Broken Sonnets by Kathleen Kirk

Broken Sonnets coverSonnets bore me, to put it mildly. The 16th century is over, and it’s time to move on. It would be as if symphony orchestras still played nothing but music from the 18th and 19th centuries… Oh, right. Never mind.

Kathleen sent me two of her chapbooks, but when I saw Broken Sonnets, I was all like, Fuck yeah! It’s about time someone busted the sonnet upside the head. The opening poem, “Damage,” looked suspiciously like an unbroken, traditional sonnet, much as I liked its celebration of brokenness: so Old Testament, so heavy metal.

Pain is a song I’ve sung
so long you can’t even hear it now. Open

your own broken heart. Look!

(Notice how I’m sparing you the sonnetesque end-rhymes.)

From there, the collection went right into some sexy poems about married love, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron for y’all, and the only things reminiscent of sonnets from then on out, except for a few poems that made a side-swipe at the proper rhyme-scheme and meter, were the approximate length (14-ish lines) and the approximate mood, subject matter and approach (personal relationships, kinda metaphysical, seemed like they might go well with clavichord accompaniment). I read the first half of the book sober and the second half drunk, so don’t ask me about the second half. Actually, the book looked really good by the end of the night. I was ready to go home with it.

Seriously, there are some kick-ass poems here. “Roof Leak, Mima Calls” is the best poem I’ve ever read about ice dams.

Phone rings: your mother with the news.
Ceiling shifts: it wants to open.
Cancer: nothing falls, not even the sky.
Your voice is a long wooden level, its yellow tube
tipping the bubble of air toward hope
and back, until you hang up the phone and cry.

The last couplet of the last poem in the book “rhymes” eros with rose, which I had to admit was a pretty cool move. But four pages back, “Prose Sonnet to the Silent Father” gets into some deep emotional waters, and really grabbed my attention when I re-read it under the influence. An excerpt won’t quite do it justice:

9. You are like a poetry teacher.

10. I need to learn how to say the opposite of what I mean but without irony

11. (a prose tactic, yours).

12. I need to learn how to leave silence at the center

13. and still be able to sign my name to it

14. as if it were written by me.

In “Here in Paradise,” the protagonist and her husband fish and eat fish in (I think) Florida, and I could smell the brine —

I cannot speak, nor close my stinging mouth.
This is how I pray, across the burning sands.

— which quote, by the way, shows off Kirk’s skill with caesuras. The intra-line breaks are so regular, in fact, I wonder if that might not be part of what makes the poems “broken.” Especially since there is a poem called “Caesura.” (Nothing gets by me, does it?) Here’s the latter 8/14ths of it:

Now she sings as red October bleeds
from the edges of the day, a dull race

the night always winds. Why should I dread
these yellow leaves? I don’t believe in suffering

as a path to heaven. I walk on leaden
claws, vulture the earth into feathering

a nest for me that can cradle my bones
as they disintegrate, one by brittle one.

That’s pretty wonderful, is it not? Just don’t tell me it’s a goddamn sonnet.

*

UPDATE (next morning): With all my kvetching about sonnets, I forgot to mention my favorite poem in the chapbook, which communicates a mother’s experience of childbirth in the most vivid language imaginable. I hope Kathleen won’t mind if I reproduce the entire poem here. Among other things, it really carries forward the idea of breaking as a creative and necessary thing:

An Answer

Childbirth: the crashing of a steel girder
to the floor,
one room
breaking into two.
Your hips, sharp handles
on a silver cup.
Your pelvis,
a wishbone
snapping.
An ocean forces itself into the wineskin that is you.
A holy book you read again and again, aloud,
on your knees.

It makes a silence, a sky

splayed open by milky stars.

* * *

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

11 Comments


  1. I agree that the English sonnet is usually an irritating form — elaborate, fussy, and unsuited to English — but I don’t know what the 16th Century being over has to do with it. Don’t mess with my dead people, man :-)

    This sounds like a great book, thanks!

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    1. Dale, you will out-crank me every time! Glad the high quality of the collection came through.

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      1. Ha! As soon as I read that first paragraph, I knew Dale would have something to say about it.

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  2. Hi Dave–

    I’m sure there is a strong tradition of the half-drunk, half-sober review. I wonder in what century it began.

    Totally disagree regarding the sonnet. For me, it does not matter what forms or ostensible breakage or lack of forms floats your boat. It just matters that the poem works. It’s that dead simple for me.

    Of course, I headed back to form after growing bored with life without things like metrics and sometimes even rhyme, so we are looking at these issues from opposite ends of the telescope. Your boredom is not the same as my boredom.

    After Surrey and Wyatt kicked things off in English, we had great sonnets in the following century, skipped the one after that, and saw more great ones in the next and the one after that one. Skewed or unskewed, it still has life and challenges a great many poets even now.

    Also: it’s impossible to write a poem of 14 lines without it having some relation to the tradition.

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    1. Marly – Thanks for sharing your opinions. I have collected some notes toward an essay on free verse, but I don’t know if I’ll overcome my aversion to systematic thinking long enough to shape them into anything coherent. But yeah, we are, if not at opposite poles, certainly in very different places. And for me, that place keeps moving. Lately I find myself more drawn to “difficult” poetry than I used to be — for example, this morning’s Poetry Daily poem by Reginald Shepherd really hit the spot.

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    2. P. S. I completely forgot to say that you did a good job of responding to the book–enticing, as usual.

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  3. So glad I could drive you to drink. I love you, man.

    Hey, it’s “a dull race the night always wins.”

    Speaking of winning, someone eager for a night of debauchery could actually win this book in the Big Poetry Giveaway for National Poetry Month! Sign up at my blog for that one, or, if you fear sonnets, at any number of participating poetry blogs this April!!

    Reply

    1. Hi Andrea – Click on the cover image to go to a page I created for it in Open Library, which is a site that uses ISBN to pull data from a number of different sites (though sometimes there’s nothing there). Probably the publisher, Finishing Line Press, is your best bet, if you can find it on their ridiculous website. Or you can probably get a copy directly from the author!

      Reply

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