If the past, as L. P. Hartley writes, is a foreign country, and if literary traditions and inherited forms are ways to consider the past, it follows that literary traditions—Shakespeare’s sonnets, say, or Sappho’s lyric—are themselves another country. We can try to map it, to learn how it felt to live there, or construct new lands in the shape of the old, a New World literature in Old World forms: sonnets themselves, and other old forms, are themselves ways to map the present onto the past. We can also—as both Sonnet L’Abbé and Sarah Dowling do—push back against the erasures, the injustices, the oppressions that come to us along with that past: working against it even as we acknowledge it as part of our literary selves.
Founders and builders of settler colonies, among them the various states and provinces now called the United States and Canada, wanted to make the past theirs too. No wonder, Dowling’s Entering Sappho reminds us, settlers and so-called founding fathers named their new towns after classical sites and authors. The US alone holds “seventeen Atticas, / seventeen Cincinnatis, seven- / teen Euclids” (76), “seven Mount Idas” (39), “five Galens / Five Hannibals” (39), but just one Sappho, now uninhabited, a point on a map attested largely by old newspapers in Washington state (39). “Entering Sappho is addressing history and its daughter colony, the present,” by rearranging and replicating Sappho’s—and the old geographers’—terms (91).
Entering Sappho is not a sonnet sequence, but it can feel like one. Dowling’s compact book consists of roughly sonnet-sized poems, rarely rhymed, interspersed with repeated phrases from maps and street signs: “You Are Now Entering,” e.g., over and over. (The obvious sexual pun in the title does not seem to come up.) Some of those sonnet-like poems imitate and translate, over and over again into different English, the same phrases from Sappho’s Greek. The seven-page “Ornament,” for example, simply rings changes on one line from fragment 98: “If someone had hair bound with purple instruments / If someone had hair bound with beautiful practice . . . If someone had hair bound with the asking moon” (65). “Soft Memory” includes ten versions of Sappho 31: “so soon as I see you I become / still”; “as soon as I see you, a sweat / of agony bathes me”; “OK this trembling seized me—your / laugh” (31-33). “Us” comprises seven ways to adapt Sappho 147 combined with Achilles Tatius’ pseudo-Sapphic “Song of the Rose.”
Many of Dowling’s pages—like many previous versions of Sappho—emphasize their status as fragments, pre-distressed, classically already broken. This version of “Sappho is want // ing everything,” the feminine absence at the centre of lyric as of masculine desire (84). The lyric poem, the love poem, is never finished. By the same token (according to this line of thinking), true lovers are never satisfied, Sappho herself is never knowable, and Western thought requires a masculine knower-possessor-pursuer chasing a feminine unknown: “our minds // worked overtime on what we would like to have” (57). We can find that paradigm throughout Anne Carson’s verse and prose, as well as in Yopie Prins’ profound, influential 1999 study Victorian Sappho: “Sapphic fragments,” Prins writes, “are reconstructed as texts that we read as an invitation to song” (24).
The fragments and gestures, the repeated names from far-flung atlases, the stacks of repetitions-with-variation emphasize the lack of fit between Old World figures and so-called New World sites, as if Dowling wrote the book to demonstrate that dissonance. Dowling does have other arrows in her quiver. “Oral History” looks at the bloom and the decline of the village named Sappho: “Well did they have the hotel at the same / time as they had the store?” (23). Other Sapphic entries give the effect of proverbs, apothegms, meant to be quoted: “After a great / deal of breathing, we lay silent and called for a / little future” (62). “The grass is wet. The grass grows / back. All we have is this thicker becoming, all // we are is this tangled perhaps” (87). So devoted to its project, with its lists of names, Dowling’s spare volume rarely feels fleshed-out and personal, and that absence of apparently personal stakes sets it apart from—and, to be honest, below—such outwardly similar projects as Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now, or C. S. Giscombe’s travelogues. Most of the time it feels more like a map than like a place.
Sonnet L’Abbé’s Sonnet’s Shakespeare—for all its conceptual armature—feels very much like a place: a populous land you can visit, with cityscapes, flora, fauna, domestic interiors, and its own debatable histories: it belongs next to Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) as a recent book-length meditation on sonnet practice. Where Hayes adopts the sonnet as scheme, as container (fourteen-line unit with decasyllabic lines), L’Abbé—who puns on their first name repeatedly—takes Shakespeare’s sonnets as starting point, as antagonist, as trope. Each of their 154 prose poems incorporates, in order, all of the individual letters in the Shakespeare sonnet that bears the same number. Shakespeare’s sonnet 151, for example, begins “Love is too young to know what conscience is”: L’Abbé’s poem CLI begins “Look, everything is fire. You’re not too young to know why caution is, to know how its conscience hides the baby from the predator” (153). “Will’s leavings were just source,” L’Abbé recalls, when they started writing, but the poems “complied more baroquely” in responding to Shakespeare’s originals (74).
