Some Annotations for Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets

teaching

As the culminating poetry reading in my Principles of Literary Study course this term, I assigned Terrance Hayes’s marvelous sequence American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (New York: Penguin, 2018). I thought it would enhance students’ reading of the poems to have a little guidance to some of Hayes’s references, since allusiveness is a key aspect of his poetics. I am copying over the annotations I compiled to this website so that others may find and use them, or—more importantly—be prompted to read this excellent poet.

Hayes’s references generally seem to me to be geared to get readers to look things up, to find out what he is referring to, and, in general, to learn something once they have. Because readers’ range of decipherable allusion is vastly widened by Wikipedia, Hayes’s own cultural voraciousness is something readers can and should share in. (“I feel like everything’s on the table, and I can use it all,” he says in a 2018 Iowa Review interview). Historical and literary depth is complemented by a determined omnivorousness in cultural reference, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Doctor Who (in the same sonnet), Galway Kinnell to Ginuwine. Then again, once the poems establish expectations about the decipherability of their references, the non-decipherable or invented proper names stand out even more. Furthermore, Hayes’s marked affinity for puns and double meanings (”I make you both gym & crow here”) works against the definitiveness of the proper name. Which is a long way to say: use any annotations with caution.

Hayes’s own website gives links to a number of selections from the sequence published online. The group in the American Poetry Review is a good encapsulation of the range of the volume, and includes my students’ favorite, the abecedarian “Aryans, Betty Crocker, Bettye Lavette, / Blowfish, briar bushes, Bubbas, Buckras…” But really you should get the book.

The numbers are page numbers. A few poets’ names are glossed telegraphically because we’d read them together in the course. These do not pretend to be comprehensive. Corrections welcome.

