Sonnets are one of the poetic forms that people whose poetry knowledge ends in high school can still name. When a poet employs a commonplace, canonical form across a lengthy sequence, it’s always worth exploring how she expands or subverts its conventions. In her debut collection, Interrobang, Jessica Piazza punctures the typical self-contained essence of the sonnet to address love, fear, and how they inform identity.
“Muchness” kept springing to mind to describe this collection. Piazza’s poems are dense with sound and emotion; there’s a weighty muchness to each one. With the exception of three longer sequences of linked sonnets, all the poems are titled after a phobia or a philia – a fear or a love. This duality resonates with the book’s titular punctuation mark, the combined question mark and an exclamation point that means “an exclamatory rhetorical question” (according to the Merriam-Webster citation at the front of the book). Interrobang’s poems contain their messiness, overflowing with fragmented images, questions, and exclamations. The poems’ speakers often veer between extremes: fighting and fucking, loud and quiet, familiar and strange. A rhythmic undercurrent propels them through these contrasts, as in these gleefully alliterative lines from “People Like Us”:
…I’m already un and raveling;
this scanty hope swan-songing my integrity.
(But maybe also, just a little, reveling?
Piñata pricked, unpilfered? Tamed tsunami swell?
An overflowing loving cup?) Tut, tut! Too cursed. Too much. I won’t allow it. …
Here, “too much” disavows the “un and raveling,” as well as the “overflowing” –demonstrating how form and content counterbalance each other, in another set of contrasts. This balance answers the question “why sonnets?” – the form is a kind of fulcrum supporting each poem, giving it a necessary weight. This weightiness, this verbal density within a compact form, is a common effect in other sonnet collections that tend towards the experimental, like Karen Volkman’s Nomina or Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets. Rather than the received sonnet setup (one train of thought, then a revision of, or commentary on, that beginning angle), experimental sonnets create their own rhetoric. They abandon thoughts midsentence, or pursue them into an unresolved question, or cast them into a Choose Your Own Adventure, or stretch them across successive pages.
The three extended sonnet sequences in Interrobang, “People Like Us,” “The Prolific,” and “What I Hold,” punctuate and balance the collection. Each of these sequences contains five sonnets, linked to one another by shared words from the last line of one to the first line of the next. Here’s the transition between the third and fourth sonnets in “The Prolific”:
…Instead I found the spot
on 23rd where, when the sun struck clear
glass buildings, streets appeared to multiply.
Then a thousand of me walked away.
A thousand other men could walk away
from me a thousand times, and yet I’d pay
them hardly any mind. The only one
who matters is the one I left. …
The extended length and patterned repetition, along with the layout – fourteen lines to a page – positions each sonnet in these sequences as something in between a standalone poem and a stanza. Their length allows themes and images to develop more richly, forming micro-narratives of a relationship (in “People Like Us” and “The Prolific”) and a personal epiphany (in “What I Hold”). This isn’t to say that the individual sonnets are lacking, but the three sequences are especially accomplished pieces of poetic craft.
The descriptions of colors, glass, and transparency threaded through “The Prolific” give shape to one of the collection’s consistent themes: being visible in a female body. A body moves through a city, seeing and being seen. Elsewhere, mirrors and windows reflect a body’s performances, as in “Eisoptrophobia, Fear of mirrors,” a sonnet in two seven-line reflected pieces that ends “Reflected, I am never at my best.”
A mirror again in “Panophilia, Love of everything” shows another warped reflection of the speaker’s identity:
…So I don’t understand
my drunkenness on scribble scrawled above
the mirror in the ladies’ room: You’re doomed.
Ecstatic that it’s almost true.
Here again is what I mean by muchness, a (traditionally) unladylike excess of it: drunk, scrawling and scribbling, the speaker emphatically embraces a dire almost-truth. Framed this way, it seems brave to be doomed, and to admit “I don’t understand.” There’s some excitement to being beyond understanding in the drunkenness and doom reflected here.
A truth-seeking spirit animates the collection. The choice of Latinate words to name all the poems brings to mind classical philosophy; in particular, Platonic ideals that things have a real, knowable essence. In this vein, “Anablephobia, Fear of looking up” describes roadside memorial signs:
Some read just: THINK. Those mark an accident.
Others: Why Die? And those mean someone did.
One day I heard a man say that his wife
gave up the ghost. But he was like a ghost.
Maybe that’s the truth. We die to leave
the losses that we cannot give away.
Compared to many poems in the collection, “Anablephobia” uses less enjambment and more complete, unfragmented sentences: “Those mark an accident.” The effect is assertive, but it’s tempered by uncertainty and abstraction. “Maybe that’s the truth” tells the reader something about what death could mean, what reality could unite all deaths.
It seems risky and brave to venture such broad ideas in the space of a fourteen-line poem. It’s an appealingly anachronistic approach: rather than privileging a thorough description of subjective individual experiences, as many contemporary poets do, Piazza’s poems grasp for the universal. They dare to move from an “I” to a universal “we.” “Anablephobia” ends with:
We die to tempt the edges that we fear.
We die to rise. We die to travel up.
“To tempt the edges that we fear” is rich with an appealing assonance. It also summarizes the rhetorical aims of some of the most memorable poems in my mental canon: think “Ariel,” or “Howl,” or “The Glass Essay,” all poems positioned on the edge of something fearful, potentially annihilating. Piazza earns her poems’ universal “we” with fierce intelligence and fearless expressions of deep feeling.
Interrobang is available from Red Hen Press.
Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and online at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences (2012) and Instax Winter (2014). She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.