Poem CVI, like a few others, prints Shakespeare’s letters in red, the rest in black, so readers can see how the method works. And it does work: Shakespeare’s poem about lust in action becomes a poem about Canadian, and US West Coast, responses to climate change and accelerating forest fires. The topics aren’t the same, but they’re not unrelated. Each sonnet from the distant, white, European, prestigious past—the past that literally gave the poet their first name (a portmanteau of their parents’ first names)—becomes not a brick in a wall, nor a mere excuse for a verbal experiment, but a resource with which L’Abbé can build a new livable space, a new page, a new land.
Often L’Abbé asks who owns, or can own, the land, and how injustices of ownership, capital, and racial hierarchy made possible the language through which they write. “I pay my bills without decolonizing everything that touches me” (152), “unsure how to carry my settler heritage, as I pen an unwhiteness” (135). The Canada where L’Abbé dwells makes its vaunted friendliness into a cloak for a winner-take-all mentality not so different from that of the US: “Who, realizing what the Indian Act is, wants such country?” (12). Formal tradition, for L’Abbé as for Shakespeare, may also represent property and inheritance. Shakespeare’s first eighteen sonnets urge a young man to marry and beget a son; L’Abbé asks whether citizens of a white-settler nation can ethically leave anything for our descendants.
Who owns the history of the sonnet, of the language, of the land, and how can contemporary writers, or people of good will, or Afro-diasporic peoples in particular, take it back and give it back? (L’Abbé identifies as multiracial, Guyanese Dougla and part-Francophone Canadian—not, importantly, as Indigenous.) How are the projects of life on this land, in this time, in this Vancouver metro “real estate horrorshow” (137), working out for this hyperliterate, witty, wary “kid métisse franco-indo-afrikain qui body Canadian truth” (106)? The questions aren’t new, but L’Abbé’s ways to raise them can be, even if they repeat: L’Abbé goes to the topic of “whitewashed” settler history (100) so often that we know it’s coming, even if they make their outrage elegant each time.
L’Abbé intersperses these questions with others of lesser moment, such as how to play Pokémon Go, or Toronto’s war on raccoons. Poem LV pays simple homage to a friend named Priscila—the writer Priscila Uppal, who died in 2018—“gifted social doer,” “badass livestream” (56). Poem LXXII remembers early 1990s rock: Hole, Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Riot Grrrl (“Olympia’s revolutionary sluts were acutely pale” ); poem XLIX pays e. e. cummings-ish typographical homage to the singer Tanya Tagaq. And poem XCVII takes up, wryly, our addiction to Internet-delivered cuteness: “charming baby capybaras wrestling celery from bunnies, kittens in furry costumes . . . Tiny human babies are also effective” (98) (another inheritance there). Humans in general treasure distractions, but some years, some eras, require more than others: we need a ton. Public events of 2016 show up in this collection like cherries in fruitcake, and like those cherries most are sour, or hard. Poem CXVII remembers Leonard Cohen; poem XCIII, David Bowie. Several late poems react to the US vote: “Something elected this: something tribal and scared” (108); “For days afterwards, my face burned: my classes saw real fear” (116). Milton’s sonnets, too, react to headline news.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, focus on romantic, erotic, and fraternal love: how it arises, how it feels, how it fails. L’Abbé can do that, too, crafting a handful of poems around a bad romance: “Here is a guy who says dailiness, who says Sonnet and touches me . . . the oxytocin urging me toward him” (148). “I don’t think courtship is wrong . . . But for this sweet marriageability there is no hero” (90). Shakespeare’s own problematic, English, early modern attitudes towards race, blackness and whiteness, masc and femme, pop in and out of L’Abbé’s daily Canadian life in scenes of biting comedy: “Le professeur francophone que j’ai rencontré 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” (Bumble is a dating app) (128). L’Abbé responds here to Shakespeare’s sonnet 127, “In the old age black was not counted fair.” There can be no ownership, no claim on someone else’s body, no doctrine of discovery, and no implication of blackness or darkness as moral turpitude, in any erotic life this “franco-indo-afrikain” poet would want.
