In Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609), the object of desire, whether “fair youth” or “dark lady”—diseased, venereal, degrading—is erased by the poet’s own practice of representation. In Sonnet’s Shakespeare (2019), Sonnet L’Abbé uses a reverse erasure method on her namesake, cannibalizing each sonnet, absorbing them within her own prose poems that flicker with aural ghosts of the originals, retaining words in the same order within her overwriting of them. Similarly, each original sonnet’s syntax, argument, theme, iambic rhythm, pattern of imagery is reworked, worked over, metabolized, raged against, ravaged.
This method allows L’Abbé to address a fantastic range of contemporary subjects, politics, and media: Plenty of Fish, Bumble, toxic dates, #metoo, Twitter and tattoos, the whiteness of Urban Dictionary, Ikea naming practices, weed, Wikipedia bias, the Tar Sands, the Truth and Reconciliation Report, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, menstruation, myectomy. At the same time, Shakespeare, historically a technique for colonial schooling of brown subjects, is schooled in 21st century intersectionality. For example, Sonnet LXXVI (“Why is my verse so barren of new pride, / So far from variation or quick change?”) is metamorphosed by L’Abbé as “All my argument with sonneteering, all my best effort, is in redressing old words’ indifferent power, suiting paternity in unrecognized skin, regenerating England’s Canadian, brownish, phantom limb.” Many sonnets deploy humour, as in CXVII, on Leonard Cohen: “Your low tones made tea and oranges sound so juicy!” Others articulate grief: “The coverage of lost daughters in news is but one surface of ; this poem, the clumsy franchisement of my heart, which thumps against a raced apathy. Breastboned, I slow breath here for lives of daughters” (XXII).
A deeper narrative thread hints at a search for a love match, a partner, the longing for a child, just as Shakespeare’s sonnets come to substitute biological with literary progeny. An entwined musing on beauty, children, and race is brilliantly embodied in L’Abbé’s reworking of Sonnet CXXVII (“In the old age black was not counted fair, Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name; / But now is black beauty’s successive heir, / And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame”):
Le professeur fancophone que jai recontré on Bumble blanks at my imaginary stresses: okay, your poems are about race, but we don’t have to think in black and white over dinner, do we? Somebody doesn’t. This situation suits some bodies just fine, and they will date me, if I don’t bring work home. I’m churning through Shakespeare’s sonnet, contemplating easier occupations. My children, who were not born into fairness, who no beauty ever lacked, who never happened at all, read this grudging creation over my shoulder. They are with me always, as I fail at ease. They don’t exist, as I cleave to my poetry like a significant other who never asks anything of me, who isn’t hurt by my inability to lighten up. Nothing’s coming, just a gust of weather, a failure to work through a sonnet’s hatred. Slavery’s tongue is in my head, kissing me, saying smile, smile, beauty shouldn’t look so hard.
The tradition of the blazon, in which the mute female beloved is subjected by the sonneteer to a poetic autopsy/vivisection, is used in turn to dissect the sonnet as form, the Canadian literary canon, the politics of beauty.
There is tremendous pleasure in this work. A tour de force of humour, beauty, fury, grief, and rage.
Kim Trainor’s most recent book is Ledi (Book*hug 2018), shortlisted for the Raymond Souster award. She lives in Vancouver.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.