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Quick Review 07
“Sonnet for Bonnie”
by Darren Wershler-Henry
Coach House Books, 1997
“Sonnet for Bonnie” is a provocative brand of occasional verse—a love-poem that comments upon the vaunted history of the love-poem itself. Wershler-Henry has written a kind of encoded message to a girlfriend named Bonnie, but he has revealed his feelings without resorting to the tropes of standard lyricism because, for him, the act of writing a sonnet in our contemporary, technological milieu must seem all too sentimentally anachronistic. His poem often causes my students much bewilderment when they first encounter it, and I go on to tell them that I always enjoy teaching this poem because, in my opinion, it represents one of the great limit-cases of sonnetry, since the poem is almost a miracle of concision, distilling all the traits of Petrarchan expression into a hieroglyph of four symbols.
Petrarch, of course, writes his sonnets in two parts: an octave and a sestet—in which the first eight lines pose a problem that the remaining six lines attempt to resolve. If we define poetry as a kind of economical, expressive form, in which a poet must strive to speak as abundantly and as eloquently as possible, using as few words as possible, then this sonnet does constitute an efficient, if not essential, mode of expression. If the lover does in fact express his love via a sonnet, then the octave (represented here by the interrogative symbol raised to the eighth power) might encode the query: “Who do I love?”—to which the sestet (represented here by the letter U raised to the sixth power) might encode the reply: “You!”
Love itself almost constitutes a kind of puzzle or enigma, which two lovers might have to resolve in the course of experiencing it. The cryptic quality of the poem itself suggests the degree to which any communication between two lovers begins to take on the character of an intimate language, too private or too illicit for others to understand. In the courtly context of earlier sonnets by Petrarch, for example, such a love-poem as this one functions almost as kind of “postcard,” perused by many deliverers en route to its recipient, so the poet must find ways to build an obscure element of privacy into an otherwise overheard epistle.
Even though this poem might represent a published statement of affection, it nevertheless preserves for itself a relatively enigmatic message, one that remains illegible to any uninformed readership—and thus I might suggest that, despite the fact that this poem, at first glance, appears very cryptic and austere, it is in fact a delicate, precious object, free from much of the sappiness that often plagues a rhapsodic outpouring of affection.