Re-Word the World: On “Sonnet’s Shakespeare”

From Public Books:

hen Gretchen Bakke invited me to write about “Systems and Futures,” she offered a keyword: overhaul. I immediately thought of Sonnet L’Abbé’s Sonnet’s Shakespeare, an overhaul of major proportions that loosens that cornerstone of English poetic systems: Shakespeare’s sonnets. L’Abbé sets Shakespeare’s iconic status wobbling; in doing so, she troubles inherited ideas of subjectivity and authorship. I find that reading L’Abbé’s poems calls me to do no less than overhaul my fundamental ideas about poetry, poem-making, the role of the poet in society, and even what it means to read.

In the book, L’Abbé writes with and around each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets to compose 154 new prose poems: “Letter by letter,” reads the back cover of Sonnet’s Shakespeare, “she sits her own language down into the white spaces of Shakespeare’s poems, until she overwhelms the original text and effectively erases Shakespeare’s voice by subsuming his words into hers.” The first two lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 are: “In the old age black was not counted fair / Or if it were it bore not beauty’s name.” In Sonnet’s Shakespeare, the opening of L’Abbé’s corresponding poem reads:

I’m staring at Shakespeare’s poem. Blocked. Carnage because Black was not counted fairly. Torinto faithless weathebecause literature assured Black bodies bore no righto beauty’s name. (emphasis mine)2

While Shakespeare’s poem is contained inside the new text, the letters are repurposed into prose poems. Moreover, L’Abbé’s new prose poems cover a range of topics, from colonialism to climate change, to love and intimacy, to the 2016 US election, to police violence, to cyberculture, to gender and sexuality, to racism, to capitalism.

The subtitle for Sonnet’s Shakespeare gives three names to L’Abbé’s poetics: “154 textile winds, or aggrecultures, or ecolo izations, or.” These three names keep the form in flux. Each name is a mash-up: “textile winds” might invoke text + textile (cloth or fabric) + winds (weather); “aggreculture,” suggests agriculture + aggregated culture; and “ecolo ization” echoes ecology + colonization. “Ecolo ization” also preserves a gap in the middle of the word, encoding ideas of rupture, and reclaiming space for the many histories colonialism tries to erase. Significantly, each of these hybrid terms invokes geographic space: they resituate the page as a field or a world in which nature and culture meet (not unviolently) and poem-making becomes a kind of organic weathering, planting, or grafting.

This book asks large questions, such as: What happens when we dismantle the monumental status of a figure like Shakespeare? What other voices rise to describe the world? By defamiliarizing the sonnets and disrupting Shakespeare’s status, L’Abbé makes both the shape of his influence and the shape of white supremacy more visible. “I now understand this work,” explains L’Abbé, “as a grappling with how to speak in English about being a Black, South Asian and Franco-Ontarian/Québecois person who has been educated by a Canadian system, while searching for the community I speak to and am accountable to, and asking how to responsibly take up space on the land I’m on.” If, as Rossetti wrote, a sonnet is a “moment’s monument,” L’Abbé shows that to dismantle a monument is both to make legible the land and the histories that the monument obscured and to memorialize the necessary act of protest and critique.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

1 thought on “Re-Word the World: On “Sonnet’s Shakespeare””

  1. The author and the reviewer are both pretentious twerps, though at least the author did something interesting and sort of creative. The reviewer, however, is regurgitating academic word salad onto the reader’s plate. How on earth this work does all the things the last paragraph says it does is beyond me, because I don’t see it doing any of those things.

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