Change is an inseparable part of existence, yet, when representing a deliberate intention, it becomes a strangely difficult step to take. In his 2018 poem, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes addresses the necessity to make a difficult choice, conveying the sense of lingering between inconsequential inaction and a challenging effort. Giving the sonnet a unique structure and juxtaposing the metaphoric symbol of a bull to that one of a bird, the author makes his audience question the choices that they make.
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The juxtaposition of the bull and the bird as two key symbols used in the poem is what catches the reader’s eye immediately as an obvious centerpiece of the poem. At first glance, the colorful contrast between a bird entrapped in a cage and a wild beast running free might seem as quite simple representations of freedom and the sense of being restrained. However, on closer scrutiny, the metaphor begins to expand to a larger image, with a bull becoming minute and the bird’s wings “whipping in a storm” (Hayes 6). Thus, the symbol of a bull transforms into the expression of pure delight, becoming the epicenter of the author’s emotional experience.
The contrast between the two images and the way in which the boundaries of each metaphor are expanded to include new ideas reflects the complexity of social relationships in the modern society and the inward struggle of an individual perfectly. Encouraging his audience to use free association in their perception of the two key metaphors in the poem, Hayes renders an important issue in modern American society, which is the continuous problem of racism. Rooted in the painful history of the U.S., the phenomenon of racism affects members of the African American community on all levels. Though the sonnet may seem distanced from the issue of race, the presence of symbols alluding to the history of interracial relationships in the American society point to the development of social conflict. For example, the symbol of the black bull and the image of a bird trapped in a cage could be seen as the emblem of the African American community being marginalized due to the persistence of racial prejudices in American society.
The sonnet addresses the effects of social stereotypes inflicted upon African American people due to the persistence of racism by exploring the theme of change. Hayes emphasizes the importance of flexibility, adaptability, and the general capability of changing as one of the crucial characteristics of African American people, which allows them to survive in a hostile setting. The identified theme becomes vivid when studying the effect that the use of shape and size creates in the sonnet. As the author starts describing a bull, the reader immediately imagines a huge beast with immense power, yet the very next line subverts the audience’s expectations drastically: “Inside me is a huge black/Bull balled small enough to fit inside/The bead of a nipple ring” (Hayes 6). Thus, Hayes conveys the importance of shifting and transforming in American society for African American people.
The theme of flexibility as a survival mechanism leaves an especially disturbing feeling to the reader. Although a sense of liberation is coded into the metaphor of the bull, the idea of change being not a personal intention but as the process into which one is pressured is quite unsettling. Thus, the division within American society can be seen as one of the central themes of the poem: “As if a bird/Could grow without breaking its shell” (Hayes 6). Arguably, the hardships of life for a representative of a racial minority group in the United States are expressed through the rebellion against the traditional form of a sonnet. Refusing to comply with the meter and rhyme and stripping the notion of a sonnet down to its barest essence, the author makes a strong statement about his willingness to continue fighting against social injustice and pushing the boundaries of societal expectations for African American people.
Hayes’ refusal to follow the traditional conventions of structuring sonnets in the described example allows embracing the theme of rampant prejudices engraved into the relationships within American society especially well. The presence of fourteen lines is the only recognizable element that helps the reader to define the poem as a sonnet, whereas the meter and rhyme as two important characteristics of a sonnet have been ignored completely. The decision to abandon the traditional form is clearly deliberate in the “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” since it helps to focus on the content and the changes in its tone, meaning, and emotional impact. Without the described constituents of a sonnet, Hayes has managed to construct a complex metaphor that represents the complexity and strain of the present-day social relationships in the U.S.
Another peculiar metaphor used masterfully in the sonnet is the intrinsic relationship between time and space. Emphasizing the necessity for African American people to adapt to the unfair standards of modern American society, Hayes demonstrates the struggles that vulnerable racial minorities have to suffer in order to gain a semblance of hope in advancing in the social hierarchy. For instance, in the line “your wild wings bewildering a cage” the author emphasizes the strong risks that African American men face. The necessity to struggle merely to stay alive rings in every word of the line “feet stuck in a plot of dirt” (Hayes 6). The reader can almost feel the tension and the huge effort that the lead character has to make in order to remain safe.
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The contrast between the two options that Hayes provides is enhanced with the focus on rapid changes in their scope and size as both the birds and the bull grow from small to huge and back: “As if a bird/Could grow without breaking its shell”; “small enough to fit inside/The bead of a nipple ring” (Hayes 6). Thus, the author allows exploring the meaning of his words more effectively and inferring profound ideas about social interactions and the role of prejudices in people’s lives. In addition, by depicting the transformations from a bird as a creature representing the longing for freedom to a bull as the one that embodies it, Hayes points to the fluidity of the human nature, its resilience and the skill to adapt. However, by outlining that the ferocious beats inside him is “balled small enough to fit inside/The bead of a nipple ring,” the poet ponders the stress caused to African American people by the lack of justice in the American society, as well as the pressure under which vulnerable groups exist (Hayes 6).
Although the general sense of the poem could be seen as rather morbid, with the problems in the cultural dialogue within American society having grown exponentially, the uplifting presence of hope makes the poem especially memorable. Outlining social injustices and the presence of an implicit threat to social justice are in the focus of the sonnet, yet Hayes also reminds that there are moments of delight and happiness that need to be remembered: “I mean to leave/A record of my raptures” (Hayes 6). Sharing his delight of the ability to transform and keep the connection with his family and the community, the poet evokes the sense of hope in his readers as well.
Finally, the title of the sonnet needs to be addressed as one of the most controversial aspects of the work. It is noteworthy that Hayes uses “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” the title for every single poem in the collection. Thus, the author explores the problematic aspects of changes that American society has experienced recently. Familiarizing himself with whom he deems as the assassin of the progress in the relationships between the African American community and the Euro American one, Hayes demonstrably avoids addressing the assassin in question. Instead, he shifts to the discussion of the source of strength for himself and the rest of the African American community, focusing on the sense of unity and the strength of relationships within African American families: “My mother shaped my grasp of space” (Hayes 6). Thus, the sonnet not only evokes the sense of threat to the African American community but also provides the source of resilience and support for people that may be ignored or even ostracized in the context of the new American reality.
Although the sonnet introduces a clear point of self-discovery, the author leaves the choice between freedom and a life in a cage to his readers, allowing the poem to linger between the two opposites. The presence of obstacles in the way of African American people when they attempt at entering the society and establishing themselves is clearly visible in every detail of the poem. Thus, the poem represents a pure emotion wrapped in the barest possible form of a sonnet, calling the reader’s attention to intrinsic problems within the American society.
Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Penguin Books, 2018.