Tree, I Invented a New Form of Poem
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Sonnet L’Abbé’s poem “CXIV” appears in the December 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Once I was in a cheap hotel in Itaewon, South Korea, when a random dude, hyper-built and stink-drunk, busted into my room, into the bathroom, pulled me off the toilet and tried to wrestle me to the bed. I fought; I bolted to the door and he caught me. We grappled out into the hotel hallway and I let my nightie slip off over my head, leaving it in his fists, so I could run upstairs to where my friends were sleeping.
When my friends and I came back to see if he had stolen anything, the door to the room was mutely open and the walls of the hallway seemed to thrum with attention. The grimy, embossed wallpaper asserted its touchable texture. The carpet in the hall was all like, I am brown and matted and dirty, and, from the corner of the room, which seemed to be vibrating, the sheeny acrylic bedspread dully sighed thousands of dutiful launderings. My purse sat unmolested on the floor.
It was not the first time that, after a violence, the things around me reminded me of their aliveness.
That’s kind of what my poem in the December 2017 issue is about.
My name is Sonnet. I’m my parents’ first kid. My father was born in Cochrane, Ontario, to Québécois parents who never claimed to be “de souche” or “pure laine” but who’d qualify for that shitty distinction. My mom was born in Georgetown, Guyana, to parents of mixed Indian and African descent. My mom and dad met on a public tennis court in Toronto.
The word Toronto “comes from the Mohawk word tkaronto, which means 'where there are trees in the water.'” My parents did not teach me this. I learned the word tkaronto maybe three years ago.
My name is a portmanteau of my parents’: s-o-n from Jason, and n-e-t from Janet. Like Brangelina. Or brunch. They’d heard about combining names; they’d heard someone named a boat that way. They were not into poetry. They liked the word.
I want to say I was born in Tkaronto, but the story about place that people around me were telling, the story I was born in, said Toronto. It was a way of organizing power and reality. It is a way of organizing power and reality.
What does your name mean? kids asked me. It means that I am a manifestation of the reproductive force that careened, specifically, through my two parents to become my single body, I thought. My name speaks the geopolitical forces that make each of my parents have European, English first names and that moved their bodies into contact with one another, here, in this place. But I’d say, it’s a poem.
I invented a new form of English-language poem.
At least, I’m pretty sure I did.
I’d put my hand on the Bible and swear that I haven’t seen anyone else write poems like these.*
But I don’t do that kind of swearing.
I was raised Catholic.
These days, I live on the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw.
Lots of cedars here.
My imagined community is all English-language speakers.
Hi tree, I say. I understand folks here call you xpey’.
Tree, I think I invented a new form of English-language poem.
When I was studying to get my accreditation to teach, I wrote about Ronald Johnson. I was interested in what he was doing with British poetic tropes of man-as-plant, plant-as-person, but everyone else was into him for other reasons, one of which is that he wrote a book called Radi Os by excising most of the text from the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Radi Os is considered one of the first books of erasure poetry.
Of his motivations, Johnson told Barry Alpert: “I just said very blithely that, I think I’ll rewrite Paradise Lost, without realizing what I was getting into. . . . By the time I got to the third book, I realized that it was very serious . . . ”
Very serious. I perked up. Very serious like you-realized-you-were-doing-cultural-erasure-for-your-own-purposes serious? Very serious like the-appropriation-and-destruction-of-artefacts serious? Very serious like who-has-the-power-to-edit-someone-else’s-words serious? Serious like a-hand-over-your-mouth-so-you-can’t-speak serious? Serious like autopsy report serious? Actually, I didn’t think the last question because certain acts hadn’t happened yet.
Johnson said: “. . . I realized that it was very serious and that I was saying something which was central to my whole work.” People around Johnson’s work said serious because firsts-in-the-story-of-modernist-anxieties-of-influence are serious. Serious because collage poetics and John Cage are serious.
My father’s first language isn’t English. He spoke only French until he was five years old, until his family moved to another small northern Ontario town where everyone spoke English and speaking French invited derision and exclusion at best, and violence at worst. My father lived through a lot of violence, though he can’t say how much came at him because they were poor and how much because they were French in an English-dominated place.
When our family moved to Manitoba, to a small town outside of Winnipeg, my mother and sibs and I were the only non-white people we came into contact with. When I was violently bullied at school, with the apparent approval of the bullies’ parents, my folks offered strategies to blend in. Try not to come off as so smart, my father said. My mother said, I always just keep my eyes down and try to avoid aggravation.
My father’s family stopped speaking French well before I was born. My whole life, my Grandmère spoke to us in thickly-accented English. My mother had grown up in another former British colony that sent her fairer-skinned aunt to a “good” school but did not do the same for my darker-skinned, kinky-haired grandmother. When politics got racially polarized in Guyana, and her family could blend in satisfactorily with neither the Indians nor the Black people, they fled.
That sense of being surrounded by an English-speaking whiteness, of being the uncategorizable child of different ones who advocated blending in as survival, was my atmosphere. My father’s original name wasn’t even Jason, it was Ghislain. If he’d kept it, the first letters of my name wouldn’t be s-o-n, but s-l-a-i-n. Of course, they wouldn’t have called me Slainnet. My entire identity, or at least my fateful careening into poetry, depends on that act of assimilation.
