Brighter Music

Ella Fox-Martens on the poet bringing new life to an old form.

Brighter Music

As Diane Seuss notes in her latest collection, Frank: sonnets, "the sonnet, like poverty, teaches you what you can do without." Poetically, sonnets have a bad rap; stuffy, finicky rhyming patterns developed centuries ago, burdened with a history of form and meter that inhibits the freedom of expression that contemporary poetry thrives on. There’s the class element too, and their inextricable connotations with the Italian aristocracy of old. Comforting in their rhythmic predictability and visually pleasing in their arrangement on the page, the sonnet has passed out of fashion, eclipsed effortlessly by the confessional, post-modern style. But sonnets also are a challenge of skill and brevity; when you only have fourteen lines, there is no room for indulgence. Every word matters. In this sense, the form not only teaches a poet what they can do without, but also what they can do. Seuss puts this sentiment elegantly: "the sonnet is a mother."

Frank: sonnets is well-aware of the history behind the form, and alternately considers and subverts it to discordant, often piercing effect. Seuss layers the work with a litany of cultural and literary references, citing everything from Robert Creeley to Amy Winehouse to the New Testament. It is at that bright, fascinating collision between tradition and innovation that these poems reside. They elude expectation both in content and technique, sometimes adhering to the usual Shakespearean rhyming formation, playing with a regular iambic rhythm before a sudden, gleeful inversion that knocks the reader off guard again. Seuss’ use of caesura and fragmented thought lends a breathless mania to some of the work; read "[In the dream, my mother called my name]" aloud, and you will find yourself gasping at the end, carried by a frantic current. The volta – the point at which a sonnet abruptly changes thematic direction – is woven throughout the pieces, in Seuss’ rapid jumps of thought and idea, leaving an expanse of space for the reader to situate themselves in – to make the poem their own.

Image by Gabrielle Montesanti

Seuss is also deeply cognizant of the sonnet’s traditional subject: the muse. Over and over again, she returns to the question of what it means to be a woman – an artistic object to be written about but never engaged with properly. Joel Oppenheimer argues that self-conflict lies at the heart of a sonnet – that as one of the earliest poetic forms intended to be read silently, not performed, it necessitates introspection. Seuss uses womanhood, both idealized and actual, as the site of this internal warfare. The "unpalatable" aspects of women’s bodies, the things that are never glorified and conveniently ignored by male writers looking for a lovely blank canvas – the blood and pain and processes – drive these pieces. The interior life becomes the exterior. Seuss splits open the hidden tangle of sex, menstruation, abortion and childbirth (as well as its brutal aftermath) and examines the "viscera" under an unflinching, tender microscope. In this way, the creative process becomes another physical endeavor to be suffered through; to be borne. In "[press a foot into this beach]" Seuss declares "if there are poems, let them come in sick waves/like pushing contractions for a birth I did/not have the strength to finish." It is not a pretty simile, but in this collection, beauty is, thankfully, a secondary aim. What matters most is ferocity.

To that end, Seuss considers figures like "Richard Hell/Lou Reed, Basquiat, Warhol, Burroughs, Kenneth Koch" and discards them just as quickly, dissatisfied with the near-constant objectification and relegation. "It wasn’t impressive, it wasn’t literary/it wasn’t titillating/and it all left me feeling invisible or fucked," she says. The resulting rage is best exemplified in the electrifying "[The famous poets came for us]," as Seuss eviscerates the artists who "dumped their load of gold on us… called their wives by telephone their hands over our mouths to muffle us they shuffled us like decks of playing cards." It’s particularly well-placed in the current cultural landscape, where despite the #MeToo movement, the concept of a woman – her body, love and mind – as beautiful fodder for art is endemic. It’s a relief to read work that celebrates ugliness – the "unfuckable" and the "appalling" – and commits it to proud poetic memory.

"I did not want to be acceptable," says Seuss, "I wanted to be alarming." There is a deep power in reading sonnets lovingly addressed to the messy aspects of your existence that you were always told were shameful – the things you’ve kept hidden for fear of being unacceptable. There will be those traditionalists who will see this as bastardization, arguing that the modern poetic landscape is incomprehensible and inelegant. There are also those who advocate for the destruction of the canon altogether, who say that truly relevant and important modern poetry must free itself from outdated devices. Both of these views ignore the fact that it is the marriage of the two that breeds the most startling, effective insights. Sonnets are often regarded as an inherently musical poetic form. In Frank: sonnets, strains of the old music remain; it is simply brighter and louder than before.

Ella Fox-Martens

is a Canadian-born, Australian/South African-raised essayist and poet. She has been published in Observer, Meanjin, The Rumpus, Westerly, Cordite Poetry Review and others. She lives in London.

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