Editors Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss are among the talented poets who feel that cleverness and wit can flourish within the confines of fourteen lines, rhymed or not. They have figured out a beautiful way to prove the point in their hot-off-the-press anthology, Hot Sonnets (Entasis Press).
They have also effortlessly proved a second proposition: that American poets are writing about sex and romance with passion, intimacy, candor, control, and sensuality. A sonnet can owe some of its effects to popular song lyrics, as in the wonderful opening of Sharon Dolin's "Now That I Have Lain With You":
Now that I have lain with you
You know I can be claimed by you.
Your hazel eyes, the way you linger-kiss:
I long to feel the stamen of you.
Dolin is expert at a theme-and-variations style and is unafraid of "hot pink" language: "My pistil's moist, deep pink -- your tongue's refrain / as your anthered stalk's for mine. My swain, that's you."
There are surprises aplenty here. One of H. L. Hix's sonnets has this arresting opening:
The man with the crooked dick shines his shoes.
The woman with one arm takes off her brassiere.
Turn the page and the same characters recur in different poses: "The man with the crooked dick strikes a match. / The woman with one arm breaks into flame."
There are two sonnet crowns: Kathrine Varnes's "Fleshpot Sonnets" and Marilyn Taylor's "The Seven Very Liberal Arts." In a crown the last line of one sonnet recurs, in the same or somewhat altered form, as line one of the next sonnet, Taylor enjoys transmuting "your Freddie Mac against my Fannie Mae" into "Frederic Chopin, Fannie Mendelssohn.,"
The twin subjects of Varnes's gaze throughout her seven sonnets are peaches and bras, including padded bras and J. Alfred Prufrock's hesitation before eating a peach:
Let breasts be breasts. Our season's brief as is.
It's hard enough to find a bra that fits.
(And those who asked the schoolyard, Does she stuff?
now look askance -- filled with J. Alfred's fear
a thousand times repeating: Do I dare?)
Declare this moment and this peace enough.
Prufrock turns up again in Wendy Videlock's "Prufrock Takes a Formal Lover."
There are wonderful things here by Kim Addonizio, Molly Peacock, Terri Witek, Susan McLean, Amy Lemmon, Jo Ann Clark, Jenny Factor, A. E. Stallings, Tony Barnstone, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Sandra Beasley, the late Tim Dlugos, and the editors themselves. Your interest never flags. If it is true that many more women than men are represented here, it must also be remembered that the unquestioined muse of the sexy sonnet was a woman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and that, for whatever combination of reasons, a striking fact about recent American poetry is the fervor and intelligence with which women have written about the body, the erotic impulse, and its inevitable consequences. -- DL