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My editors asked me for notes on books I’d been reading — about 300 words. I’ve already figured out that it’s not in me to be quite that concise. Imagine, instead, these entries as 20-line sonnets. Why not? Bernadette Mayer has one in her book Sonnets, recently republished in an expanded “25th Anniversary Edition” by Tender Buttons, aka Lee Ann Brown, who also published it the first time around. (I missed the boat then.) I’ve read Mayer before but not a lot, and what I read has led me to think of her as a proponent of composition-by-field, someone whose writing is loose-limbed, long-lined-going-on-prose, and structurally oriented more by the book as a whole than by the individual poem as a self-contained entity. So her having cultivated the sonnet — however freely interpreted that label might be in any given case — aroused my curiosity. But of course, sonnets lend themselves to being strung into sequences rather than coming to a definitive conclusion — the tension and possible contradiction between closure and extension is inherent to the genre’s history. The wildness of a sonnet, its “power to hurt” (Shakespeare), lies in how the uncontainable is provisionally delimited. In Shakespeare’s concluding couplets, closure is sometimes performed so clunkily as to make a joke of itself. Mayer can do the same: “Sex, where’s the couplet? / The concluding modern thought’s a warm winter scarf.” Or, more suavely, “It might be right to write of just the hour / That’s a structure good as love’s or any measure.” Actually, love in these polysexual poems is the carnal and metaphysical impetus that undoes all measure — “So let’s not talk of love the diffuseness of which / Round our heads (that oriole’s song) / like on the platforms / Of the subways and at their stations is today defused / As if by the scattering of light rays in a photograph.” Not talking of love is another way to talk of love, especially, I suppose, when “working so much in an owned world for rent money” — pecuniary enclosure equaling the enclosure of the “diffuseness” and “scattering of light rays” of love. That scattering is “poetry’s extreme generosity” refracted line by line, stanza by stanza, sonnet by sonnet. Poetry’s argument is that “I might sing forever with never a goal nor solution / Except the singing of the tables of the alphabets / And the millions of interconnecting macaronic words / In the free verse families of the Indo-European stones.” I should point out, by the way, that Mayer’s sonnets never end with a full stop. They remain completely open to whatever comes next.

Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets (2014) is published by Tender Buttons Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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