The sonnet is an enduring lyric monument, one of the few postclassical forms that refuses to die. Almost every major poet writing in a Western language has attempted to stand upon “its scanty plot of ground,” and this “little song,” with its fixed formal patterns, has continued to cross boundaries of style, nationality, race, language, and politics. Indeed, it’s difficult not to be captured by the gravitational pull of the sonnet. The form, in all of its variations, has proven inexhaustible, allowing for permutations in syntax, rhyme, stress, and subject, a veritable playroom for poets to explore and experiment.
As Phillis Levin notes in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, “It thrives because it offers a haven for complex emotions and memories, an innate holding pattern and stopping point, a guarantee that however dangerous or overwhelming the subject, the duration of the encounter will be brief. Because the temporal frame is set in advance, the material, however difficult, is free to surfaceâ€”an image whose meaning begins to unfold as time draws to a close.
“It is this very “temporal frame” of the sonnet, and the tempus fugit theme so often explored, that engages Ernest Hilbert in his debut book Sixty Sonnets. Time, history, death, are on Hilbert’s mind throughout the collection, as in “Genealogies,” in which he wonders “What strange folk” preceded him, and “What turnpikes of genealogy sped / My kin through ages and nations to me?” Hilbert’s poems are at once individual, yet combine to form a whole, like minutes in an hour. Their brevity speaks to our sound-bite, e-commerce age, yet they cannot be so easily glossed over like so much news reportage.
From the perspective of an intriguing mishmash of subjects, Hilbert often takes on the persona of the failed, the beat up, and the beaten down, in which all are “sinking on a soft black balloon.” Peopled with thieves and fugitives, retired boxers and retired literary critics, those who are “washed out / And glazed over,” Hilbert entreats his hapless heroes to “go on, get high,” though there is always a price to be paid. However, Hilbert is able to poke fun at himself and does not exclude himself from their company. In “A Few Drinks and We’re All Poets,” Hilbert begins, “We’ll head out, you and me, have a pint, or / Maybe three.” The sensibility is Eliot’s, to be sure, a contemporary Prufrock. Hilbert ends his brief love song, “What else to say of our faint star-fall town, / But we’ve sunk so low, we might as well drown.
“Hilbert writes in less than “strict energic measures,” and prefers the Shakespearean pattern of the form, with its whip-snapping epigrammatic final two lines, and he often avoids perfect rhymes until the ending couplet. Hilbert plays loosely with the form, with lines varying in syllable length and stress pattern, but retains the sonnet’s architectural profile. As he says in “Cautionary Tale; or, What Goes Up Must Come Down,” “You can only get away with so much.” It is the very stricture of the form that creates the tension between formal structure and colloquial rhythm. In poems like “Domestic Situation,” he begins in a provocative, storytelling manner:
Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe not.
A man came home and chucked his girlfriend’s cat
In the wood chipper. This really happened.
Dinner wasn’t ready on time. A lot
Of other little things went wrong. He spat
On her father, who came out when he learned
About it. He also broke her pinky,
Stole her checks, and got her sister pregnant.
But she stood by him, stood strong, through it all,
Because she loved him. She loved him, you see.
She actually said that, and then she went
And married him. She felt some unique call.
Don’t try to understand what another
Person means by love. Don’t even bother.
This is something one may hear on the local news or “Jerry Springer.” However, Hilbert’s use of this classic form contrasts with the brutality of the subject, elevating it beyond such coarse voyeurism as is viewed on such programming. In “Domestic Situation,” Hilbert has varied the Shakespearian rhyme scheme — abcabcdefdefgg — which subtly breaks the poem into tercets rather than quatrains. The shift, or volta, of the poem occurs as it traditionally does after the eighth line, and his couplet acts as commentary. All fourteen lines are ten syllables, and the stresses vary between four and five per line.
Though some musicality pervades these poems, I would not characterize them as lyrical or melodious, in the vein of a Shakespeareâ€””I all alone beweep my outcast state”â€”or Keatsâ€””When I have fears that I may cease to be.” Hilbert writes with spare language, in colloquial prose rhythms with irregular stress patterns, yet he is able to maintain deft control through the use of mostly decasyllabic lines and off-rhymes. Perhaps Hilbert’s lines reflect our own precarious hold on the world, where we are always close to losing control.
Writing in the sonnet form connects Hilbert to those who have practiced it before him, so that in a simple word or phrase he is able to allude to both contemporary and past subjects. Who could read “A Sad Last Number for the Gentlemen at the Tavern” without conjuring images of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jonson and Donne, at the Mermaid Tavern? In “The King Issues His Annual Report,” what at first appears as an antiquated poem is wittily modernized as Hilbert compares a king’s conquering of the world with Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, whose “works stun / The world, and it’s all so much goddamned fun.”
Hilbert’s themes are reminiscent of, among many others, William Drummond of Hawthornden, who begins one of his sonnets,”I know that all beneath the moon decays, / And what by mortals in this world is brought, / In Time’s great periods shall return to nought.” Yet Hilbert contemporizes this timeless idea with “day sinks into magnifying dark” and “You will never win.”
Of course, many of Hilbert’s allusions extend beyond the sonnet and its practitioners. In “Poem Begun on the Autumn Equinox,” Hilbert begins:
The graveyard is as orderly and clean
As the playing fields and ballpark nearby.
I park the jeep midway between the two.
By the use of the word “midway,” situating himself between the ballpark and the graveyard, between youth and death, the reader cannot help but remember Dante’s first line in The Inferno: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.” The allusion is continued as Hilbert says a few lines down, “At thirty-five I’m at least half way through,” just as Dante was midway on his life’s journey when he began his allegorical trip to hell, though Hilbert’s version is more indicative of modern ennui, of the drudgery of daily existence, and is a brief reflection on death’s slow approach.
Hilbert is at once ironic, dark, and witty, and these attributes are on display in this fine poem, “Calavera for a Friend”:
Calavera for a Friend
Dia de los Muertos
When your heart is scorched out, the unruly world
Will seal around you as a dark ocean
Behind a ship at duskâ€”the wake will fade
And spread wider, until fully unfurled.
Love reserved for you will slacken.
Of commerce ends with the last deal you made.
A stranger will take your job, buy your home,
Maybe wear your shirts and shoes, and the books
You cherished will be thumbed by new readers.
Young tourists will roam everywhere you roamed.
Some small items might remain, artifacts,
Footnotes, fingerprints, cuff links, little anchors,
Small burrs that cling: initials carved in a tree,
Your name inscribed where no one will see.
The friend in this poem may very well be Hilbert himself, and the poem serves as a humorous reminder of the slippery nature of existence. The calavera is the perfect form for this, as it is an amusing style of poetry written for the Mexican holiday the Day of the Dead and humorously criticizes the living, or acts as a satirical obituary for the dead, a way of joking in the face of death.
Even as his poems act as “little anchors” or “initials carved in a tree,” the small artifacts of one’s life that might remain, Hilbert observes that our life’s endeavors will more likely be overtaken and overshadowed to the point of being oblivious to the world. Yet just as Drummond knows “all beneath the moon decays,” he nevertheless concludes his sonnet, “I both must write and love.” So, too, Hilbert writes, and hopefully, his poems will be one of those burrs that cling.