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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Last August I had a discussion with Kasey Mohammad on "sonneticity." Can you guess which one of us wanted more exclusivity for the use of the term? My own sonnets, while not always strictly in one of the three major English forms, have all so far been pentameter with few substitutions, and there are few, if any, slant rhymes. In my younger, dumber days, (all of three years ago, at the tender age of 49) I even argued on this site that pentameter had become a mandatory feature of a "real" sonnet in English. Younger, dumber, and besotted with the discovery that I could say what I wanted to say in a full-rhymed pentameter sonnet without too much difficulty. To be truly honest, at the time that was the only way I could make poems at all.

I still think frequent metrical substitutions destabilize the pentameter, but other meters are less fragile, and the sonnet doesn't really depend on any particular meter or rhyme scheme. It's a kind of poetic gesture, or, better, a family of gestures. Some are love poems, some are meditations, some worship, some tell tales: all wrestle, whether they turn or not. Almost every poem in Jill Alexander Essbaum's Oh Forbidden goes to the mat.

OK, that pun was bad even for me. But it stays.

Essbaum's sonnets are marvelous, sexy, simultaneously joyful and anguished, and I can't resist quoting in full the poem from which the title's taken:

Oh we are dancing. Oh we undress, Oh
how your hands handle my breasts. I open
like a door, I unhinge. Oh your moistened
lips climbing up the well-traveled road
of my thighbone. Oh the reddening rose
and her mystery bliss. She groans, she glistens.
Oh she listens. Speak tongues, Thou Great Physician,
heal my deepening need. Oh memento,
remember this: not for my skin and all
its sinning shall I ever dare repent.

Oh forbidden, I am wicked but prohibit my taboo.
Oh swollen, I'm engorged. Oh waterfall,
I'm drenched. Oh Father, forgive. I know not
who I do. Oh beast. Oh bastard. Oh you.

Slant-rhymed Petrarchan just begins to describe the rich sonic structure of this poem, with its internal and cross-rhymes, its alliteration, the changes it rings on its opening phrase, its propulsive rhythm built from scraps of every prosody in English. It's not pentameter, though there are lines which could be scanned that way—scanning is irrelevant in a poem like this.

Ms. Essbaum claims "no actual relationships were harmed in the making of this book"—but it just might have been worth such a price.


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