Not sure if there’s been a sonnet sequence like Hayes’ since John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Has there been? Or a century before Berryman, George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862). John Murillo comes to mind. Murillo has written some incredible, INCREDIBLE, sonnet sequences, the most important of which, in my opinion, has to be the crown of sonnets “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn.” Seriously, take a look at the mastery of that sequence when you have a chance: fifteen sonnets, the last one comprised totally of lines from the previous fourteen sonnets. “A Refusal” appears in Murillo’s latest book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020). And if you like that one, check out his first collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010), which is a masterpiece of prosody.
Hayes’ sonnets, like Berryman’s and Meredith’s (I suppose like most sonnets, now that I think about it) are born of frustrations both social and personal. What better poetic tradition than the sonnet for the frustrated?! The formal logic goes something like this: 1.) problem hinged to 2.) problem hinged to 3.) problem hinged to 4.) a conclusion that neither solves any problem nor, most of the time, even summarizes it very coherently.
I’ve marked a lot of Hayes’ sonnets with little stars that constellate my first reading of the book. Here’s one of my favorites.
Those opening three lines! (Here’s a clearer view.) Maybe those lines are for parents, in particular. I have three daughters. How many times have I looked into their faces and reached for the words that Hayes writes. I would never have thought to phrase the feeling that way. “How handsome he’d be if . . .” But what I appreciate more is the place Hayes takes me with this initial thought. It’s not simply the older man sentimentalizing fatherhood. It’s the older man, whose presence is a “past and future” (re: book’s title) monument. A trace in both directions. “And because the son can see who he was / Long before he had a name, the trace of / His future on earth long before he arrived.”
A parent: the you who you were before you were here. The child: the you you will be after you are not here. Oh man, this is what it’s all about, right?: art, literature, those things that upend your world so completely that even the most familiar things suddenly look strange.