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Volta

by Susan Gillis
74 pages,
ISBN: 0921833865

The Adultery Poems

by Nancy Holmes
ISBN: 0921870981


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Freezing in Fire and Burning in Ice
by Graham Good

What accounts for the longevity of the sonnet? This little box of intricate rhyme patterns still seems to attract contemporary poets more than any other traditional form. Odes are a rare find these days, though that form was favoured by a poet as contemporary as Auden. And of course the ode has a much longer history overall, reaching back to Pindar and Horace. The sonnet is inconceivable in classical antiquity, partly because of its heavy reliance on rhyme, and partly because of its characteristic theme of romantic love. Hegel, the only thinker I know of who offers a theory about the rise of rhyme, links it to the romantic "interiority" which developed out of Christianity: the rhymes create, through recurring sounds, a poetic inner space analogous to the new subjective spirituality of the late middle ages and the associated cult of courtly love.
Dante and Petrarch found the sonnet the perfect vehicle for echoing the beloved's name and exploring the contrary emotions of the devoted lover's heart. Strangely, though, the sonnet survived all the "freezing in fire and burning in ice" that filled it for four centuries. It re-emerged after a hiatus in the eighteenth century with poets like Wordsworth and Keats, and has stayed with us, despite occasionally losing its rhymes (Lowell), going to 16 lines (Meredith) or being metrically stretched to bursting by Hopkins and Rilke. Its subject matter has ranged far beyond love, but it still seems to return to that theme as its central preoccupation. The form's constitutive but doomed attempt to "reason" about love provides an aesthetic closure but leaves the emotional contradictions unresolved. Its mysterious proportions (why fourteen lines particularly? why "turn" the poem at 8-6 and not 7-7?) have also kept their appeal into the present.
Susan Gillis's Volta signals an interest in the sonnet even in the collection's title: the "turn" of the sonnet¨which takes place between the octave and sestet¨is a more likely allusion than the Count Volta who gave his name to a unit of electricity. Her collection has a twofold relation to the sonnet tradition. It contains a number of unrhymed sonnets, and a series of fifteen poems on love which are "radical translations or permutations" of sonnets by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey (he is generally known, like Byron, by his title) was one of the first to adapt the Italian sonnet into English, and often based his poems on Petrarch, so Gillis places herself third in a series. But although two of the series have fourteen (unrhymed) lines, none of them is a sonnet in the strict sense: many are considerably longer and do not look remotely sonnet-like. All fifteen poems are given a reference to a Surrey poem in the notes, but the relationship is very oblique. What is transmitted is in most cases only a phrase, a sentiment, or gesture. Yet somehow what one might call the "logic" of the sonnet form is still present here. The fifteen titles all contain the word "Love", ("Love as Stone", "The Sufficiency of Love", etc.) and announce a sustained anatomy of love.

Gillis ends the book with an essay, entitled "Gossiping with Cassiopeia", about her use of Surrey's sonnets. Cassiopeia, Queen of Ethiopia, claimed she was more beautiful than the Nereids. In mythology this kind of boasting is always punished. But Cassiopeia is still allowed to take her place among the stars. The catch is that for half the night she has to hang upside down. This volta is her penalty for pride. Gillis relates this to Surrey's untimely end, beheaded by Henry VIII for including royal insignia in his family coat of arms. "Translating Surrey is like gossiping with Cassiopeia," Gillis tells us. And earlier she asks, "Where better to imagine one who has deserted us than upside down in the northern sky, gossiping with Cassiopeia?" Sonnets often woo the beloved, or lament her/his cruelty; but they can also be a good place for turning the tables, or giving the deserters their comeuppance. At a key moment the poet goes outside her cabin:
ÓI come out to the porch
as the earth tilts northward, revealing
you up there, gossiping with Cassiopeia.
I pace under the stars, shaking my fist
and shouting to high heaven, while you tip back
the flask of celestial liquor, not spilling
a drop, not even a drop, onto my lips
though you know I thirstűAnd I seek this.

The pain of this abandoned lover who still loves, echoes Surrey's pain from over four hundred years earlier:
But by and by the cause of my disease
Gives me a pang that inwardly doth sting
When that I think what grief it is again
To live and lack the thing should rid my pain.

Gillis places the "Surrey translations" in the centre of her collection. The poems that precede and follow it include skyscapes (this is an upward looking volume, questioning the stars), landscapes (Canadian and Turkish), poets (Surrey and Tsvetaeva), and moments of a lost romance. What to do with love that is no longer wanted? Lament the loss, recreate the memories, try to make sense of it. If the themes and logics of the sonnet can survive outside the form itself, they do so in Gillis's quiet intensities.
If Gillis chooses the spirit of the sonnet over its form, the reverse is true of Nancy Holmes's The Adultery Poems. One of the five parts of her collection is a sequence of fourteen fully rhymed (with a few off-rhymes) sonnets, all except one ending in a crisp "Shakespearean" concluding couplet. The guiding spirit is not Petrarch or Surrey, but Ovid. The theme is not the pain of unrequited love, but the joys of requited lust. Where Gillis's poet looks up at the stars, Holmes's "adulteress" is more likely to look down (and lie down). Ovid is represented by epigraphs from his adulterer's how-to guide, The Art of Love. This is fleshly love in the manner of classical antiquity, not the sublime or sublimated love of Dante and the Renaissance/romantic sonnet tradition. Dante is invoked in the one "Italian" sonnet (which is given a prose supplement in the style of the Vita Nuova), only to be rejected: his example of "renunciation leading to peace" does not seem relevant to the ardent "adulteress," who feels that even "Renouncing badly timed, immoral sex/ Is difficult to do." Chastity is not the only path to literary creativity: she defiantly prefers the view that "Lots of fucking makes a better poet." And if that does not mean better than Dante, there's still a consolation: "I've beat Dante all to hell/ In sexual gratification, so I say sucks/ To fame."
Holmes offers us Ovid's go-for-it attitude to sex within Dante's (or more precisely Shakespeare's) sonnet form. The incongruity makes for a lot of fun, and many of these pieces would go over well at poetry readings. But on the page, the poetry too often lapses into arch self-consciousness, and the joking comparison between poetry and sex is rather overworked. Yet most of the time this eagerly available "adulteress" figure makes for welcome comic relief from the remote, unattainable mistresses of the sonnet tradition. Laura and Beatrice would blush!
These two contrasting collections show how vital the sonnet can still be in our culture. Its characteristic themes and emotional logics can resonate with the contemporary experience of romantic love (as in Gillis), and its form can provide an ironic vehicle for the quite different experience of skillfully conducted and sexually satisfying adultery (as in Holmes). The sonnet still seems to be outlasting the ode. ˛
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