
pain’s host, body of Christ as opposed to the Holy
Ghost, when I have been suffering at times I could
step away from it by embracing it, a blues thing,
a John Donne thing, divest by wrestling, then sing.

Han VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina, under the pines. She has poetry and essays published in the Boston Globe, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, AGNI, and elsewhere. She is the reviews editor at EcoTheo Review, the editor at Moist Poetry Journal, and the author of the poetry collection What Pecan Light (Bull City Press, 2021). More from this author →