Monday, July 19, 2010

A Review: Sixty Sonnets by Ernest Hilbert

Sixty Sonnets
by Ernest Hilbert
2009, Red Hen Press $18.95 ($14.97 at Amazon)

First let me say that Ernie Hilbert is a sneaky bastard for including the Bauman's Rare Books Catalogue in the package that delivered his excellent sonnet collection to me. As I am a poor poet and teacher, I include the link in the hope that if I have more well-to-do readers they may buy something and not waste the good Dr. Hilbert's postage. If anyone feels so inclined to buy something for me, there's a fine copy of The Waste Land I saw in there.

On to the poems.

Notes on the organization and structure of the book aside (see, what I value in Sixty Sonnets is tension.

There is a tension between poems, sometimes even an internal stylistic tension within one poem itself, as they skate between the pedestrian and the ineffable. This is not to say the poems are pedestrian, they are far from it; Hilbert, however, is unafraid of employing language in its most ordinary to bring it to its most extraordinary.

In "Church Street," a scene of blasted youth who "needed parties" and "liked company" is revisited in what, but for the rhyming and decasyllabics, would be called mere lined prose; except that the entire sad play is raised by the couplet:

We'd vent, catch any reason not to grieve,
Revel down days torn from the years we'd leave.

Much of the value of Sixty Sonnets is built upon this tension. A lesser (or perhaps "cute"?) poem like "Literary Artifacts" is followed by the strong and quick "Leander Without Heroes" whose conceit of literary death entirely reframes the previous riff on Sammy Peyps's "grand gallstone." This is nothing if not a very well put together collection.

I could go on at length about the tension set within these poems and the collection as a whole, and the music that sings from their springs, but as "Cautionary Tale" says, "you can only get away with so much." Suffice to say that in reading Sixty Sonnets if you think you don't like something, wait and Hilbert will have put in a peach in the next line or on the next page to pay for the pit you thought you read. Indeed, the only other poet who plies risk against reward so deftly is Pound.

The form of the sonnets bears some discussion (and a bit of criticism). Hilbert employs what has been termed the "Hilbertian Sonnet," fourteen decasylabbic lines of two sestets closed by a couplet. Unfortunately, the decasyllabics can get in the way of the poems. I don't know if Hilbert uses the non-metrical line as A.E. Stallings says to "allow for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech" but when he's forced to write, as in the final line of the train-wrenchingly fun "Blotter": "sometimes you will hide when you should have run," there's something amiss. Take out or contract the auxiliary verbs and you've got a stronger line: "sometimes you hide when you should run." not surprisingly, the line also becomes perfect iambic tetrameter. As I will say until the language changes, iambic tetrameter is the meter of the American tongue. Syllabics are too artificial and the pentameter is too archaic.

Having said that, there are great poems in this collection which is very much worth owning. The collection starts with a quote from Dylan's powerful "Not Dark Yet," a work which in itself looms over the first section, setting that delicious tension before the first rhyme is sprung. The first two poems are both good and exemplary of Hilbert's work, giving us both his juiced-up verb choices ("roamed up," "sprawled to," "propped in") and his linguistic tension:

I would be fine, and they were quite good hosts


I am sinking on a soft black balloon,
Dreaming of the break. It is coming soon.

Then comes the first great poem, "William James Still, Drowned in the Delaware River" (many of the titles are on the long side). After reading it, I reread the first two poems with a keener eye. My love and respect for this poem comes from two halves of one line. In the second half, we have the phrase "staring up to the world." I was, at first, bucked by that "to," but in light of the collection's epigraph ("facilis descensus Averni": it's easy to get to Hell), "to" makes an all too apt sense. The first half of the line is simply the thick, deliciously sonic "snug in muck," a line I loved so much I wrote it a few times and said it aloud. Heck, say it now, it floods the tongue. Snug in muck.

After Billy Jim dies, a girl hooked on "kind blue pills" robs a liquor store and dies on the run in Las Cruces. Seriously. Hilbert can do a fine turn in narrative told through sonnet. Being the narrative junky that I am, I wish those sequences were longer. Instead, the collection moves to tackle Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ted Hughes. I don't know if Hilbert wins, but his work certainly doesn't lose, either. His interweaving of nature and nostalgia reaches a fevered pitch in "Magnificent Frigatebird" and sounds perfectly in "At the Grave of Thomas Eakins."

As the collection develops, the works move towards the "couplet as punch" mode of sonnet writing to great effect. This is most pronounced, perhaps, in the wonderfully revisionist "A Suburbanite Briefs a Historian." After regaling said historian with how "it is fun to be so bourgeois" the eponymous suburbanite goes for the kill with the couplet:

And we can't go back to what came before,
Ten to a room, half sleeping on the floor.

No, no we can't. Such honesty about the human condition is refreshing in a world where the benefits of progress are often shunned. Indeed it is this very sense of no nonsense and honest urgency that redeems any flaws that can be found in the work. The collection pulls you through it, delighting and injuring, sometimes with the same word.

Before I end, I do want to mention my two favorite moments in Sixty Sonnets: rhyming "MoMA" with "coma" and the incomparable "Song," a paean to those who learn and love craft.

But even "Song" can't escape Hilbert's love of tension. Its final line: "valued and unwanted, admired and ignored" is antecedentless: does it refer to the "old ways restored" or "those who learn forgotten, slow / skills"? Perhaps both. Hilbert is a practitioner of that slow art, as are all poets. The truth of admiration and insignificance doesn't escape any of us.

He echoes this in the first poem of the final section, the aforementioned "At the Grave of Thomas Eakins." The final couplet sums up the poem and the collection's musings on the nature of art:

Wind rearranges sunlight through the pines,
Sowing and destroying endless designs.

Not only to admit but to embrace the ephemeral along with the eternal nature of our work is admirable in the main. As is the entire collection.

The design notes say the collection is based in the sixty minutes of an hour. Give it more time than that. You and the poems deserve it.

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