Reviewed by Liam Ford
Ricochet is a slim but impressive volume of word sonnets by the form’s pioneer, Seymour Mayne. A word sonnet is a fourteen line poem, where each line contains a single word: the process of reading becomes a meditation, an expansion. Its reader quickly grasps the similarity to haiku, where the beauty of the poem lies in simplicity and succinctness.
But where a haiku creates a scene, universal and eternal, like cycles of life and death, or of the seasons, these word sonnets choose different themes and lack an inherent, comforting circularity. Furthermore, constricted by rigid formal rules, the syllabic structure of haiku ensures that no word is used superfluously. Here, the universality of the haiku is superseded by an intensely personal but unspecific representation of feeling and circumstance, enforced by the strictness of form and the accompanying reliance of the author on traditional narrative syntax that fills space with words that do not contribute visually or thematically to the whole, but limit the poem to the sum of its parts.
The resulting difference between the forms is both a benefit and a downfall. Because of its structural limitations, the word sonnet allows the poet to mask his feelings through the use of pragmatic, necessary words, and to be unconcerned with person or perspective, yet simultaneously allows the most seemingly insignificant personal observation to explode and find great meaning on the immense blankness of the page.
In “Hail”, we are witness to a funeral scene, where an anonymous “you” is lowered into the earth. Who is the “you”? What is his or her relation to the speaker? What is left out is as compelling as what is put in. The poem expresses hope in the falling of the titular hail, that falls “like / seed” (5-6). It will plant itself in the frozen ground, and though nothing could possibly sprout, the inevitable melting of the hail (into rain water, symbolizing disembodied tears) and thawing of the ground permits the fertilization of the soil, and eventual rebirth.
At his worst, Mayne uses the form to deliver punchlines better left in comics, as in “Cat”:
At his best, Mayne eschews narrative structure in favour of insightful and descriptive diction. “Dust” captures a brief moment of tender intimacy, invoking the senses of smell, sight and touch, and the result is like a sepia photograph come alive:
“December Flight” rejoices in the reckless thrill of movement of birds flying south:
The word sonnet is a form that Mayne fits effectively to the Canadian landscape; both the poems and the country are marked mostly by open space, yet both are populated by maple, crows, lakes, toboggans, and are confused by snow in April. Alternately mournful and exultant, Mayne’s poems reveal beauty in the great melancholy spaces that divide us as a country, and as people.
Liam Ford lives in Coquitlam, BC.