Sixty Sonnets Reviewed in Rattle Magazine

Sixty Sonnets, Reviewed by Maryann Corbett

One look at the cover of Sixty Sonnets lets you know you’re dealing with a poet who’s got both slyness and chutzpah—at least if poet Ernest Hilbert and cover designer Jennifer Mercer worked closely together, and the acknowledgments suggest that they did. The cover design parodies the staid, pale dignity of a classical music score like the ones published by G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes—the color, the placement of the graphics and rules, the typefaces, even the fake opus numbers. To that pattern the designer adds a splat of tea stain, a trompe-lâ’oeil ripped corner, and what looks like the print of a drippy wineglass. The seriousness of real art, and the grit and mess of real living. It’s a fair, and clever, representation of the book, and it was a smart move to turn it into the publicity stickers that the Baroque in Hackney blog tells us about. While we’re considering the looks of the book—something we should do while we still have the privilege of reading real books—we should also applaud page designer Sydney Nichols and note that 6-by-8 inch pages consisting of fourteen lines of Bembo set 10 on 18 are lovely to behold.

But you are reading this to learn about the poetry, and the first bit of poetry to be assessed is the title itself. The plain words Sixty Sonnets are a complicated sort of claim. One can’t ignore the likeness in sound to the TV program title “Sixty Minutes,” and the suggestion of an assortment of news stories. The word Sonnets by itself tells us that Hilbert means to engage with the tradition. “Engage” means both to gather in, as a speaker does to listeners, and to square off against, as an army does to enemy forces. The tradition with which he means to engage goes back to the Italian “little song” and comes in assorted classical forms, and is shaped (usually) in fourteen lines, most often iambic, and has a very definite sort of argument and structure, right down to the placement of its prescribed change of direction. Sixty Sonnets, with no other embellishment or limitation, tells us that this will not be a thematically unified collection like Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets, or Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets, or Kim Bridgford’s To the Extreme (about world records), or Philip Dacey’s New York Postcard Sonnets, or Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets. We know we’re going to get a unity of form but also a variety of theme and subject matter. What we’ll want to see is how inventive, how various, how insightful, and how wise the poet can be within those limits.

Those limits need not have been very tight, given the broad understanding of the modern sonnet. (See Tony Barnstone’s article in the December 2006 issue of The Cortland Review.) In fact, Hilbert has made the limits tight in a new way. He’s created his own Houdini-like set of chains to wriggle out of: a new form that’s already known as the Hilbertian sonnet, with the rhyme scheme abc abc def def gg. It’s a form designed to grate against the expectations of the reader who is geared to the usual foursquare quatrains in the octaves of the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet forms. It also cuts across the squared grain of some of the poet’s arguments, as it does here in “Fortunate Ones,” where we have couplets of thought and tercets of rhyme:

You will inherit large sums of money

(But someone dear to you will have to die first).

You will travel far and see the wide world

(And load yourself with debt; these things aren’t free).

You can relax now. You’ve been through the worst.

(But it consumed your youth, and now you’re old.)

Bucking our expectation of quatrains is a way of allowing rhyme to be present but not foregrounded. Even for a master and great proponent of form as Hilbert, that strategy might be necessary in the current climate of smiling intolerance for rhyme. (Gentle reader, please do not try to tell me this prejudice is easing. Not ten days ago I went to a reading at which Todd Boss, whose new book Yellowrocket is getting terrific press, made the baldfaced claim that end rhyme is “not cool,” while internal rhyme is much better accepted.) Bucking our expectation of rhyme is also simply a way of keeping readers off balance, keeping them un-lulled by regularity of sonics. As to the location of the volta, or turn, again we don’t know what to expect; the novel form upsets our habit of looking for a turn after the octave. Sometimes there is one, sometimes it’s elsewhere, sometimes it’s absent. Hilbert bucks our metrical expectations too: he writes mostly ten-syllable lines, but refuses to let too many of them fall into the expected iambic pattern. No amount of looseness or “breathability” will make them iambic; it’s not in their design to let us settle into a pattern.