L’Abbé wrote in 2017 about their “new kind of poem,” an “overwriting” designed “to surround what has surrounded me,” inspired by Ronald Johnson’s erasure poem Radi Os, and by their awareness of non-European languages “in conversation with my colonized/colonizing tongue,” such as “Island Hul’q’umi’num’ and Lekwungen” (“Tree”). L’Abbé’s goals and methods, like Dowling’s, have other prominent precedents, among them Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. L’Abbé addresses Rankine’s success directly: “How gracefully Claudia confided her being mad! someone effused to juries” (Sonnet’s Shakespeare 46). How to express black rage without commodifying it for white observers? How to present the reality of a life always inflected, but not always controlled, by white supremacy, by racialized violence, by a history we should (but may not) know? How messy, how incomprehensible, does this particular black poet want to be? Is the poet obliged to be messier? Or calmer? “There, I’ve done it again. Disqualified my brand. No sonnet market expands” (46).
L’Abbé’s procedure-inspired form also looks to more rigorous and single-minded rearrangements within Canadian letters: the erasures of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, for example, and the monovocalic stunts of Christian Bök’s Eunoia. Like Bök, L’Abbé tends to omit articles, to dwell in the habitual present tense rather than the past, and to construct sentences that sound neither like AI-generated text nor like things real people, off the cuff, would say. L’Abbé thanks Philip in their notes. To Bök, however, they offer a poem: “Vowel-slower, crystallographer, Asperger rubber-shoulder, you’re a brother who hangs with racist muthas . . . And yet your triumphant grappling with language is not made more or less breathtaking by your interpersonal antipathy” (124). He may be, with Shakespeare, one of poem XXXVII’s “frenemies” (38).
For all their engagement with procedural poetics, and with Kulturkritik, L’Abbé looks back just as often to another tradition of prose, one that we might call ineluctably lyric: this tradition comes from seventeenth-century English prose stylists, from Romantic essayists, from Emerson, as well as from Baudelaire. These prose poems are dramatizations of sensibility, making the sentence do the work done elsewhere by verse line. Consider L’Abbé’s poem CI, about a child (perhaps a foster child) they could not keep: “I’m still learning not to be the tragic heroine. What I don’t have, I can’t give. Now my office is the room that I used to think you’d take . . . Raven, sometimes on long drives I still hear you in the back seat, singing Lukas Graham’s ‘Once I Was Seven Years Old,’ because you were” (102). Here they sound not so much like Rankine, or Bök, as like the superb California prose poet Killarney Clary.
As much as they can accomplish historically inflected critique, as much as they can accomplish lyrical voicings, L’Abbé stands out most when they bring them together. When they write, in poem LXXXI, “I sound brown where breath most breathes, and intervene in the green mouths of men” (82), they’re putting a racial gloss on Shakespeare’s epitaphic couplet “You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen— / Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men”(sonnet 81). They’re looking (the whole poem looks) at the apparent whiteness of environmental movements. But they’re also claiming, accurately, to dramatize a voice, to animate something that would not sound without them. Dowling makes—however mediated—such claims too: when she writes, or translates, or transcribes, “come— / I’m greener than grass—my heart beats / faster, my tongue is broken” (38), she’s asking us to imagine a modern poet imagining an ancient one, a voice inside a voice inside a broken tongue that began long ago and ended up here.
And if Dowling does so fitfully, L’Abbé does so constantly, telling us that they hope to reanimate their various words and letters from Shakespeare’s sonnets in order to “sound an unhierarchitecture; as if I might make soft space . . . inside practical heads” (39). Writing against white supremacy, in and over literary history, their script is not wholly public and not wholly private: instead, it exists—as Shakespeare’s sonnets also exist—in constant dialogue with an “abstract listener”: “you’re listening, and I’m barely noticing I’m heard” (104). Resplendently personal, delightfully varied, certainly too long, the collection stands out for all the ways that its lyric exceeds its project. And yet the project stands. Shakespeare’s sonnet 76 defends the poet against claims that he’s been repeating himself: “Why is my verse so barren of new pride?” L’Abbé asks instead: “Why is my verse? . . . 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” (77). “Will those who like a pretty sonnet fathom these takeovers?” (119) To put it in Shakespeare’s own words: “I do; I will” (I Henry IV 3.1.439).
L’Abbé, Sonnet. “Tree, I Invented a New Form of Poem.” Poetry Foundation, 14 Dec. 2017, poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/12/tree-i-invented-a-new-form-of-poem. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.
Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton UP, 1999.
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