12: Sonnets for the Zodiac
French translation by Elizabeth D. Watson and a Spanish translation by Jose M. Guerrero
Gival Press, 2011
Reviewed By: Quincy Lehr
John Gosslee’s debut collection, 12, comes in a rather large package. Twelve sonnets, after all, are a bit slim for a chapbook, much less a full-lengther, so the collection, which has one sonnet for each sign of the zodiac, has a fair number of doodads, both visual (calendars for each sign), and were that not enough, translations of the poems into French and Spanish, never mind that Gival Press is Virginia-based and presumably has limited reach in Cartagena and Lyons. One almost suspects that the doo-dads were put there so that the book would catch the eye of editors, to make it “different” and thus “interesting.”
The discerning reader may have intuited a certain curl of the lip in the above. When one strips away the doo-dads and translations, we have twelve sonnets. About the zodiac. But hey, sonnet collections are in, with an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recent titles including Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty Sonnets, Julie Kane’s Jazz Funeral, Kim Bridgford’s In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records, William Baer’s “Borges” and Other Sonnets and “Bocage” and Other Sonnets, and others. So it’s trendy. On the other hand, though, while the quality of these books is by no means even, the best of them set the bar for sonnets quite high indeed.
For all the bells, whistles, calendars, and sonnets en francais, the sonnets in this book are… underwhelming. In the Taurus poem, “Bulls Always Charge,” we get these lines:
……….I know what is here and what has commenced
……… The divine past cannot be dispensed!
The latter line recalls in its tenor not so much Shakespeare or Sidney as it does Skeletor from The Masters of the Universe. Gosslee’s tone and indeed imagery at times hit a bathetic level, as in his Aries poem, “The Ram’s Baa”:
………Musicians drum on its kindred’s skin torn
………By a sacrifice o’er a mortal duel.
O’er really? The poem describes a ram being sacrificed in Conan the Barbarian-like detail (original film version, 1982)—do we especially need the archaism, which elevates the tone unto risibility?
Metrically, too, the poems’ lines tend have the ten syllables connected with the traditional iambic pentameter meter, but Gosslee seems to interpret meter syllabically, resulting in periodic rhythmic constipation. Perhaps Gosslee is attempting to play it loose. Perhaps, though, he simply doesn’t have meter down yet. One cannot say with any certainty, but I would suspect the latter, with the excuse given as the former. Certainly, the collection strives, not entirely successfully, to meet rather robust requirements such as those of the Petrarchian sonnet with its ABBAABBA rhyme scheme in the octet. However, here, too, Gosslee is frequently less than sure-footed, and we get too many runs shoehorned not entirely successfully into the formal requirements of the given sonnet form. Take this example, from “Lady Justice” (the Libra poem):
……….You, bestow desires or passions deplete,
……….And decide from the start, but are discreet,
……….Allowing judgments to change through action—
……….By disavowing outside distraction.
……….The scales are above any that compete;
The inversion of “passions deplete” is, in a contemporary poem, maddening and a bit distracting, while the long sentence seems less subtle and complex than gaseous, as if coming up for breath at regular intervals for the end rhymes that punctuate generally awkward phrasing.
This is a remarkably bloated book, a lot of rigmarole for a series of less than surefooted, rather slight poems built on an idea that seems more of a workshop exercise than a grand conceit. Many of its missteps—the convoluted phrasing, the overwrought imagery, the needless or lazy archaisms—are a beginner’s missteps, and it is quite possible that Gosslee will outgrow them. Far less forgivable is Gival Press’s decision to publish this premature debut collection. Youthful maladroitness can be a phase. A book is far more permanent. Let’s hope that Gosslee’s next shows greater thought, craft, and depth.
John Gosslee was poet-in-residence for Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine from 2008 through 2011. His first book “12″ was published by Gival Press
in French, Spanish and English. He is the Editor of Fjords Review and enjoys riding his motorcycle throughout the United States.