Sonnets 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:
Childbirth: the crashing of a steel girder
to the floor,
breaking into two.
Your hips, sharp handles
on a silver cup.
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.
* * *