I didn’t understand why they, my father’s bullies and my bullies, wanted so much to erase our difference. At that point, people around me and on television were telling a story of Canada the mosaic, end of the Underground Railroad, rising multicultural utopia. My parents’ interracial marriage, my very post-miscegenation-law existence, supposedly confirmed that story of Canada. As a child, I was terrified by the fact that apartheid South Africa still existed, and had fantasies about stowing away on a plane to Pretoria, so I could go talk to the government there, show them what a nice person I was, and they’d change their laws.
I had never heard of the Indian Act.
Post-colonial was the word I learned at university; it gave me a story to understand my racialized childhood experiences. I began to understand racialization as a strategy of European colonization. My education gave me words like “subaltern” to describe my position in relation to power. I learned from Audre Lorde that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and from Philip that “my mother tongue . . . is a foreign anguish / is english.” From a place of unspeaking, the space of having been called i e in English, I understood the anguish of Philip writing, in English, anguish.
The i e speakable in me is a presence, surrounded. It is alive.
I wanted to create a form that evidenced the dynamic of erasure, to surround what has surrounded me to the point that it speaks through me. To get on top of English. To interrogate my linguistic forefathers. To be not-asking to be at the center but to claim the center of English, and center my body. To refuse marginality. I decided to assimilate Shakespeare’s sonnets, the text that taught me English, into my lyric voice. I meant to retell “sonnet” as a way of organizing power and reality.
I approached Shakespeare’s text the way Johnson’s found poetry ethics teaches us to, as if the text is just resource, available for my appropriation. I erase Shakespeare not by deleting his text, not by unbodying his voice, but by surrounding it with the letters of my telling. Each of the 154 poems of Sonnet’s Shakespeare, the project of which the poem in this issue is a part, is an erasure of Shakespeare’s poem that leaves his whole poem there, in plain sight, but almost impossible to see or hear if you don’t already know what to look for.
For example, in this poem is the whole of Shakespeare’s sonnet 124, which begins “If my dear love were but the child of state.” You can find it in my first line of this poem about a guy (another one) who wouldn’t leave me alone:
If I believe his malarky, I am his dear love and his actions were but the chance, miscalculated advance of lust. Almost two years post-violation, I still might flip open my computer and find, waiting for me, a stunner. This hapless bastard’s creep game’s been unfathomable: I receive pleading emails, with subject lines like “you have to let it go,” “forgive me, sweet love,” or “though technically you might consider this harassment…” Yes, I wrote him in clear words to never approach me. Yes, on my Instagram and Twitter feeds, he’s blocked. I unfriended him and his followers within days following the crime. Still, I gather evidence: I don’t block my inboxes; I filter. That I was bullied, each email declares inadvertently, that far from accidental intrusion did I suffer. His are the actions of one who won’t listen, who smiles while waiting for protest to temper, who nods while on his deaf ears fall words he of course understands, but that he’ll blow off. He’s thoroughly appalled at the idea that his conduct bore intent. What happened was rape, he’ll admit to that technical definition, but not to having intended harm—and will ignore the agential message of my stone unresponsiveness (that followed the ask to quit his phone calls, his texts, his friend requests) to assert and assert that assault is not his policy. He gets that harassment’s another crime, technically, but he wants to save our relationship. Or is he just a coward who knows how the system works? Online and at my doorstep and at the university office, his exhortations arrive in number, each detailing the hours of that bad date in his journalistic detail. He’s building a plot I’d need to refute if I ever took a stand. His remorse is so hugely politic that he shaped it into an article the Globe ran, on how men struggle with rape culture (oh, he sent that link, I couldn’t read it). Instead of breaking down, I sat down with Jónína; we shared stories of white male appropriators. In this memo I witness my calm. Like the FBI guy, Comey, I collect my memory to the best of my documenting, anticipating a time when I might be charged to publicize a powerful man’s insecure emails. The disinformation goes into a folder. The Cloud is witness to who has lived, and who has lived without answering for, a crime.
My poetic intervention does center my body, and aspires to align with decolonial projects. I’m not sure I can successfully use English, and its imagination self-centered in the lyric “I,” to decenter the thinking that came to this place, in part, through English poems. Using French to do so won’t decenter European logics. Struggling against domination with domination, digging into my intersectionality and power, for the four years it took to write this book, has proved unsettling. The languages that will decenter English on the lands of the colonized territories I live in are alive, resurging from surroundings. Right now the languages in closest contact with me, in conversation with my colonized/colonizing tongue, are Island Hul'q'umi'num' and Lekwungen. I invite them into my body, saying huy'ch'qa siem to the people who teach me, indebted and grateful for the decentering.
We are not “post”-colonial. The lands around us—the trees, the walls of buildings, the plastics in my computer—thrum, vibrant, still processing the violences.
* Folks who have seen these poems have asked if I know of John Cage's “writing through,” which I do: it’s not quite the same thing. Others have asked if I know the work of Nadia Myre’s Indian Act. I didn’t until about two years into my own project. Not the same thing either, obviously, but if we're going to say someone else did overwriting first, let’s go with Myre.