Prof. Van Jordan
September 24, 2018
A Contemporary Black Hole: My Past and Future Assassin
“I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison/ Part Panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame” (11: 1-2), begins one of the poems in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Assassination is an extended metaphor Terrance Hayes uses throughout the collection; the speaker names assassins literally in “I pour a pinch of serious poison for you” (12), metaphorically talks of his own assassination in “The earth of my nigga eyes are assassinated” (17) and describes the continual restlessness and lamentation “the assassin” makes him feel in “I remember my sister’s last hoorah” (81). Knowing that the collection is written in a time of political unrest, it becomes evident that the assassin is inseparable from racism, and the emotional outpour of the speaker is strengthened with each mention of “assassin” throughout the sonnets. The present lives in fear of the assassin, a threat that haunts from the past and seems to continue into the future.
The assassins from black history is damned with “a pinch of serious poison” (12: 1) and “the opposite prayer” of their own poison (12: 9). Appearing early on in the collection, these assassins are apparent in meaning— cold-blooded murderers. Since Hayes writes the sonnets in free verse, the position of the volta is less restrained. The 11th line is a plausible candidate as the subject switches from the assassin to the authority granting them the platform to kill:
Love trumps power or blood to trump power
Beauty trumps power or blood to trump power
Justice trumps power or blood to trump power
The names alive are like the names in the graves (12: 11-14)
“Trump” may be an obvious reference to the presidential figure, but the word itself also implies a higher power as in a card game, where the trump card is a hidden resource that players can manipulate to gain advantage over their opponents. The poem says “love, beauty and justice” is above power—either that, or they lose to the trump power in blood. These three lines in the structure A or B, written in the present tense, point directly to the racial dichotomies in society today. If love or justice can’t win over authority, blood will be shed and the names alive will be threatened. This fear is resonated on a personal level in the lines of the following sonnet:
The earth of my nigga eyes are assassinated.
The deep well of my nigga throat is assassinated. (17: 1-2)
The speaker describes his various body parts being assassinated. A vivid imagery of a tortured man emerges, one that is closely associated with the slavery period. “Assassinate” appears a maximum of 8 times in this sonnet. The subject is explicitly introduced in the previous sonnet, and here it appears as a verb as the speaker describes the assassin in action. It is unclear if “you” is still referring to the authority, or the collective power of racism, but the fear is starkly heightened as the word echoes throughout the lines. The speaker even compares his tongue to the “head of a turtle wearing my skull for a shell” (12). A turtle ducks his head into the shell out of fear, but where can the speaker hide even when he stops talking if his head is susceptible to the dangers of the assassin lurking outside? I find the last line most interesting, and possibly the volta of this sonnet:
Still, I speak for the dead. You cannot assassinate my ghosts. (14)
This is a shift in tone as the speaker holds his stance audaciously. He says ghosts, rather than ghost, from which I infer that he is no longer only addressing himself. His ghosts, his fellow brothers and sisters who were killed, cannot be silenced because he is speaking up for them, through a literary work that will be timeless, because the topic will continue to be relevant into the future.
And I share a loss, sweet Assassin, aren’t you & I haunted,
Sweetness, Sweetness, Sweetness? Poor, tattered Heart,
Old, poisoned Heart, I’ve almost grown tired of talking to you. (81: 12-14)
In this sonnet from the last section, the speaker griefs over a lost sister, another black people he’d grown tired of losing” (2). He is lamenting the loss of people again and again to the assassin, and he feels restless, no longer wishing to talk about this for it doesn’t seem to be working. A pleading and lifeless tone is adapted here, emphasizing the continuity of the frustrating situation, the temporal fermata of racism.
I was wondering why the sonnets are titled “My Past and Future Assassin”, but not the present, and the above sonnets answered the question. The present is a temporal black hole in American history, where violence and racism perpetuate, when things we fought for racial equality is denied once again, when we thought we have improved for the better, only to be forced to face the reality that the past does not stay in the past, but haunts the future.
How emotional resonance is developed
Fermata/ Psychological/ Sequential/ Chronological
Associative language role – images formed mentally “We come to understand the growing resonance of a repeated line over the course of a poem, the duality of a repeated word, the pacing of meter, through the practice of form.”
Line breaks/ syntax/ themes
Question about the assassin- what is he referring to
Hysteria- : a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances; : behavior exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess
The context this was written in makes a lot of things clearer Bad times- understand contemporary American
they return to lamentation, to annihilating grief for “all the black people I’m tired of losing,”
the volta after an octave— a sudden turn, a new argument. It’s what makes the sonnet implicitly American — the ability to change your mind, the willingness to change your course.
Extended use of metaphor
All free verse same title importance
what it means to be an American, to belong, and how it feels to be haunted and hunted by violent racism.
there never was a black male hysteria,” which becomes a kind of refrain throughout the book’s five sections
challenging the assassin, but also fears it
Juxtapositions of the abstract and the everyday are sometimes revealing, of course, but here they seem contrived, dreams described without analysis.
One poem begins with a list of literal assassins, killers of black men, women, children, and civil rights leaders—it helps to remember that assassination is an inherently political act.
Colemanian sonnets after Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, whose improvisational free jazz approach to sonnets is the starting point for these poems.
But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future.
In a book unwritten, there is neither future nor past—only the possibilities of both. These poems puncture a hole in time, fragmenting a grief, a rage, a rebellion, an irony so deep that one can only call them blue.