I first opened Diane Seuss’s new collection, frank: sonnets, in Maria Hernandez Park in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on one of the first sunny days of Spring.
To call Maria Hernandez a ‘park’ is to do it an immense disservice. If you approach it laced with echoes of Central Park or Prospect Park, you are destined for disappointment. Here, there are few trees, less grass and a whole lot of concrete.
An interest in normal parks and what defines them, however, covers over the fact that Maria Hernandez is a fabulous park in a larger sense of the term. It is a community gathering place, where old men sit and chat, seemingly oblivious to teens falling dramatically from their skateboards on the large swath of concrete that tries to mimic some sort of piazza. There are women selling arepas, and neighbors letting their dogs and children roam freely. Maria Hernandez is a park because it is a place in this city, with its tall buildings, where you can feel the sun on your face.
Similarly, Seuss’s sonnets fit few of the conventions of the traditional form, yet maintain all of its ethos. At its most basic, the sonnet is a love poem and that is just what Seuss has created here. If you come to this book with a red pen ready to mark stressed and unstressed syllables, you are doing it all wrong – forget the Italian and the Shakespearean. These are poems that had no choice but to be sonnets. Their humor and heartbreak would be too vast, too impossible to write, if not for the limitation of 14 lines.
As with Seuss’s entire approach to form, rhyme proliferates but never where you might expect it. As I read these sonnets, I could hear it – that satisfying click into place of two rhyming words. But upon returning to the poems, I couldn’t locate the rhymes on the page, until finally, after a third or fourth read, I’d spot them nestled comfortably in the middle of a line. In reading this collection, I finally realized how satisfying internal rhymes, this poetic game of hide and seek, can be. Take, for example, these lines –
exhaust lit red when it pulled away, walked far that night, then through
hip-deep snow to the shack, no heat but wood, Faulkner and a feather bed.
Red and bed gave me a momentary sense of magic. These subtle rhymes contribute to the sense of a fairy tale ruined hat runs throughout the collection.
One of the innumerable joys of this book is that Seuss always knows exactly how she maneuvers her reader. Her writing is endlessly self-aware. The collection holds more examples of ars poetica then most poets write in a lifetime, but in her wry tone the genre becomes less precious. For example, she writes:
The sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do
First, let us revel in this masterful line break: the sonnet teaches you what you can do by teaching you what you can do without. It is an apprenticeship defined by restraint. Seuss moves even further into the colloquial, writing:
To have, as my mother says, a wish in one hand
and a shit in another.
This reminded me immediately of something my mother told me repeatedly growing up – if you’re bored of me and you’re bored of you, then take off your sock and pee in your shoe. While the two phrases have nothing in common except a bit of potty humor, Seuss’s line transported me immediately to a moment in my own childhood. This is the immense power of lyric poetry – it speaks through the incredible precision of the “I,” and in so doing alchemizes and becomes, through its very particularity, a universal. In his essay, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” Theodor Adorno describes lyric poetry this way, “The expression of [Stefan George’s] poetry may have been condensed into an individual expression which his lyrics saturate with substance and with the experience of its own solitude; but this very lyric speech becomes the voice of human beings between whom the barriers have fallen.” Through writing about our individual experiences, we can achieve work that resonates beyond the self.
And this book is very individual. It acts as a memoir written in sonnets, tracking the poet’s life from childhood to motherhood, from the loss of her father to the loss of her best friend. The narrative arc of the collection moves from exuberance to a deep solemnity. It begins humorously:
I’m a little like Frank O’Hara without the handsome
nose and penis and the New York School and Larry
In a gesture to the collection’s title, it ends with O’Hara too:
I hope when it happens I have time to say oh so this is how it is happening
unlike Frank hit by a jeep on Fire Island.
These two lines are indicative of the book’s overall progression – moving from irreverent humor, to a quieter contemplation of death and legacy. Suess suggests that this is the arc of life; from the “restless search for beauty or relief” to asking, “who will say of me I kissed her.”
frank: sonnets did not break my heart, though it reminded me my heart was already broken. The book held my hand during this realization and, like children playing with their bodies for the first time, opened itself to reveal its own brokenness. Most important is this book’s impressive resistance to distance. As a poet, I have a certain removed reverence for poetry,the kind of respect that lives well in a dim library. frank is a book I want to bring into the bright light of day in my neighborhood park and when I’m done maybe I’ll leave it on the bench for someone else to find. That seems like just what the book asks of me.