Hughes (5)
Langston.
Wheatley (5)
Phillis.
Sylvia Plath (5)
American poet (1932–63), icon of confessional poetry, that is, poetry on explicitly autobiographical subjects.
Orpheus (5)
in Greek myth, a poet and singer who (in the most familiar version of the story, from the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses) attempted to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, was allowed by Hades to return with her on condition he not look back, looked back, lost her, and was subsequently torn to pieces by Maenads for playing unbearably mournful music.
Money (7)
Emmett Till was lynched at age 14 in 1955 in Money, Mississippi. His murderers were acquitted.
Neruda (8)
Pablo Neruda (1904–1973), Chilean poet, perhaps the most eminent Latin American poet of the twentieth century. Nobel Prize for Literature, 1971.
Sanford (9)
city in Florida, site of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Ferguson (9)
needs no annotation, hopefully, like the subsequent city names here.
threat / Advisory (10)
the US Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, used 2002–2011, mostly fluctuated between Yellow and Orange.
Caligula (10)
(12–41 CE), third Roman emperor, notorious for decadence and cruelty.
gym & crow (11)
Jim Crow is the name for the legal system of racial segregation in force in the U.S. South from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries.
Voltas of acoustics (11)
the volta, remember, is the “turn” prescribed between the 8th and 9th lines of a Petrarchan sonnet. Hayes is punning on “volts” too.
James Earl Ray (12)
assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
Dylann Roof (12)
perpetrator of a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, SC, in 2015.
George Zimmerman (12)
killer of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
John Wilkes Booth (12)
assassin of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
Robert Chambliss Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr / Bobby Frank Cherry Herman Frank Cash (12)
four Ku Klux Klan members who committed the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombings in Birmingham, AL, in 1963, killing four black girls.
Byron De La Beckwith (12)
Ku Klux Klan member who killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963.
Roy Bryant J. W. Milam (12)
murderers of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955.
Edgar Ray Killen (12)
Ku Klux Klan member and ringleader in the murders of three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in Mississippi in 1963.
Bettye LaVette (14)
soul musician.
Buckras (14)
white people.
Archie Bunkers (14)
Archie Bunker was a bigoted character on the 1970s sitcom All in the Family.
Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother” (14)
poem from Brooks’s first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945).
James Baldwin (16)
(1924–1987), eminent African-American essayist and novelist. A bit of a photographic icon too (look at images on the Wikipedia page).
Jimi Hendrix (18)
(1942–1970), the great guitarist.
Monk orchestras (18)
that is, the jazz orchestras of Thelonious Monk (1917–1982).
Miles with strings (18)
Miles Davis (1926–1991), the jazz trumpeter.
Ms. Dickinson (21)
Emily.
Galway Kinnell writes of Saint Francis (21)
(1927–2014), American poet, whose “Saint Francis and the Sow” says what Hayes says it says.
deep image poem (21)
term associated with the American experimentalist poet Jerome Rothenberg.
Maxine Waters (23)
Congresswoman from California, prominent among Democratic Party politicians denouncing Donald Trump.
listening / to Aretha Franklin sing Precious Lord (23)
you can too, with YouTube.
Amiri Baraka (24)
(1934–2014), poet, central figure in the Black Arts movement. Born LeRoi Jones in Newark. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” appeared in Baraka’s 1961 volume of that title.
Bluff Estates…Harlem Street (25)
These are street names in Hayes’s hometown, Columbia, SC.
Soaphead Church…/ Gideon, Son (26)
characters in Toni Morrison’s novels.
Derek Walcott (30)
(1930–2017), poet from St. Lucia in the Caribbean. After Walcott’s death Hayes spoke publicly about reckoning with Walcott’s record of sexual harrassment (in a notorious case from Walcott’s time teaching at Harvard in 1981) alongside his poetic eminence. He alludes obliquely to the issue in his 2020 Blaney Lecture to the Academy of American Poets (transcript, video).
the Hancock movie (31)
2008 superhero film (clip).
Trinidad / James (32)
All Gold Everything,” 2012.
“Lemonade” by Gucci / Mane (32)
single, 2009.
Midas (32)
the mythical king whose touch turned everything to gold.
Neruda said / Of lemons (32)
Neruda’s “Oda al limón” appeared in his Tercer libro de las odas (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1957), 126–27.
Rilke (33)
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), Austrian poet. “Archaic Torso of Apollo” was published in German in Rilke’s Neue Gedichte [New poems], vol. 2, in 1908.
James Wright (33)
(1927–1980), American poet. “Lying in a Hammock…” was published in 1963.
Ruth Stone (33)
(1915–2011), American poet. I cannot find an online text of “A Moment.”
Time Lord (40)
in the long-running British science-fiction TV show Doctor Who, the hero, called the Doctor, belongs to an alien race of time-travellers called the Time Lords.
“Pony” by Ginuwine (47)
this reference to the 2014 song sets up a very good joke, but possibly I should warn you that the music video, which you can find yourself easily, is provocative.
Shop Road (50)
In Columbia, SC.
When / Lincoln witnessed a slave auction (57)
on a trip to New Orleans in 1831. In some accounts of this life (for example Ida Tarbell’s 1896 Early Life of Abraham Lincoln), this is said to be a defining moment for Lincoln’s opposition to slavery.
Job’s / Afro (57)
the Old Testament figure, a pious man who suffered greatly. His hairstyle is not described in the Bible.
Nina Simone (60)
(1933–2003), American singer and musician, strongly associated with the Civil Rights movement.
Whale-road is a kenning for sea (61)
Old English poetry (ca. 600–1000 CE) is noted for the use of figurative compound nouns called “kennings.” Near the start of the great epic Beowulf, the sea is called hronrād, “whale-road.”
sunflowers / Van Gogh destroyed (63)
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)’s series of sunflower paintings are among his best-known. Hayes studied painting in college.
stones Georgia painted (63)
Georgia O’Keefe (1887–1986), American modernist painter, famed for still life paintings of stones, skulls, and flowers.
Prince taught us (63)
(1958–2016; note the date), American musician who was, as Wikipedia says, known for his “flamboyant and androgynous persona.”
what happened in Money (63)
see notes to p. 5.
Willie Nelson (66)
(1933–), country musician.
George Wallace (69)
(1919–1998), segregationist governor of Alabama, shot by a would-be assassin during his 1972 presidential campaign.
the girls the bomb buried in Birmingham (69)
see notes to p. 12.
Jackson & Abernathy (73)
Jesse Jackson (1941–), Ralph Abernathy (1927–1990), civil rights activists who were close to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference but whose relation to MLK’s legacy is complex.
Du Bois (73)
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), pioneering black intellectual, founder of the NAACP.
X (73)
Malcolm X (1925–1965), black radical political leader, killed by assassins.
The saddest part of the opera is where Frida says it / To Diego (80)
there really is, apparently, an opera about the Mexican painters Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) and Diego Rivera (1886–1957) who married in 1929 and divorced in 1939. That makes me wonder whether the “story” and the “scene” in the same poem also have real referents.
Lorca’s Breath (82)
Interviewer: “Did you make up ‘Lorca’s Breath’ as an orchid?” Hayes: “Yes.” Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), Spanish poet, killed in the Spanish Civil War. Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), Spanish surrealist painter and friend of Lorca.

These annotations are, like the rest of this site, CC-BY-NC 4.0 by Andrew Goldstone.