Hayes (How to Be Drawn) addresses this marvelous series of 70 free-verse sonnets to his potential assassin: a nameless, faceless embodiment of America’s penchant for racially motivated violence. The poems are redolent of Hayes’s signature rhythmic artistry and wordplay: “After death. Our warriors, weirdos, antiheroes, our sirs,/ Sires, our sighers, sidewinders & whiners, winos/ And wonders become dust.” Hayes mockingly refers to President Trump as “Mister Trumpet” and excoriates his fellow Americans for seeking “A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection/ Of your own.” He captures the existential dread of the first year of Trump’s presidency accurately, but also provides some whimsy for the weary, referring to the present time as “The umpteenth slump/ In our humming democracy, a bumble bureaucracy/ With teeny tiny wings too small for its rumpled,/ Dumpling of a body.” Hayes references a range of poetic precursors and sings the praises of numerous black cultural figures, including Langston Hughes, Jimi Hendrix, and Toni Morrison. An ode to James Baldwin describes the crease between his eyes as “a riverbed branching/ Into tributaries like lines of rapturous sentences/ Searching for a period.” Inventive as ever, Hayes confronts America’s myriad ills with unflinching candor, while leaving space for love, humor, and hope. (June)
Hayes set himself the challenge of writing political poems in the guise of love poems. Each one is distinct: Some are sermons, some are swoons. They are acrid with tear gas, and they unravel with desire . . . These poems play with different registers, but they return to lamentation, to annihilating grief for ‘all the black people I’m tired of losing,’ one narrator says.” – Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
“A diary of survival during a period when black men are in constant danger . . . This is one of the deepest accounts I have read in poetry of what it feels like to have one’s body fetishized as an object but criminalized as a force.” – Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
“The right poetry collection for right now . . . Hayes’ writing demonstrates a serious commitment to revising, extending, and advancing American poetry while recording, celebrating, and mourning black American life. These aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations also charge American Sonnets.” –Walton Muyumba, The Los Angeles Times
“American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a gift in a fraught moment. These sonnets, existential, political, personal, retain a moral ferocity and urgency . . . Hayes’ inhabits the deeply troubling historical moment. But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future." – Faraz Rizvi, The Millions
“Hayes reinvigorates a classic form . . . [he] examines what it means to be an American, to belong, and how it feels to be haunted and hunted by violent racism . . . expect to be challenged on nearly every page.” – Elizabeth Lund, The Washington Post
“Overwhelming in every sense. Overwhelming in its brilliance, yes, but also overwhelming in its pacing, its style . . . The book, despite its breadth and clever turns, is a confrontation . . . His poems are like the slow and steady picking of a lock, until the door handle clicks.” – Hanif Abdurraqib, Poets and Writers
"You will find all of [Hayes's] signature pleasures and provocations in this new collection: dense lyricism, associative word play, the political, the interpersonal, explorations and interrogations of race and gender and sex and the body and violence and power and history and time." – Kenyon Review
"A wild work, effervescent and despondent, Hayes’s collection of sonnets reminds us that the mastery of time is one of poetry’s important functions, though sonnets only buy it back in hasty fourteen-line bursts.” – Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker, "The Poetry I was Grateful for in 2018"
“[Hayes] speaks with urgency and authority, bearing witness to the absurdities and cruelties of the present moment . . . [American Sonnets] doesn’t just combine style and substance; style becomes substance . . . These poems reminded me what poetry is capable of: of being revelatory and inscrutable all at once, of speaking truth to power—but speaking it slant.” —Tara McEvoy, The Guardian
“Pain and poignancy collide in this collection of seventy sonnets . . . perhaps the takeaway of Mr. Hayes’ work here is that what lies in between is heart – a pounding of poems that stays in the chest long after the pages are set down. These poems stay with me, they linger, they poke and ask questions, and this is the book’s success. What more can one ask from poetry?” – Cameron Barnett, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Hayes addresses this marvelous series of 70 free-verse sonnets to his potential assassin: a nameless, faceless embodiment of America’s penchant for racially motivated violence. The poems are redolent of his signature rhythmic artistry and wordplay . . . Inventive as ever, Hayes confronts America’s myriad ills with unflinching candor, while leaving space for love, humor, and hope.” – Publishers Weekly
“With this incomparable collection, Hayes joins others in taking on the sonnet, reinvigorating its form and reimagining the possibilities of American literature.” – Booklist
"Are you not the color of this country's current threat/ Advisory? And of pompons at a school whose mascot/ Is the clementine?" It takes a moment to register that this ode to orange from National Book Award winner Hayes (Lighthead), one of 70 masterly sonnets inspired by the late Wanda Coleman's American Sonnets, references Donald Trump. Written during the first 200 days of Trump's administration, these meditations register righteous anger. "Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous/ Darkness," advises one poem, and another: "The bones managing the body's business are cloaked/ until you assassinate my nigga flesh." But there's celebration, too: "Seven of the ten things I love in the face/ of James Baldwin concern the spiritual/ elasticity of his expressions." VERDICT "In a second I'll tell you how little/ Writing rescues," says Hayes, but his rescues a lot. Highly recommended.