Poetry Review by Alycia Pirmohamed

Sonnet L'Abbé, Sonnet's Shakespeare (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Paperbound, 190 pp., $21.

Sonnet's ShakespeareIn L’Abbé’s sonnets, we encounter a remixed imagination including that of the poet, of the Shakespeare sonnet, and of our own—a coalescing of histories, resonances, and dialogues. Each poetic landscape is unique, spanning its own sense of time and location, living in an exciting, taut space both restricted and, even more powerfully, unrestricted by form. While the sonnets contain every letter of their Shakespeare counterparts in sequence—at times signalled by lighter text—it is impossible not to read the collection as beyond boundary, as a kind of resistance. The result is 154 poems of varying lengths, structured into blocks of prose, that grapple unflinchingly with the serrated edges of literature typically revered by institutions:

This verse comes at William’s sonnet like a thot boss, as though it’s
plot they have their eye on. As if heaven shines from his craft, he’s
gized—but soft! They enter his white space like a golden boy; their com-
plexion dims not a smidge. (XVIII)

L’Abbé, who is Canadian-born and of half-dougla (mixed South Asian and Black) descent, challenges colonial structures through sharp and witty relanguaging, through an innovative strategy of inversion: she depicts painful cultural losses and violent colonial erasures by overwhelming the material with additions. In doing so, she enters space with other writers who have confronted structures of oppression through methods of retexturing and reclamation: Billy-Ray Belcourt’s erasures in NDN Coping Mechanisms, Layli Long Soldier’s confrontation of U.S. legislative language in WHEREAS, Dionne Brand’s conceptualization of “the left-hand page” in The Blue Clerk. And there are exciting conversations to be had about manipulations of the sonnet from the level of the letter to that of the line when considering L’Abbé’s collection beside Doyali Islam’s heft.

The world created by Sonnet’s Shakespeare as well as my own experience of reading it is one of echoes and reflections, just as often as this experience is one of learning. To grow up in Canada as a racial minority, as a second-generation immigrant, was to know intimately the interplay between Western assimilation and alienation. Rarely did canonical literature or ways of learning reflect IBPOC groups, and yet the British-influenced canon came to represent a standard within the curriculum. This education, inclusive of Shakespeare, weaves itself into diasporic or oppressed identities—an enduring process difficult to unlearn and interrogate. One of the ways L’Abbé’s work is so riveting is that it both braids and unbraids this influence, surging with symbolic power. The canon is acknowledged, then syllabically overrun and crafted into rhythms reminiscent of the traditional sonnet yet entirely original. The turns are deft and exhilarating, her liminality complicated and intricately expressed in what is uncovered or left out:

… But the letters William arranged are hard to fully
subjugate; their characters stand in the way of my acquisition and sway
the foot of my verse. An unsettled feeling, unassimilated into this ethi-
cal understatement, pushes a Western wherewithal back into my hand.
Invisibly and visibly the black ink is ghosted by doublethink. (LXXIII)

The collection explores colonialism and Blackness specifically, unambiguous in illustrating how a history of slavery reaches beyond time, extending into the past and the present tense. In “CXXVII,” L’Abbé writes of “staring at Shakespeare’s poem. Blocked” because “Black bodies bore no right to beauty’s name, because until now is Black’s / traumatology streaming in successive waves.” These moments are surrounded by empowered articulations—articulations that subvert Shakespeare’s othering of Black bodies by reclaiming the very lines he used. In “cxlix,” L’Abbé speaks directly: “I let go—of narratives—into a nerved exalta- / tion; my diamond-Black wholeness shines and shines.” Elsewhere, these reclamations are portrayed by stunning, imagistic assertions: “I also wish to commune through the sublime, that / magnificent Blackness glimpsed when we ponder our being—to see our / neverendingness of being, full of everyday cosmos (“CXVII”).

And although often self-referential, leaning into ars poetica, these poems too look outward and interrogate Canadian lawmakers and non-Indigenous inhabitants on the continual cultural genocide and colonisation of Indigenous peoples in Canada. A series of sonnets near the middle of the collection demands more than lip-service regarding reconciliation: “Unlearn thought that / overwrites Aboriginal sovereignty” (“LXXXVI”). Often, the call for action comes through in moments of poetry as preservation. The remarkable “XLIX” is framed around Tanya Tagaq’s throat singing, and the result is a thrilling, gorgeous new experience of listening: “i E i , epiglottal / linguish she eethes o hhwn, ghnm, e hwygh under affects.”

Sonnet’s Shakespeare accrues meaning. The mirrorings between poems that are side by side are jolting, each poem newly vitalized by context. L’Abbé, by way of contexture and intricate diction, asks us to read the book carefully, slowly, inhibiting us from merely scrolling through the dismantling and occupations within. From a poem about refugees seeking asylum: “Are we / informed now, somehow better than we were in the last poem?” (“LXXI”). This collection, strong and unafraid, asks us “to give a damn.”

L’Abbé’s sonnets glimmer in their take-down of oppressive structures, vitalized by musicality and ingenuity—in both thematic and linguistic veins. It is impossible to touch on every thread, every story paralleled by another story, every layered moment. Poems are sometimes meditative and enriched by tense depictions of land or playful commentaries on technology. Others feel like a caress, contained in moments of family and tenderness, in sweet homages to dear friends. The collection is intimate, at times brutally honest, but also always a map for our own imaginative readings.


—Alycia Pirmohamed

As in The Malahat Review, 210, spring 2020