Ok, let me warn you: I have a lot to say about this poem. I will not be able to stick to my usual ~1200 words. This essay is closer to 2000, so if you need to brew a bit of coffee first, go ahead. I’ll wait.
Ready now? Here’s the poem:
I’m staring at Shakespeare’s poem. Blocked. Carnage because Black was not counted fairly. Torn into faithless weather because literature assured Black bodies bore no right to beauty’s name, because until now is Black’s traumatology streaming in successive waves. The critics never unpack the intestinal douleur of one’s own beauty slandered with a bastard shame. Informed since I could read by the monarchy’s hand on the throat of English, I’ve put on an enunciative face, trusting the figure of speech’s power to fair the ink of English thinking. The foreign anguish, language! With art’s facelessness I borrowed legit face; with my sweet syntax, a beauty that they couldn’t disown. Shame on who? Shame on who? I’m literally bowed over the keyboard of my computer. Sometimes you see yourself profaned. Sometimes you’re profaned–nothing unusual–by the archives you’re working in. Why feel disgraced in two thousand seventeen? Le professeur francophone que j’ai rencontré on Bumble blanks at my imaginary stresses: okay, your poems are about race, but we don’t have to think in black and white over dinner, do we? Somebody doesn’t. This situation suits some bodies just fine, and they will date me, if I don’t bring work home. I’m churning through Shakespeare’s sonnet, contemplating easier occupations. My children, who were not born into fairness, who no beauty ever lacked, who never happened at all, read this grudging creation over my shoulder. They are with me always, as I fail at ease. They don’t exist, as I cleave to my poetry like a significant other who never asks anything of me, who isn’t hurt by my inability to lighten up. Nothing’s coming, just a gust of weather, a failure to work through a sonnet’s hatred. Slavery’s tongue is in my head, kissing me, saying smile, smile, beauty shouldn’t look so hard.
– from Sonnet’s Shakespeare, © 2019 by Sonnet L’Abbé, used by permission of Penguin Random House Canada, McClelland & Stewart.
Sonnet L’Abbé’s 2019 collection of poems Sonnet’s Shakespeare invents a form that I haven’t seen before, at least not in the sustained way she uses it. You may be familiar with “erasure poems”: these are poems that take a text, maybe a legal decision, or an advertisement. The poet then removes some of the language to produce a different message. Erasure poems can be visually striking on the page, with text sometimes blacked out so that it might remind us of a piece of censured governmental correspondence. There’s a fairly recent but growing tradition of erasure poems worth reading. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to write about one sometime, but in the meantime here’s an example. And here’s a whole essay about the use of that form in the work of Srikanth Reddy and others.
What’s particularly interesting to me about erasure poems is how they reveal something beneath the surface of an existing text – maybe it’s a layer of threat underneath a block of bureaucratic pap. Maybe a voice of pain or desperation underneath some cheery advertising copy. Either way, the poet’s job is to remove language from our line of vision in order to reveal something else. It’s an act of curatorial creation, or of radical re-reading, similar to other experimental forms that work with “found” texts. See my essay on Madhur Anand’s “Especially in a Time” for another version of this.
In a sense, what Sonnet L’Abbé has done is the opposite of an erasure: in each of the poems in this collection, she takes one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and overwrites it: that is, she writes her own poem on top of the familiar one by Shakespeare. For example: the first phrase from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXVII is “In the old age.” See if you can find it in the first lines of L’Abbé’s poem:
I’m starNg aT sHakEspeare’s pOem. bLockeD. carnAGE
You can spend an hour, if you like, tracing the location of each letter in Shakespeare’s sonnet as it appears in L’Abbé’s poem. It’s all there. In other poems from the collection, L’Abbé helps us by printing each letter from the original sonnet in lighter typeface. She doesn’t do that here, but there’s a certain obsessive pleasure in seeing how the poet converts Shakespeare’s letters and half-words into her own thinking. It’s a way to feel Shakespeare’s words bubbling up under the surface. But it’s not necessarily the way everyone likes to read.
It is helpful to have Shakespeare’s sonnet on hand, though, to see how L’Abbé’s poem speaks to, with, and against its source-text. So let’s have a look:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
There isn’t space here to dive very deeply into the Shakespeare, but suffice it to say that the speaker of his poem contrasts his mistress, the famed “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, to the “fair” standards of beauty that were common in his time. There are some disparaging remarks made about makeup – “fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face” – and the suggestion that the loved-one’s eyes, so black they seem to be in mourning, might single-handedly reverse fashion trends, so that “every tongue” now believes that “beauty should look so.” There’s also some good punning around the word “fair,” which can refer to light-coloured skin or hair, but also to beauty itself, which is just the standard Shakespeare is critiquing here, because it’s not “fair.”
So it’s a good poem for brunettes. And the implicit critique of any rigid standard of beauty is there for analysis. But while he refers specifically to hair and eye colour, it is unlikely that the “blackness” to which Shakespeare refers concerns skin tone. Shakespeare’s record on depictions of racial difference is… well, let’s just say it’s “contested.”
Enter Sonnet L’Abbé, whose very name forces her to live with the legacy of the Bard. A poet with the given name Sonnet, for goodness sake! The legacy is as weighty as it would be if a musician were named Wolfgang or a rabbi named Jesus.
So what does she do? She colonizes the Shakespeare. She buries him under her verbiage in the same way that, say, European settlers buried the civilization of the Mayans, so that there are traces left but they are hard to pick out. The idea of a multi-racial Canadian woman swallowing Shakespeare to write her poems is a bit of narrative reversal that I like to think Shakespeare himself would enjoy.
