Nomina

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

When contemporary poets write sonnets, readers rightly turn skeptical. Current attempts at the revered form, brought into English in the 16th century and written by everyone from Shakespeare to Robert Lowell, might mark a lost weekend of formal slumming or the reissue of fussy juvenilia. More likely, however, it’s a fashionable attempt at reinvention: Late New York School poet Ted Berrigan started this trend with his 1963 collection The Sonnets, a free-verse tour de force that retains the traditional sonnet’s 14 lines but not much else. Legions of imitators followed.

Karen Volkman’s third book, Nomina, falls into none of these camps. Instead, it’s a book of 50 genuine, real-McCoy sonnets, all untitled, and all of them shining examples of what our contemporary language can do when it stitches clothes from patterns drawn centuries ago. Volkman’s choice of the Italian sonnet—octaves followed by sestets—is crucial. Absent are those heroic couplets, which tempt too many poets to end their sonnets with a flaming gong of grandiosity. Even when Volkman’s last lines do rhyme (“quick candle, click the trigger in the tun, / red now, green when, that shocks the shaking sun”), another rhyme foreshadows it (“house of oblivion”). The poems’ ninth lines—which are called the “turn” or “volta” and begin a resolution—stand on their own as dazzling, haiku-like poems-within-poems, such as the final sonnet’s “bluely looming—motion will be mute.”

Nomina doesn’t serve straightforward narrative or even literal sense; the real mastery lies in its soundscape. The dexterity of Volkman’s internal rhyme schemes alone could give rappers Rakim or Kool Keith runs for their bling. That these poems should be read aloud, perhaps while stoned, indicates one poet’s devotion to the sonnet’s etymology—that of a sonetto, or “little song.”

By Karen Volkman. BOA Editions, $16 paperback.