Insecurity System
by Sara Wainscott
Persea Books, 2020

Ever read a crown of sonnets and wish you could read another one, and then more? Me neither, until the winningly, teasingly, loosely, expertly assembled array of fourteen-line items that comprise Sara Wainscott’s Insecurity System. It’s a contender for my favorite first book this year.

A crown of sonnets is a set of sonnets (usually fourteen or fifteen) in which each last line echoes or resembles or duplicates the first line of the next. (Wainscott ends one sonnet, for example, with “adjacent lives/ between which all time slips,” and opens the next “I punch my time slip.” [59-60])  Sets of sonnets—all sets: crowns, series, sequences— foreground and frame a paradox that’s all over older lyric poetry: we want poems to capture, to animate, to re-present, the un-pin-downable vividness of life, one moment or page or line leading into the next/ Yet we also want poems that will hold their shape, that last.

“I’m powerless,” Wainscott opens, “beside the honey bees who have no cares/ but industry,” who care only for making things. But a thing, once made, is dead: “what kind of heaven/ is available only to the dead?” [5 It’s the great problem of Keats’s urn (without Keats’s bad sexual politics): how do you frame and fix a moment in art without killing the moment? And Wainscott addresses it the way Keats did: by creating art that seems to change, to take into its own shifting and polymodal associations the homeostasis of real life: “The lions are statues, but I think of them as people,// sweet on each other pointlessly,/ standing up as if there were no seasons.” [6]

And that’s just sonnet 2, among the 60 here. Almost all have lines I want to quote, or lines you might want to quote out of context, epigrammatic portraits of a contemporary, just-pre-COVID American oscillating among fear and anger and lust and bemusement and tears and hope: “The sky does not come down for me,/ though I have cried for it to meet me at the lake.” (The sky should know which lake: after all, it’s been watching me…. or has it?) Wainscott gives her sonnets (no doubt often rearranged and revised) the causal feel of a daily exercise, analogous almost to the page-a-day projects of someone like A. R. Ammons, or even Bernadette Mayer, hoping “to answer one word every day”: [41] “You are a cloud/ and I am another cloud, and writing this/ perpetuates the going on.” [43]

But those writers really undertook, at least some of the time, a durational art, a set of poems that came to us as evidence of their day-by-day experience, apart from and above the words they wrote (Andrew Epstein wrote a lovely academic book about this sort of art). Wainscott never invites us to do that sort of thing: she never breaks that frame. Instead, she lets the calendrical, day-by-day-ness of the sonnet tradition imply it: here are her days, her impressions, crystallized. They hold together because they’re all about her. Or maybe they don’t hold together: maybe none of us do. “Making meaning leaves out far too much.” [65]

Having acknowledged that nothing can keep us together—that we are collections of moments and feelings, tastes and tropisms and questionable contents—Wainscott keeps asking what use art can be, why we want to show off our tears, our wants, our wounds, to give them illusory permanence: “Horses flick their lively legs/ as we did,// as children do,/ showing off their cuts.” [19] “Ants defend their pyramids of sand.” [60] (Take that, Ozymandias—and note the pentameter.)  And like all the best creators of sequences that feel daily, ongoing, almost-improvised, true to the life of a person among other people, she arrives at second thoughts about poets’ struggle to come first, get perfect, rise up, stand out: “For fewer but more perfect blooms/ experts say to prune the buds.” [50] Good advice if you’re entering rose competitions; bad advice if you’re teaching (B students matter!). What if you’re writing lyric poems?

Rhyme and meter are just rare enough, in this sequence, to come with a kick when they do come: “The dead/ don’t like me much—they’re sick of flowers./ Upon the pikes the pink heads glower.” [15] These sorts of moments recall older so-called formalists, among them Richard Kenney, who seems to have taught Wainscott at the University of Washington-Seattle; but Wainscott’s affability, her low-key we’re-all-in-it-together seriousness, makes me want to stay with her work in a way I only rarely stay with his.  Half the standout lines aspire to—even as they attack—an almost-traditional monumentality, as when the disillusioned poet describes dawn: “the obligatory birds appear/ to cram their lungs with light.” [70] But the other half include office jokes, gardening jokes, housework jokes, sex—or lack-of-sex—jokes: “Buttercups go off without a band, but I can’t /get off without one. When I’m hot at night I picture/ the tax man slowly taking off my blanket.” [71]Insecurity System is, as the kids say, relatable– no small achievement in a quadruple. It’s also wry, even funny: “Sleep aggravates the cash flow problem.” [27] Wainscott’s sets of sonnets aren’t the most achieved, the most powerful sonnets the United States has seen lately: that would be Terrances Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and to compare this book (or, honestly, almost any new book) with that one is to compare the Alps to the Poconos. But sometimes we want—sometimes we need—the Poconos: sometimes that’s where I know I belong. Wainscott’s collection has the rare achievement—a necessary one, for collections of sonnets—of being something I want to read over and over, something I recommend that others re-read, not only by riding through it from first line to last, but also by dipping into it at near-random, finding slice to quote, appreciate, or attempt to apply to yourself: “if I am a horse for work I want to work • if I am a horse for show I want to show.” [36]

Stephanie Burt
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