August 15, 2009

Review by Maryann Corbett

by Ernest Hilbert

Red Hen Press
P.O. BOX 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
ISBN 978-1-59709-361-3
2009, 93 pp., $18.95

One look at the cover of Sixty Sonnets lets you know you’re dealing with a poet who’s got both slyness and chutzpah—at least if poet Ernest Hilbert and cover designer Jennifer Mercer worked closely together, and the acknowledgments suggest that they did. The cover design parodies the staid, pale dignity of a classical music score like the ones published by G. Schirmer and Boosey & Hawkes—the color, the placement of the graphics and rules, the typefaces, even the fake opus numbers. To that pattern the designer adds a splat of tea stain, a trompe-l’oeil ripped corner, and what looks like the print of a drippy wineglass. The seriousness of real art, and the grit and mess of real living. It’s a fair, and clever, representation of the book, and it was a smart move to turn it into the publicity stickers that the Baroque in Hackney blog tells us about. While we’re considering the looks of the book—something we should do while we still have the privilege of reading real books—we should also applaud page designer Sydney Nichols and note that 6-by-8 inch pages consisting of fourteen lines of Bembo set 10 on 18 are lovely to behold.

But you are reading this to learn about the poetry, and the first bit of poetry to be assessed is the title itself. The plain words Sixty Sonnets are a complicated sort of claim. One can’t ignore the likeness in sound to the TV program title “Sixty Minutes,” and the suggestion of an assortment of news stories. The word Sonnets by itself tells us that Hilbert means to engage with the tradition. “Engage” means both to gather in, as a speaker does to listeners, and to square off against, as an army does to enemy forces. The tradition with which he means to engage goes back to the Italian “little song” and comes in assorted classical forms, and is shaped (usually) in fourteen lines, most often iambic, and has a very definite sort of argument and structure, right down to the placement of its prescribed change of direction. Sixty Sonnets, with no other embellishment or limitation, tells us that this will not be a thematically unified collection like Mark Jarman’s Unholy Sonnets, or Tony Barnstone’s Sad Jazz: Sonnets, or Kim Bridgford’s To the Extreme (about world records), or Philip Dacey’s New York Postcard Sonnets, or Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets. We know we’re going to get a unity of form but also a variety of theme and subject matter. What we’ll want to see is how inventive, how various, how insightful, and how wise the poet can be within those limits.

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