Sonnet L'Abbé Reads “CXIV”
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of December 25th, 2017. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. In The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: The Next Wave is the name of a forthcoming anthology of present day Canadian literature. It’s edited by Jim Johnstone who also introduced our portfolio of new Canadian poets in the December issue.
Lindsay Garbutt: Sonnet L'Abbé is one of twelve poets in our portfolio. Her poem is called “CXIV” after Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXIV. L'Abbé took Shakespeare’s sonnet and buried each letter of it deep in her own prose poem.
Don Share: So the letters in the first line of Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Or whether doth my mind being crown’d with you”, can be found dispersed in the opening lines of L’Abbé’s poem, though you’re not going to necessarily hear them or see them without a careful search.
Lindsay Garbutt: L'Abbé says she’s using the Shakespeare sonnet not for it’s themes or subject, but for the way it shapes how she lays down her own words.
Sonnet L'Abbé: Some metaphors for how the Shakespeare acts is like a frame. Sometimes I think about it like rug hooking where the Shakespeare is the mesh on the back of what I’m doing.
Lindsay Garbutt: And what she’s doing in this poem is exploring childhood memories in Canada, when she was told to go home because of the way she looked.
Don Share: L'Abbé father is Québecois, and her mother is from Guyana.
Sonnet L'Abbé: So ethnically I’m black and some kind of South Asian. Some people who’s parents have arrived here at a certain point thought this point was theirs, and that I didn’t belong in it. That sense of where is this place, who gets to name it, has been on my mind since I was little.
Don Share: Here’s the poem.
Sonnet L'Abbé: I’m not sure whether it happened in Manitoba or Alberta: go home, they complained, go back, wherever pakis or niggers come from. Was I seven years old? Was I five? The day was cloudy; there was wind, and a sidewalk underfoot — a path of cement on which we kids marched. In whose place was I a guest, if home wasn’t this flat territory we were on? The hard sidewalk under my shoes, their sense of here. I walked home alone — I say “home” — I went where my parents paid rent, right? Our house wasn’t ours? Overhead, the sky spread out; the sky’s country was itself. We had moved from Ontario, but my gut got that they didn’t mean there. Immigrants, all of us, we’d chorused in assembly — the more immigrants, the kindlier the country, the folksier the mosaic. First the English and the French, then Western Europeans and the Ukrainians, I guessed, then Chinese and Indians, then the Guyanese and other such Commonwealth stragglers? Eventually we’d bring into “us,” Canadians, a panoply of the human race — so my sweet young self, in Trudeau’s aftermania, believed. Those children’s hate had a kind of guilelessness, however, that conveyed my abjection straight from their Canadian parents’ hearts. I was foreign to clear distinctions between master and savage — to fantasies of homesteaders who, by subjecting trees to their saws, had “mixed their labor” with “unowned” lands. Homesteaders, they called themselves, by principle: “home” was theirs, because they were first to fence it. As if we still were at war with whatever made entreaty against their fencing, my existence existing too near threatened. My very being entreated something before I ever opened my mouth. Get lost! Here kingly kids drink from institution’s cup. Something older than English yea well knows what with his guts he must disagree. Something français dit bon, histoire-là, je parle au-dessus du poète: domination, Dominion, domicile, home. I protested: one of my parents is here’s occupying family! Don’t blacken me! Please see my colonists’ blood, inside! They practiced the policing of reserve on the surface of my brown skin. They practiced homing in on enemy. The clouds above, the sky above, witnessed. The land underfoot said, here was here first. We thought about beginnings.
Don Share: The first thing you notice when you look at the poem on the page, and I think all of the poems in her series do this, is the title’s in roman numerals so it looks like it says CXIV, and I immediately thought of Philip Larkin’s poem “1914” on the poem on the page, otherwise known as “MCMXIV”. I don’t think there’s any direct connection between this and Larkin except what the effect of this right off the back is to take something monumental, whether they’re in a monument of something relating to World War 1 or Shakespeare’s monumental work, it allows it to enter into every day language by translating the roman numerals and they’re gigantic significance into something personal and felt by an individual person. That helped me get into the poem a little bit, that it’s more than just a way of rewriting Shakespeare, but it’s a way of taking those poems to heart and transforming them.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, the Sonnet 114 is concerned with trying to make a distinction if possible between what the mind is showing and what the eye sees. It seems as if in part that’s what is happening here, there is a certain kind of judgement that’s being leveled on the speaker for the color of her skin as opposed to internally she realizes this is unjust, this isn’t right.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I was thinking about the connection between Shakespeare’s sonnet and what we have here. Even though it’s not explicitly connected and she makes the his clear, both in the commentary we already heard and in the poem, and there’s that short section that’s in French … If I’m understanding it correctly the end of it says I speak above the poet, “je parle au-dessus du poète”. Then it’s “domination, Dominion, domicile, home.”. So it’s taking even a larger question about what does a home mean and how can we even understand ourselves if we don’t understand what home means, and where my home starts and yours ends.
Don Share: That’s a real Shakespearean theme. Maybe in the plays more so than the sonnets, but that question of dominion. The commonwealth had it’s roots in the extension of power from a small place all the way over into great continents like Canada and all over the world. What’s so fascinating to me here in this poem is that it’s sort of taking things back. That reposession is something people often do in creative work now, and talk about. But here, for instance it says “I was foreign to clear distinctions between master and savage”. Again, very Shakespearean, maybe the Tempest or something. But also reclaim the sense of what’s foreign. “I was foreign” — that’s sort of the nexus of the poem, being foreign or made to feel foreign. But she’s sort of taking that back; “I was foreign to clear distinctions between master and savage”. I like that sort of subversion of terminology there.
Christina Pugh: Yeah, there are these moments in the poem in which we do get some diction plucked directly from the Sonnet 114. For example, the word kingly appears in that sonnet. It seems to be very connected to that moment you just quoted: “domination, Dominion, domicile, home.”. I think it was Lindsay. The idea that kingliness relates to dominion, and how that domicile, or how the home is being delineated.
Don Share: Well the dominion of Canada is explored so fascinatingly in the poem, talking about ““us,” Canadians, a panoply of the human race “. This is in what she calls brilliantly “Trudeau’s aftermania”. It’s kind of a history of Canada in this poem. It’s a real tapestry not just of Shakespeare’s words and his own thinking about these things, but a kind of new tapestry that I don’t think I’ve seen in other kinds of poems.
Sonnet L'Abbé: The land underfoot said, here was here first. We thought about beginnings.
Don Share: You can read “CXIV” in the December 2017 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four December episodes all at once on the full length episode on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought about this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox with help from Catherine Fenelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this poem comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.