A Sonnet Cycle

Amy Newman



The great mistake was that, in fashioning
the winged parts he fit to my backbone,
my father shaped his love (but that alone)
to wax unstrengthened by a thickening.
Thus lighter, they would mold to feathered shape
quick. Overnight. By light, our instruments
would hinge two human birds from their laments
of labyrinth to open sky's escape.

Or maybe the sun knew I wished to clutch
her private skirt of warmth, and hotly grieves
to find that human want and human touch
might fly so close. If everyone could see
what I perceived when I approached that much
of God, the sky would fill with human leaves.


A poem to hold bold ideas of free will
should use a form once supple and elastic;
perhaps the rules of sonnet are so drastic
fulfilling them might render free will still.
Yet, if in forming mortals, one consents
to cage the sin of Pride within constraints,
one could avoid Icarus's complaints.
His father's crafting he misrepresents:

It was divinity of wax and feather,
to liberate them from the Minotaur,
from maze's curbing form. His thoughtful words,
"Avoid the sun," might have kept them together.
But pride provided pride, for son to soar
too briefly in the infinite of birds.

King Ahab

The ruling limits of a form may kill
a bad desire, curb imperfect thought,
so that someone behaves as someone ought,
though human cadences beat with free will.
I cannot say this worked for me with greed.
I coveted the neighbor's land of vines.
My conscience might have stayed between the lines,
but Jezebel, my wife, fulfilled my need.
My need? Well, need, or want...I didn't covet
my neighbor's wife, I wanted just his land
which annexed my land. Jezebel would love it
if matters could have gone the way we planned.

But neighbor's land and neighbor's wife the same,
though I pretended to misunderstand this.
I'm good at that; I'm adept at pretending
misunderstanding, that's how rules get tame—
You might mark how this sonnet's form expands with
my insatiable needs, the lines not ending,
for, as I wanted land, I want more spaces
than sonnet form permits me here to use.
The rhymes that force me into little twos
Coerce bright ideas into brief places.

It's fitting, really, this free will debate
applies so clearly to all I've acquired—
I know it's wrong to plunder real estate.
Jezebel and I might have been inspired
to remain in the first home we desired
if we knew where we'd be when we retired.


Desire won't submit to rationings.
Or is it: rationing won't quit desires?
The problem's whether form controls the fires
that free will to covetous hunger brings.
The heavens simulate an ordered plan
where planets, luminous, seem to trace paths,
to flash their dreamy greens and blues in maths,
but how they rotate in attention, span
a wandering of wants, of deprivations.

The word planet comes from the Greek: to wander.
Under these spheres, we reproduce their lacks,
and hover in erratic constellations.
Thus swerving, planet drifts form night's bright blurs, or
when they stray too far, the sky's deep blacks.


A sinning voice may spread the blame, and whine
that if God made each pattern that exists,
that humans are allowed each happiness
(but lust is not a passion of design).

So Pasiphae to David (see below)
might blame her lust on the Greek god Poseidon
(or Daedalus, who made her shape to hide in).
Such passion was not passion apropos,

though her lust was incredible, and how!
It flavored her as wormwood flavors absinthe.
(You may submit a different exegesis.)
She had the craftsman craft a wood she-cow
(it was a better project than his labyrinth)
lust's text enclosed in she-cow parenthesis.

Pasiphae and David

"You lusted for a bull!" David accuses,
"as animals will want to screw their own,
plus you deceived dear King Minos, whose throne
your bull-beridden behind still misuses.
"That's so," the other thoughtfully replies,
"I did not force Uriah's wife toward blame,
order her husband destroyed in my name.
I only loved a bull in my disguise—
—But how I craved that beast of gust and thrust."
"Yes, Bathsheba's breasts glistened, like a sea,
so that I had to swim her, just because."
Lust's thespians make a theater of trust;
by drama's end they'll bow to destiny,
though neither one will merit much applause.


Imperfect world, its history of excuses—
Perfection was pre-bible and pre-myth.
There'd be no Cain or Pasiphae herewith,
or Icarus, with whom we compare bruises
of falling, of temptation, of sin city.
Their stories are our stories, like Snow White
who, of the proffered apple took a bite
(she too found bright fruit poisonously pretty.)

Sin's bliss exists alike in myth and tale,
and though these sonnets act as an embrace,
they cannot fix what isn't fixable;
Outside strict lines sin wanders, out of scale.
Though free will may choose balance, might find grace,
sin makes imbalance irresistible.


The father hoped, like sonnets, to confine
the family's love. Within this guided fence,
he measured words to figure innocence,
though my sisters fit lies to his design.
But I made all my truths as one makes wine,
to clarify his palate, or incense,
which permeates the air as a fragrance
and softens with its sweetness truth unkind.

