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Terrance Hayes

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin ["I lock you in..."]

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [‘I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison’], is a lyric unrhymed sonnet by American poet Terrance Hayes. Undivided by stanzas, the poem has 14 lines of fairly regular length. The lines are enjambed, rather than end-stopped; however, the enjambments are mostly smooth. While the lines do not rhyme in the end, the poem contains many internal or half rhymes, which give it a musical quality. The poem is part of a 70-sonnet collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin published in 2018. One of the most distinctive features of this collection is that each poem bears the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” For the sake of clarity during analysis, the poem’s first few words or lines can be considered a working title. “I Lock You …” is a poem about the meaning of being Black, American, and a poet in contemporary America. The poem’s specific context is America after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. By using the American sonnet, a form that subverts the traditional sonnet to relate the Black experience, Hayes performs an act of resistance against Trump’s election. While the poem’s immediate context is post-Trump America, Hayes does not suggest that racial injustice begins or ends with one person or event. One of the poem’s key messages is that this injustice is continuous and embedded in American culture, of which the poet and reader are both participants. To address the injustice, the reader must acknowledge their own role in perpetuating racist attitudes.

The poem is informed by the work of Wanda Coleman (1946-2013), who first coined the term “American sonnet” for a contemporary sonnet that expressed Black experience and popular culture. It also draws on the tradition of American poetry, pop culture, Hip-hop, and writing by Black Americans from Claude McKay (1889-1948) to Maya Angelou (1928-2014) to Coleman.

Poet Biography

Terrance Hayes has written seven collections of poetry, including the multiple-award-winning American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), How to Be Drawn (2015), and Lighthead (2010). Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a McArthur Grant among other prestigious honors, Hayes is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in contemporary American poetry. Hayes, who is an artist, has also authored the prose collection, To Float In The Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight (2018). His poetry is distinct in its rich use of metaphors and allusions and frequent references to pop culture, music, art, and cinema. Hayes frequently experiments with poetic form as well, using traditional structured poetry to explore contemporary reality.

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1971, to Ethel (Seabrook) Hayes, who would go on to work as a prison guard, and a father who worked in the military, Hayes grew up a promising artist and athlete. Hayes won a basketball scholarship to Coker College, where a professor encouraged him to write poetry. At Coker College, Hayes’s focus tuned to writing and the study of literature, and graduated in English, eventually receiving an MFA in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. His first book of poetry, Muscular Music, was published in 1999. Hayes’s rich poetic writing and his nuanced exploration of themes such as Black identity, masculinity, racial injustice, and the meaning of love, won him critical acclaim, with his debut collection receiving the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Although Hayes’s poems explore political themes, his work is also deeply personal, delving into painful subjects such as his difficult relationship with his father and his sister’s death.

Apart from being an artist and a writer, Hayes is also an educator. He has taught at Carnegie Mellon University and his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. At the time of the composition of this study guide, Hayes was professor of English at New York University. He has a daughter and a son with his ex-wife, the poet Yona Harvey.

Poem Text


The poem begins urgently, with the speaker addressing an unspecified “you,” which could be the reader, the “assassin” of the title or even the speaker’s own self, or alter ego. The speaker says they “lock” (Line 1) this “you” in the form of a sonnet, implying they either express their reality through the sonnet they are writing, or lock the reader in the experience of reading the sonnet. The speaker describes the 14-line sonnet as partly a prison for the “you,” since the sonnet is a structured and tight form. Yet, the sonnet is also like a panic room, where the reader or the speaker can find temporary escape in a “house set aflame” (Line 2). The comparison implies that the structure of the sonnet offers a safe and creative way for the speaker to express themselves, but that freedom is illusory since the world in which the sonnet belongs is a burning house. The burning house here refers to the violent and chaotic contemporary world, the highly racialized world of America, as well as the world of western literary tradition. Though the speaker, who is a Black American, reinvents the tradition to express their reality, they cannot forget that it is a western tradition.

Next, the speaker compares the western sonnet form to a meat grinder and a wind-up music box rolled into one. The “you” or the speaker is like a bird fed into this strange contraption. The contraption or the sonnet separates the bird’s song from its bones, implying that the sonnet is filled with the beauty of Black American culture but also the horror which Black Americans have undergone.  Thus, the sonnet or western tradition lets the speaker make music but also consumes them.

In Lines 5-11, the speaker uses a series of metaphors and allusions involving a crow and a college or high school gym to explore the relationship between the “you” and the sonnet. Through the sonnet, the speaker confines their own self or the reader into a passive, dreaming state. This puzzling image of passivity is contrasted with other “better selves” (Line 6) who voyeuristically watch this sonnet-locked self from the stands. Through this complex metaphor, the speaker implies that by expressing their reality through the sonnet form, they have limited it and perhaps done it injustice. However, the speaker’s other options of expression, apart from the sonnet, are unclear.

Next, the speaker states that by writing the “you” into a sonnet, the speaker has made it both “gym” and “crow” (Line 7), or both audience and athlete, persecutor and survivor. The words “gym” and “crow” evoke the racist Jim Crow laws, which were used to segregate, oppress, and kill Black Americans during the 20th century. The “crow” or the survivor, the self, now expands to include the larger Black identity and under goes a transformation. The crow-self survives the intergenerational violence to which it is subjected and emerges from it in a “beautiful catharsis” (Line 8). Yet, this catharsis or purification occurs “in the shadows of the gym” (Line 9). This implies that the catharsis of the crow – that trauma is essential for metamorphosis - is a convenient narrative for mainstream America. The truth is that Black Americans have produced beautiful art and survived despite violence, not because of it.

The catharsis of the crow occurs in the “shadows of the gym” (Line 9). Here the speaker is commenting on the difficulty of being Black in America. The speaker cannot deny the violence and hatred that exists against Black people. Thus, they are always aware that racial discrimination and violence are part of their reality. Even when they blossom like a magnificent bird, the shadow of violence remains in their consciousness. Moreover, sometimes the American Black self feels guilt at being the gym, since living in a mainstream white society they too may have internalized some racism and also take part in western white traditions, such as writing a sonnet. The speaker’s ambiguous, shifting mood becomes evident through the next set of images. In a sudden volta, or twist, the speaker moves from the poetic image of the crow’s catharsis to the mundane image of crow-feces falling on the gym floor. The dropping waste matter is like the pasted stars flaking off a wall after a pep rally. The metaphors of the crow feces and the falling stars refer to the soiling of the American dream. The reality is the American dream is not perfect, since it has failed for Black Americans and other minorities. Thus, the stark, depressing images return the speaker to the reality of racial injustice in America.

In the last three lines, the speaker returns to considering the form of the sonnet. Since the self or the “you” has to be expressed in some way, the speaker has created the box of a sonnet. This box is dark, but it does have a singing bird or music and rhythm inside it. It is a poem and thus filled with “voltas” (Line 13) or the classic turn of the sonnet, as well as its sound effects, emotions, and metaphor. In other words, it is beautiful. The speaker’s beautiful sonnet is a necessary cage for their self; yet the speaker does not have any other alternative to express the self. They love the self; they also want to destroy and recreate it.