Now, a nervous traditionalist might ask, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare? Why spit on his legacy?” First off, as L’Abbé well knows, the Shakespeare Sonnets aren’t going anywhere. Feel free to Google them and find dozens of versions online, with learned commentary, student complaint, and flowery background imagery. While her over-writing implies a kind of linguistic violence, and while there’s plenty of mistrust and critique of literary history in the voice of her speaker, L’Abbé’s work unquestionably builds on Shakespeare’s legacy rather than dismisses it. His words, after all, are the skeleton on which L’Abbé’s poems are constructed. It’s the kind of homage that a rebellious child would offer, but that makes it no less an homage.
Let’s go back and see what the poem is talking about. The opening freezes the speaker – she’s “blocked.” Remember, this is Sonnet #127 in the series, so to me this suggests some exhaustion with the project. But it is also a shocked recognition. Shakespeare’s poem is, after all, about blackness, even if L’Abbé is taking what he means by blackness a bit father than he intended. For the speaker of this poem, Shakespeare’s words strike a chord that is both resonant and troubling. The phrase “beauty slandered with a bastard shame” is transposed completely from Shakespeare’s poem, and points to the speaker’s efforts to overcome her sense of rejection from the traditions of English literature. The next sentence reads: “Informed since I could read by the monarchy’s hand on the throat of English, I’ve put on an enunciative face, trusting the figure of speech’s power to fair the ink of English thinking.” That “enunciative face” the speaker has “put on” is a “false borrowed face” the way Shakespeare refers to makeup, full of bitterness and and only partly hidden by its formality. (Enunciate being one of many ways the “uneducated” are revealed, but here something the speaker can put on when she needs to.) Note too the use of “fair” as a verb – literally to lighten the colour of the ink, but also, hopefully, to make more just the metaphorical inkstain of generations of prejudice.
The problem with trying to use erudite literary traditions to overcome centuries of literary prejudice is that the very structures and tropes are built on exclusionary ways of thinking. As Audre Lorde put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So this poem is caught in a double-bind – by mastering the linguistic complications and allusive traditions of “high literary poetry,” it evokes the very misogyny and racism it is trying to overcome.
Speaking of allusion, I should mention that this poem is full of them, some of which I caught, others I suspect but can’t place, and I’m sure others that I missed entirely. One reference I want to make particular mention of is “foreign anguish, language,” which is from Zong! M. Nourbese Philip’s 2008 book. Zong! is an experimental book of poetry that scrambles the language of archival documents concerning the murder of slaves on a slaveship in 1781. The reference here is a tip-of-the-cap to Philip as a sort of godmother to this booklength project. But it’s also a crucial concept here: a recognition that the language L’Abbé is using – Shakespeare’s language, in one way and another – is a language that transports pain and racist history even as it also provides the poet/speaker here a pathway to make meaning, argument, and poetic beauty.
So is the poem trapped by the forms and standards of a racist and misogynistic literary tradition from which it can’t escape? Or is it mining those forms to find a new way of expression? The question must remain unresolved, but the poem that results from the struggle is deeply compelling to me.
I’ve already gone on too long here, but let me just point to couple of other aspects of the poem that I think are really interesting:
- First, the issue of childlessness, mentioned in the last quarter of the poem. If you’ve studied Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll remember that a number of them urge the object of desire (male and female) to procreate so as to perpetuate their beauty. Essentially, the message is: “As you get older your beauty will fade, and when you’re dead, your beauty will vanish, so you’d better have kids so that your beauty will continue on the earth.” This theme gets addressed more directly in some of L’Abbé’s other sonnets, but here I sense that these concerns about family, are also at play. “My children…who never happened at all.” If the speaker is willing to meet up with a “professeur francophone” that she’s met on a dating app, and to put up with his dismissive remarks about her life and work, then she must also be very lonely. It should go without saying that this “failure at love” is at the core of Shakespeare’s sonnets too, so it’s another way that L’Abbé’s work is riffing off of Shakepeare’s themes.
- I love the range of tones that L’Abbé manages to generate here, from the vicious wit of “Somebody doesn’t” when talking to the francophone professor, to the unabashedly erudite arguments with literary tradition, to the creeping self-doubt – about the project, about her romantic life, about her “beauty” and how it’s defined. It’s a lot to take in on a first read, but there’s richness there that’s worth returning to.
- The word “cleave,” in the 3rd-to-last sentence, is one of my favourite words in the English language, because it means its own opposite. To cleave to something means to cling to it, to join with it; but “cleaving” is also a dividing, a separation. The speaker here says, “I cleave to my poetry like a significant other” – the “to” makes it sound as if she’s using the word in the joining sense. But if her poetry is “a significant other,” then it’s also a cleaving from, a separation, as if writing these lines is a way to expel some of the doubt and pain from her body into a form that is outside of her.
Taking on Shakespeare’s sonnets is an act of massive literary hubris. To be done well, it requires a scholar’s level of engagement and a revolutionary’s distrust of established practice. The fact that poems like this one also let us in on the hesitation, frustration, and hope that accompanies the project reveals a level of mastery that I truly admire. It can be slow going at times – the language can be sometimes a bit academic, sometimes downright prickly. But how else can a poet evoke the range of complicated emotions she experiences when entering into conversation with the greatest Master in literary history? As for me, I don’t think I can read Shakespeare’s sonnets again without carrying Sonnet’s Shakespeare along as a challenge, a companion, and a guide.
(Shakespeare image manipulation by Eli Sol.)