If I knew then that as the play's sequence
continued, like a formal poem's guidelines,
our fate would breed a motif of disaster,
I would have, to his pattern, truth condensed.
To undo design might have been divine.
But I am not. His rage caused Rage to fester,

to sprout a tail, caudate
that circled him as would the Saturn's ring
or serpent's twining diamonds, patterning

his madness firm as fate
to suffocate my Lear, tighten him blind.
Pure rages we are helpless to unwind.


Still overrule is thwarted by invention.
Though not so in the sad case of Lear's daughter:
her truth in love did not save her from slaughter.
Though cruelty was not King Lear's intention,
the seven sins account for much that's cruel:
pride, anger, envy, greed, lust, sloth, excess
(well, gluttony. But that won't fit unless
I mold the word to fit within the rule.)
Control works gracefully in sonnet's mold.
If ethics might control the seven sins,

then free will wouldn't blossom for the worse.
Iambics won't let disorder unfold.
But poem is heartbeat and strange blood within;
is wildness better suited to free verse?


I didn't bring the best fruit—that was clear,
dragging my basket wildly on the dirt.
My brother's eyes pure, empty of the hurt
of envy's prick I'd feel again. In fear,
my arms outstretched to Him, for want of love
I'd ask, human-thin voice above the bleats
of animals half-snorting in the heat.
He knew my bleak insides that wished to shove
Abel away.

                    He would know everything.
So why should he not eat my lemons bruised?
So why should he berate my bitter hate?
My heart is traced to the abandoning
of Eden for this place He's made, confused
as fathers are, and I recriminate.


Sin makes this second world imperfect stuff,
so filled with countless human misdirection,
but that's our circumstance, our imperfection,
and we may have to leave it soon enough—

Yet like the envy Cain felt for his brother,
I feel a covetousness for the garden,
if such a thing existed. You must pardon
my momentary lusting for the other:

that's part of our exile, such imperfection.
Please pardon me that doubt, that's also part
of our imperfect status, and this poem,
which tries to write about it with affection,
well, please forgive this envious, lost heart
whose words seek quite imperfectly for home.


Though loving liberation within tension,
Cain overdoes his freedom with his sins,
and breaks the margin of love's disciplines,
to float, a boat unmoored, on sin's suspension
bridge, over Lake Sloth: Lagoon Affliction.
Sloth's a horse latitude of two strong features,
acedia: uncaring to God's creatures,
tristitia: with nothing of conviction,
a sorrow becomes sorrow of despair.
There's Judas, too, who saw no use repenting,
together in the boat they both are helming.
They look our on blank space, and heat, and air,
and steer toward nothing. It's so unrelenting.
The dormancy of sloth is overwhelming.


In sonnets, wilderness might disappear,
grown weary with the too-strict iamb,
make form the Thailand to its once-Siam,
deputize silhouette to reign severe,
to outline regions wilderness deserts.
There'd be heartbeat beyond our unwild dreams
but nothing beating there.
                                               Between extremes
of order firm, where strange disorder flirts,
and shows her skirts, we find our wilderness,
our paradise: severe, austere, chaotic.
A human overflows with contradiction,
an imperfection poetry should address,
synchronously pacific and neurotic.
It's similarly hopeless in nonfiction.


Was the Paradise wilderness enough?
(Khayyam would put it differently in song.)
Tempted, my Eve transgressed and called the bluff
and from her gluttony we both went wrong.

It's possible to say, in her defense,
the apple shimmered like a promise kept—
that wanting was not disobedience—
But God did not agree. We slept; He wept.

When I look back I wish expedience
had been our stronger suit, and not temptation.
I wish we had used doubt, some common sense
to warn us that snakes alter destination.
Such doubt did not exist in Paradise.
Though it defines us in this compromise.


The great mistake was that, in fashioning
A poem form to hold ideas of free will,
The rules and limits of the form may kill.
Desire won't submit to rationing.
A sinning voice may spread the blame and whine:
"She lusted for a bull!" David accuses.
Freedom in form means one makes no excuses.
The Father hoped, like sonnets, to confine—
Still, overrule is thwarted by invention—
(Cain didn't bring the best fruit—that was clear,)
Sin makes this second world imperfect stuff.
Though loving liberation within tension,
In sonnets wilderness might disappear.
Was the Paradise wilderness enough?

Amy Newman

Amy Newman's most recent collections are fall (Wesleyan) and BirdGirl Handbook (GreenTower/Laurel Review). New work appears in The Georgia Review, /nor, Hotel Amerika, and Seneca Review. She teaches at Northern Illinois University.