Hot Sonnets: An Anthology
by Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss (editors)
Entasis Press, 2011
978-0980099997, 162 pp., $14.00 paperback/$7.99 e-book
This book is about sex. However, not all of the poems are as audacious as, say, beginning a review with "This book is about sex." Even so, one poem in Hot Sonnets is titled, "Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm?" and although art is always up for interpretation, I'm pretty sure there's more than one mention of a blow-up doll in others. Many of the poems, fueled by anger or disgust, are inherently funny, but some of them aren't (one poem casually mentions rape in the first stanza). Besides the theme, the other commonality, aptly mentioned in the title, is that they are all sonnets. Admittedly, this might not sound appealing because the classic form is often associated with stuffiness, but there is good news. There are many acceptable variations on the sonnet these days, and Hot Sonnets, published by Entasis Press, epitomizes New Formalism by being freshly modern and entertaining.
The anthology comprises more than 50 poets, all of whom are addressing the topic in variegated ways. Some of them are more primal, like the hilarious poem by Robert Crawford, where he zones out listening to his significant other talk about remodeling the kitchen. "I've grown glassy-eyed,/and lost, imagining what I could do/on this expanse of countertop with you" he writes. Others are introspective, like Kate Bernadette Benedict's inquisitive, "Celibate Observations" where the speaker's chastity has allowed her "to give myself to every worthy thing." Regardless of the fluctuating approaches, the language is always accessible, which might be one of the reasons sonnets have survived this long.
Another reason might be due to their malleable structure. Several poets take liberties with the rhyme scheme. H. L. Hix uses two end words four times each, Sharon Dolin has a Sonnet/Gazal, and Tom Dlugos and Thom Gunn decided to put their 14 lines entirely in couplets. Every individual sonnet's construction also contributes to the diverseness of the collection. Although most are written in the traditional English iambic pentameter, which is essentially five stresses per line with a stress on every other syllable, others aren't. A. E. Stallings very effectively shaves two beats off each line in "Fire Safety Drill" to express rapidity or urgency. Michael Salcman's experiments in scansion pay off wonderfully in "The Sulfurous Days Of Summer." He begins in pentameter, "How often I have lain on a green haze." We are anticipating dancing daffodils and such when suddenly the fifth line has only three beats, "I've spied a pair of breasts" followed by "levitating before my eyes."
Sonnets are typically printed with no stanza breaks, or with one at the volta, which is the turning point of the poem (usually the ninth line). Occasionally, a poet wants to showcase a couplet, and therefore pays particular attention to where it is placed. In Shakespearian sonnets, the couplet is the clincher, arriving at the very end. Several writers break their poems into three quatrains and one couplet. Julie Stoner does a terrific job employing this technique in "Dear John (Drafts 1-4)." Each stanza is one draft of a break-up letter, and all of the lines are crossed out except the last couplet. One can conclude this is the one she sticks with: "Dear John—This isn't working. You know why./ Go buy yourself a blow-up doll. Goodbye." As aforementioned, there is a lot of humor in this book, and much of it is in the same vein as Stoner's. People consider their relationships, both current and past, a lot. They consider the relationship they have with themselves, and they consider the relationships they have with others. They find patterns of behavior and analyze. Julie Kane does an excellent job of theorizing why her former partner insisted on climaxing doggy-style, "but ex or mama used to yak yak yak;/you'd shove my mouth into the pillowcase/to face an uncommunicative back."
It is striking how utterly self-aware and perceptive many of these writers are. Midge Goldberg challenges a man to actually get to know her in "Temptress" by offering up an apple as opposed to just pecan pie and steak. Millay, who was sexually ahead of her time, quips, "I find this frenzy insufficient reason/For conversation when we meet again." Kim Addonizio goes so far to discuss the brain chemistry behind attraction in "So What." She even somehow manages to work phenylethylamine into a sonnet.
With so many different poets included, the editors made a wise choice to section off the book according to author, juxtaposing Edna St. Vincent Millay (who was famous for her sonnets, in particular) with modern, scarcely known writers. Some readers might be surprised to find e.e. cummings in a book of form, considering his name is synonymous with un-capitalizing and un-punctuating things. But here he is owning iambs while mastering line breaks as if he were composing free-verse. Beyond the obvious organizational reasons to prohibit readers from jumping back and forth, this serves to enable the collection to introduce several series. Seven poems by Marilyn L. Taylor belong under one title, "The Seven Very Liberal Arts: A Crown of Sonnets." Another crown by Kathrine Varnes is called, "The Fleshpot Sonnets." A crown, by the way, is seven sonnets under the same title that use the last line of the previous poem to begin the next one. Sonnets are difficult to write even without that extra requirement, so well-executed crowns are rare. Then there is Michael Cantor narrating "The Love of Sushi Sue" over three poems. He fantasizes over her, but in the second poem,"Sue repelled me when I cupped her breast:/ 'A sushi girl cannot make love to guest!'" Jenny Factor is less comical in "Learning Stick." "With Him," "With Her," and "With Me" are no less engaging and thoughtful, however.
This collection explores the human experience in one of the vastest subjects possible. Our species has opposable thumbs, but we're hardly alone in our urges to procreate. We are, however, unique in that we can claim finding creative ways to express our own opinions, reactions, feelings, observations, and knowledge on the matter. Since we get snippets of over 50 minds all at once, Hot Sonnets is beautiful, multi-faceted, witty, adventurous, and crafted masterfully.—Gretchen Hodgin