I should have done this months ago, but as I wrote last week my books are packed and effectively lost in the attic—the end of my own marriage meant my losing a wonderful book about the end of a marriage. I’ve found it, and better late than never.
Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets opens with his translation of Petrarch’s Sonnet 196, at once announcing the book’s ambition and scope while demonstrating the kind of formal strategies he deploys to fulfill that ambition: Petrarch begins “L’aura serena” and Barnstone answers “The tranquil aura”; Barnstone rhymes leaves/face/day/deep holds/veils/pearl/gold—envelope rhyme, but two sets and slant as hell, and in the sestet manages to rhyme “knots” with “unknot” in the last three lines and make it work:
The time entangled me inside those knots
and time tied my heart with a sturdy twine
That only Death will know the manner to unknot.
His meter is a loosish pentameter, but capable of sustaining that penultimate line with its two medial trochees. It’s a fine beginning to a fine book.
“Marriage Psalm” follows with a catalog of blessings, including “Blessed the ways / of limbs entwined, a tangle without end / that only lack of love or death or time / can untie,” echoing and expanding the last image from the translation—in fact the poem almost feels like a version of the translation. Others of these poems are similarly connected: “Kabbalah” in the first section with its “arithmetic of love” in which the years “subtract themselves yet strangely add up to / how much, how many, and to how much more” is echoed in the last section’s “The New Math” with its “mathematics of divorce, / how many months alone, how slender is his waste these days ... Problem: her passion didn’t equal his. /Solution: what if he subtracted him?”; “Dark Lord” has the lost lover say “It’s funny seeing how Star Wars / is tacky now .. the quest resolved by the third act” remembered by “Had he but world enough and time / he would mourn all their futures dead / till sci-fi empires failed” in “Refusal to Mourn,” which of course also recalls Marvell—and The Beatles, Shakespeare, George Herbert, zombies, Yeats, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Charlie Parker, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are all woven into Barnstone’s densely allusive narrative.
Sad Jazz is divided into eight sections, each organized by the changing response of the main character to the end of an eighteen-year-long marriage. That marriage doesn’t formally end—the wife doesn’t leave—until the fifth section, but there are clues even in the first, even in the first poem’s blessings, the last of which is “blessed blind / pink worm that feeds on them like rot in fruit yet gives / them years alive with blessings in their lives.” Before long it’s “I’m going now, she said. Mmh-hmm, he murmured, / studying the screen, and didn’t hear her leave” (“Zombies”) and
What she hopes:
a bomb will drop, all things will die but bugs,
the continent will slip into the sea,
the planet will implode, and she’ll be free.
(“He Pays the Bill at the Sidewalk Café”)
Not that it’s as easy as that. The poems in the sections Driving Away from Her and Aftermath are frightening in their intensity (and frighteningly familiar to me, at the end of a second 12-year marriage). Sometimes they play at the edge of bathos, as in the end of the title poem, “Sad Jazz,” which begins with Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” but continues:
… listening to Parker play “Salt Peanuts,
Salt Peanuts,” snarls a laugh and sings “sad penis,
sad penis” to the slack sack on his thigh.
He rides a borrowed couch, falls into blue
listening to the jazz die. He’d like to, too.
It is still play—bitter, self-aware, and funny, riding internal rhyme and staccato consonance, echoing the jazz—despite the title.
Tomorrow I want to write about the ways Barnstone plays in even the bleakest of these poems: the book is a marvelous manual of rhyme and sonnet structure.