Well, it’s Thursday, though not the one I meant, and I still want to write about some of Barnstone’s formal bewitchery, especially with rhyme, and then move on to what I think are the best poems in the book—those in which the forsaken husband once again begins to interact with people outside the marriage.
Take “death” and “breath.” Richard Wilbur is supposed to have enjoined poets from ever using the same rhyme twice (can anyone give me a citation?), but what do you do about that pair? Robert Frost supposedly called them a “gift” (again, a cite?); Robert Mezey found an alternative when he rhymed “death” with “crystal meth,” but even that gives one only three distinct pairs; and Barnstone uses the original pair three times in this book: in “Antonyms,” “Suicide Road,” and “Zero at the Bone.” Working backwards, let’s see how.
In “Zero at the Bone,” she’s
… gone. No force
can fetch her back like Lazarus from death.
She’s in the undiscovered country where
she’s free of him. And now there’s only love
to love, invisible as God, as breath
siphoning from a hole. What’s left of her
for him? An absence in which to believe.
They’re the only perfect rhyme in the sestet (as are “knife” and “life” in the octave), so he hasn’t been boxed in to the rhyme. “Where” rhymes with “her” two sentences later, and “love,” which is a invisible as God and breath, with “believe”—and the breath is siphoning from a hole, and death is where Lazarus used to be, and the “undiscovered country” is for her as different from death as her state is for him, at least in his imagination. There’s reversal after reversal in here, layers of reference turned upside down and folded and rolled out and turning on that rhyme.
In “Suicide Road” they’re one of three pairs of perfect rhymes, the other two inner rhymes “light” and fight” in the octave and then “he” and “she” surrounded by our pair in the first four lines of the sestet:
… He thinks he is surviving death
by suicide, since she assumes that she
must die out of his life to live. Now he
is losing it and cannot catch his breath.
And here’s the worst: she’s made him understand.
Damn, damn, damn. God fucking damn.
It’s not as densely allusive as the previous poem, but just as witty, until that hammering final line.
“Antonyms” is the most technically interesting of the death/breath poems. It’s built like Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” starting with a pair of four feet per line and decreasing by a foot per pair to the central “forever, / one,” and then expanding back out to a final four feet pair—and that “forever” is by golly an amphibrach. Every pair of rhymes is also a pair of opposites: incline/decline, here/somewhere, away/stay (the only couplet), never/forever, one/no one, retract/give him back, and ending death/breath.
Only one other poem (“Insects”) has a shape something like “Suicide Road,” and there are three which begin with pairs of 7-feet lines and decrease by a foot. (Are they sonnets? They rhyme like sonnets; they turn; they’re in a book of sonnets.) Another (“Laughing Poem”) finishes the first 12 lines with “laugh” and ends “and then collapse onto the couch, a ha / all teeth and tear and gasping ah, ha, ha.”
All this technical bravura really comes to life as the husband starts to reconnect with other people, especially in the section “End of the Vacation,” a mostly drunken solo tour through Europe. “Heart Sushi” and the wonderfully titled “The Truth Is He Never Was Good at Flirting, But His Friends Did Their Best to Set Him Up” are particularly good: the latter ends with a bee sting on “lovely ass” and
… Patricia pouts,
“It hurts. It isn’t coming out” then smiles,
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to suck it harder.”
As I said in part 1, I’ve had my own recent marital train-wreck, and that may have colored my reading of Sad Jazz: Sonnets—it certainly made it harder write about—but I love this book for its casual-seeming technical audacity and capability, for its refusal to treat the sonnet as a template, for its unflinching examination of some of the most wrenching aspects of marital failure, for the tentative optimism explicitly expressed in some of the later poems, and for the ferocious optimism implied in having made the book at all.
Now I’m going to read what Tony Barnstone has to say about the contemporary sonnet.