Nothing here settles. The opening poem goes right for the gut with vividness, drama, and crunchy consonants—

On a step behind the Holiday Inn,

Two Russians roamed up, bummed a cigarette,

While a third snuck up, struck me from behind.

I sprawled to asphalt. Then the boot came in.

I swung through the red, but it’s a good bet

I didn’t land one. The blackout was kind.

and the second poem seems to follow on the same action. These dramatic or thematic pairs are scattered throughout the book and are distinguished by strong use of sound; two poems about Thomas Eakins in the book’s final section are remarkable for their density of sound devices as well as their striking visual qualities, such as the description of the motion of a rowing scull with its oars as a “delicate insect thrash.” Another such pair in the first section, about fugitives fleeing a robbery, exerts a grip on the brain that reminds me of the work of Michael Donaghy. But it might not be wise to specify likenesses; the sixty poems are different enough that they’ll evoke comparisons with many other poets.

The poems that use language strikingly tend to be my favorites in this book. But the title promises us variety within limits, and variety is what we get. There are also poems that strike us by the range of the characters being depicted among them: scholars and losers and entrenched suburbanites and figures of myth and history. Other poems are striking in their thoughtfulness and depth of feeling. The favorites I mentioned, besides having attention-grabbing sonics, also seem to represent the poet himself, in his own real feelings, and not a fictional narrator. Examples include the poem addressed “To a godson” and the one titled “Love Poem,” which pulls every love-poem-sucker chain in my head every bit as successfully as does “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

“A piece entitled “Song” seems to be a personal ars poetica:

A song for those who learn forgotten, slow

Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce,

The last, noble pull of old ways restored,

Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.

The poet-critic Adam Kirsch, with his pessimistic view of almost everything modern, singles out that last couplet for special attention in The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry. The admiration in those lines for “old ways,” slow methods, and craft is probably what prompts Kirsch to declare Hilbert one of the best poets writing today. The flip side of that admiration for craft—disdain for a modern lack of discipline, plain amazement at what passes for modern life—shows up in other poems in starker, flatter language:

Maybe you’ve heard about this, maybe not.

A man came home and chucked his girlfriend’s cat

Into the wood chipper. This really happened.

The section of the book entitled “Legendary Misbehavior,” the longest section in the book, is the section built on these plain, flattish, wry observations of human ineptness and general propensity to screw up. This segment seems to be garnering the most attention in the online world. Perhaps that’s because its title has also been given to the poet’s spoken-word recording. But perhaps it’s also because in it Hilbert, for all his disapproval, finds in these poems a way to be warmly sympathetic toward “all the aging fuck-ups/The guys who can’t get their shit in one bag . . .” (It seems this is as close as the modern sonnet gets to the classical poems of remorse, like “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action.”) This wry but affectionate take on life may be Hilbert at his most authentic, in spite of his Oxford doctorate, his editorship of Contemporary Poetry Review, and his work as an antiquarian book dealer. The hints of this are scattered all over the book as small, clever pleasures, like the one-liners tucked into the copyright and acknowledgments pages.

For my money, I would have preferred a few more of the thrillingly sonic, the dramatic, the vivid, and the wise pieces, and fewer of the crisply flat ones. Flatness, even by design, even when chosen and skillfully deployed for shock value, is still, well, flatness. And there is rather more of it in the book than there is of the other styles. If the book’s balance isn’t perfect, though, it still delivers the full range of human types and stories, and nearly the whole breadth of what the sonnet can do. Of the great, classic sonnet themes, there’s only one that’s conspicuously absent from this grouping: the face-off with God.

God doesn’t figure here as Other, either as an object of devotion or one of paralyzing doubt. There’s no “Batter my heart,” and there are no “terrible sonnets.” But here’s where the sympathetic stance of the “misbehavior” section figures: we might see Hilbert as being God in these poems—as taking the all-gathering view of the merciful God who has room for all these lost ones, right along with the desperate fugitives, retired literary critics, crime victims, lovers, and godfathers. The poet as indwelling creator spirit? It fits for Hilbert: poet, from poietes, maker.