“A moment’s monument”—so Dante Gabriel Rossetti on the sonnet. But is “monument” quite right? From a certain angle it seems rigid and a bit grandiose, not unlike the boast of Ozymandias. There is, however, another kind of sonnet, looser and livelier, that lives in the same way moments do, vibrating with indeterminacy. It offers a glimpse as through a closing door or from a speeding car, a flash above a darkened landscape, an echo that [End Page 448] redoubles as it fades. It is messy and moving, charged equally with chaos and insight. It is alive.
That’s the kind of sonnet written by Ernest Hilbert, sonneteer for people who don’t like sonnets. His most recent book, 2013’s All of You on the Good Earth, published by Red Hen Press, is, like his 2009 effort, Sixty Sonnets (also from Red Hen), a collection of sixty sonnets—really, fifty-nine, if we discount the one twelve-line poem, “Past Present Future.” In one of these sixty, titled only with the mathematical symbol ∞, Hilbert eyes Rossetti. The poet sees a rubber band in the gutter, folded like a Möbius strip into the symbol for infinity. The poem concludes:
Could I believe,Unstretched from its cargo, this helixed formHas a cosmos obscured in its curvature?Is it merely what I see in the moment?When I walk away, will it keep what it meant?
Blake saw “the world in a grain of sand, eternity in a wildflower”; Hilbert sees it in a gutter. But the vision isn’t enough. It has a meaning for a particular person at a particular time; the sonnet is Hilbert’s attempt to preserve that moment and meaning. But not even they can be fixed: after the poet publishes his poem and walks away, who’s to say it will mean for others what it did for him? We, the poet’s readers—his confidantes and co-conspirators, well-wishers and rivals, admirers and ignorers, in short, all of us on the good earth—we are the quantum indeterminacy, the flux in his capacitor, monkey wrenches in the meaning machine, instruments of alienation and salvation, co-passengers, co-sufferers, the far-flung, multifarious cogs to whom he would speak and connect, for whom his heart is full. Likewise, the poems in AOYOTGE chart their horizons in a sonnet form flexible and capacious enough to accommodate the wide range and varieties of experience to which they and we are bound.
What makes the “Hilbertian” sonnet capacious? First, the much-discussed rhyme scheme, shared by most of the poems in the volume (fifty-four out of sixty, to be precise), consisting of two sestets followed by a couplet: abcabcdefdefgg. The structural units of Hilbert’s sonnets fall outside the usual parameters of octave-sestet, or (that Steve Guttenberg film a few of us are still waiting for) Three Quatrains and a Couplet, allowing Hilbert to put the conventional volta (or turn) anywhere or nowhere. The effect is to de-formulaicize and de-familiarize the sonnet’s traditional rhetorical shape, shifting the weight of emphasis off of argument and onto imagery and voice, an effect to which the distant mutedness of the rhymes also contributes. I’ll illustrate with one poem in full, the book’s last as it happens, called “The Wife of the Zeppelin Scientist”: [End Page 449]
Cold rhythm of rivets in the hangar—The balmy whirr of huge engines soothes you.Watch the glide of swelled bellies far above.To raise an ill nation from its languor,You bred giants, impractical and new.Slow, broad contours inspired a strange love.I’m not jealous. How could I be? The prowOf your dream breaks through lightning-veined storms, throwsThe past off—gleaming vanguard, Olympic.But thoughts of war must be put off for now.You grant us great, luxury torpedoes,Aimed for America over the Atlantic.Beneath, the ocean rolls out into the dark.Steel ribs plunge through clouds, sizzling with sparks.
Notice how even precise rhymes, like “hangar / languor...