Book Review: Hot Sonnets

There’s something fishy about the sonnet. It isn’t supposed to work anymore. Hayden Carruth admits as much in “Sonnet 9,”

As a poet I don’t care for the stale remainder
of conventional sonnetry

and goes on to chastise himself (mid-sonnet) as “an absconder/and apostate in my era.” Yet something has driven him to “lean backward lazily” into “the old romantic bed” of the form, a sin in which he allows us to capture him mid-commission. Mid-wallow. Carruth understands that some pleasures are best contained in the gracious old chalice of fourteen (give or take) lines.

Hot SonnetsThe editors, thankfully, agree. Their premise is simple. These poems are intended to be hot. Hot, as in Hawt! Smokin’. Provocative. And they are. If sonnets were a sidewalk, you could fry eggs on these.

Ranging from the libidinously literary to the lasciviously louche, just about every tick on the erotic thermometer is exposed. And then exploited. Open the text to almost any page: fourteen hot lines and you’re on to the next. And the next. Once you start, it’s a flood. Order one fish, you get the whole school.

The book celebrates a splashy bouquet of contemporary poets, yet pays requisite homage to modern forebears. No less a craftsperson than Millay calls to us from a hash of hormones, cries out “a certain zest” to bear her lover’s weight upon her breast.

So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind

The sonnet appears to be the clarifying impulse for these minds, that pulse: the sweet volta that clears the noggin and empties the body, even if just for a moment. (“How can I quench him? Let me burn to powder.” – Meredith Bergmann)

There’s no small number of clouded minds and clarifying pulses crowding these pages, each urging towards a climax of sorts. If these poets formed a congress (well, a Congress), the orgasm platform would be passed by common acclaim. Look no further for evidence than two couplets from Marilyn L. Taylor’s extraordinary round, a crown of sonnets celebrating “The Seven Very Liberal Arts”:

And then, Professor, sign me fore and aft,
as if I were a promising first draft.


the time has clearly come for you to lay
your Freddie Mac against my Fannie Mae.

A little more? Here’s Robert Crawford oh so far from keeping his mind on “Kitchen Remodeling,” grown “glassy-eyed,”

and lost, imagining what I could do
on this expanse of countertop with you.

Here’s the thing about this particular form. Most poets are good for a good line or two. That’s why an index of first lines reads like bits of sparkling glass, sonnet-like even in a random stringing:

It’s loud enough to make the rafters ring
I watch two twentysomethings on the train
She’s just a bag of skin puffed full of air
We smell, I burn, your knees are at my feet
I’ve been unfaithful to you with my wife
I swanned at the gold calf’s hoof, I whored
Viewer, it’s night. I’m locked into a straightening device
The man with the crooked dick shines his shoes
After the supper dishes, let us start
We lie like poems, undulating rhyme
In here I own the voyage of your hip
I wanted to write a dirty-talking sonnet
The bathroom’s ready for romance. It’s lit
Much will have changed since your last visit

Those first lines are unremittingly good. You might say that negotiating the first line of a sonnet is something like stepping from the dock onto a small boat. Exhilarating, but not terribly hard. And thus it is with the last line or two as well, the cap to the sonnet, often a classic couplet: well within the reach of the professional poet. Bang the iambic bongos a few times while walking the commodious pentameter line and you’ve got yourself a satisfactory, satisfying dessert, the perfect end to the meal. Not unlike stepping off a small boat and onto the shore at the end of a short journey.

The problem arises with those ten or twelve lines of white water the poet hits once s/he’s set out from that shore, and well before turning back. It’s the mark of the fine sonneteer to navigate these shoals with unforced rhyme, sweet elision, the sense of a sure hand on the tiller. Many a sonnet vessel’s been broken mid-steerage on the hard rock demands of clear thought, consistent accounting, logical discourse.

The editors understand this, of course, and wisely opt for poems made well, poems that travel a complete narrative arc, as Susan McLean does in “Your Other Women,” beginning with “Your secretaries, eager to assist you” and continuing through “my own best friends; the maid who comes to clean” before ending neatly on its two-footed denouement. Or turn to David Rothman in “She Receives Flowers,” where the poet laments “Late in life you don’t expect romance,” but then moves with feral grace to a concluding “Surrender to this sight, this scent, these hours.” Or let yourself surrender, indeed, to the taut sexy charge of Amy Lemmon’s  faithless “Invitation.”

Love and heat are given free range in all their forms. If you’re up for a little S&M, hie thee to Rose Kelleher’s masterful (mistress-full) “Rope.” And the homoerotic gets full play as well, sometimes achieving the high lyricism of the gifted, rule-breaking David Bergman (“In Nordstrom’s”), sometimes the terrifying grit of David Trinidad (“At the Glass Onion, 1971”), sometimes the homey, pedestrian, almost wistful beauty of Molly Peacock (“I Consider the Possibility”), who manages to perfectly conflate funny and racy, a feat unto itself.

Hot Sonnets was co-edited by Clarinda Harriss, who must in fair measure by now be numbered among the most talented poets working in English, and Moira Egan, who contributes an introduction as cheeky (and penetrating, and receptive) as you’re likely to discover in any anthology. It is at once perky, luminous, incisive, squisito, and it displays a knowledge and love of the sonnet you’ll encounter about as often as a Phrygian-capped Orpheus strumming his vihuela.

If you read nothing else in Hot Sonnets, read this introduction. But of course, that’s a bit canny: for once gorged on those brilliant first few pages, you can’t help but leap from the dock to the boat. A boat filled with lovely hot fishes.

Note: Works by both Clarinda Harriss and Bruce Sager have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review. Go to the Summer 2011 Make Believe issue section on this site and watch a video of Bruce reading “The Eighth Annual Wright Brothers Martini Award.” Then read Clarinda’s poems, published in the the same issue, and her account of the craft that underlies them. All a delight.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Hot Sonnets

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