17 pages 34 minutes read

Terrance Hayes

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“Probably twilight ...”]

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Terrance Hayes’s "American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin ['Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous']” is one of 70 poems in his 2018 collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Each of these poems uses the American sonnet model as defined by American poet Wanda Coleman, featuring the traditional 14 lines, but focusing on rhythm and tone rather than end rhyme.

Hayes composed over 70 American sonnets during the first 200 days of US President Donald Trump's term of office. The 70 collected in this volume all bear the same title, “Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” and the last line of each sonnet links to the next by becoming its first line. Hayes divided the poems into five sections of 14 sonnets each; the book's first line index thus creates five more complete sonnets composed of the first lines of each sonnet in each of the five sections.

In the sonnet beginning “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous,” Hayes intertwines themes of American public violence and cultural failure with private relationships and experiences. In Hayes’s work, Black lives revolve around recognizable human struggles: family relationships, masculine identity, autonomy, and accountability. These challenges go on within the broader context of American racism, an inescapable atmosphere through which the speaker moves with acute awareness. Each poem addresses the Assassin directly, casting the reader as an intimate, at times complicit witness to the persistent, daily disgrace of racism in America, or as the Assassins confronting our victim, who understands our rage with a capacity we cannot match. In either case, the sonnet “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous” calls on the reader to think critically about the problem of racial violence in America through its use of formal technique, its consistent tone, and its specific references to events that have become part of America’s cultural context.

Poet Biography

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Terrance Hayes studied painting and literature in college before earning an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Pittsburgh.

Hayes brings together the public and the personal in his work, drawing historical, political, and cultural contexts into an intimate space. Starting with his first book Muscular Music (1999), Hayes reimagines poetic form and scope to accommodate an expansive 21st century perspective while maintaining a personal authorial voice. Hayes’s poems engage with the reader with the closeness of mid-20th century American poet Frank O’Hara’s “phone call” model of interaction, while suggesting comparisons to celebrated 19th century American poet Walt Whitman in his broad portrayals of an American physical and psychological terrain.

Muscular Music won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Whiting Writers Award, while Hayes's second book, 2002’s Hip Logic, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Publishers Weekly selected Wind in a Box (2006) as one of the best books of the year, and Lighthead (2010) won a National Book Award. Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018) was a finalist for numerous national awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award.

Hayes incorporates visual art in many of his texts, from his poetry to works like Float in the Space Between: Drawings and Essays in Conversation with Etheridge Knight (2018). Hayes has been a MacArthur Fellow, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, has worked with the Cave Canem organization since 1996, and helped found the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches English at New York University.

Poem Text


In the sonnet “Probably twilight makes blackness dangerous,” the speaker offers the reader a series of comparative statements, many beginning with the conditional word “probably,” as though the speaker is trying to project the would-be assassin's perspective and evaluation of a given situation. The statements address both abstract and material concepts. The first assessment sarcastically tries to imagine the thinking of a racially motivated attacker: Nightfall “probably” renders “blackness dangerous/Darkness” (Lines 1-2). The speaker then pivots to his own experience, wondering which of his interactions will result in tragedy—his days are an "existential jambalaya" (Line 3), a confusing mixture of possibly positive and negative experience that threaten his existence. The speaker next moves through multiple locations in America where violence against Black people made headlines, name-checking cities without elaborating, assuming that the reader would be familiar with the events he is alluding to. The speaker sums up the list of places by saying that this violence happens “everywhere in this country every day” (Line 8). In this poem, like each sonnet in the series, the role of the reader at times becomes the Assassin of the title, the source of violence against the speaker of these poems. Line 9 asks the assassin-reader, the person whose mindset the first two lines of the poem tried to simulate, to consider who “is prey” in this context, though line 10 observes “You won’t admit it.” The speaker returns to the assassin's imagined thoughts: The twilight not only makes blackness seem darker and more dangerous, but it also makes it “a gate” (Line 12), a portal, a place of change. The poem ends with the image of skin and sky, father and son, hues matching and merging together. The confluence suggests a poetic infinite while also evoking the inescapable legacy of race in America.