Whatis a coffin for? To give the living the comforting fiction of the dead being ‘laid to rest’. To contain. To prevent odour, to forestall decomposition, entropy. To make the encounter between the living and the dead tolerable, legible – to do so by keeping the dead from view.

‘I have wanted,’ Diane Seuss announces in frank: sonnets (Graywolf, £12.99), ‘to dig up/the dead to see what’s left, would almost rather meet the shell/than the soul, break the frozen ground, burial vault, box they house/them in which could be reduced to bronze handles, hinges and screws.’ To be ‘frank’, for Seuss, means describing the bodies of the dead, asking us to watch them fall apart. The book’s cover image shows her childhood friend Mikel Lindzy, shirtless, flexing a slender bicep with mock bravado. The photograph was taken, a note at the back explains, either on a trip to Tijuana to secure a rumoured early treatment for HIV or a few years earlier – before the Aids crisis began – on a visit to his lover’s home town. The snapshot, in other words, records a moment either just before or just after Mikel became sick. Because he is now dead and cannot answer, the question is irresolvable, the snapshot a superposition of two mutually exclusive states: Mikel dying, Mikel alive. Or perhaps the point is that every living body is also a dying one.

The sonnet might seem a perverse form for a poet who wants to unbox the dead. A sonnet, after all, is something like a coffin: regular, rectangular, a receptacle for passions gone cold, bodies out of reach. Like a coffin, a sonnet can seem cramped, the tightest space into which its content can be arranged. Wordsworth compared the form to a ‘convent’s narrow room’; more recently, Terrance Hayes has called it ‘part prison,/Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame’. The sonnet has sometimes seemed a bulwark against death, a technology that can transfer its permanence to the beloved memorialised in its lines. Think of Shakespeare: ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’ The apparent durability of the sonnet, like that of the coffin, substitutes in our unspoken fantasy for the vulnerability of what it contains.

But Seuss doesn’t want substitutes. ‘Boxed fathers buried deep are still fathers,’ she insists. Her own father’s body, like Mikel’s, haunts the sequence. Early in the book we learn that he died of cancer when the poet was a child. Even as a young girl, what fascinated Seuss was not the soul gone missing, but the body left behind:

I mixed potions: iodine, nightshade,
and some incongruity like a few drops of my father’s aftershave. He was
dead by then, but there was a quarter of a bottle of Aqua Velva
in the medicine chest, which I used sparingly.

This concoction doesn’t bring him back to life, but it does keep him in the air. Shortly after his funeral, during a blizzard, the young Seuss finds herself imagining ‘our father shivering in his coffin/under all that snow’ – as though his death had been, essentially, a relocation of his body. Later she dreams that her father’s body has been ‘lost to us again’; when they find it, they ‘set him in Dickinson’s coffin’. The dream logic suggests that poetic form preserves the possibility of contact with the dead without ever promising anything as fantastical as reanimation.

Coffins may not confer immortality, but for Seuss they do mark a place to dig, a hinged form to swing open. Sonnets are hinged too. If one defining feature of the sonnet is its brevity, another is the dramatic turn that often occurs within its fourteen lines – in the Italian tradition, the volta that marks a transition from the first eight lines to the final six; in English, the final rhyming couplet that either sums up or turns on its head the argument of the preceding twelve lines. These turns can give the impression that this ostensibly cloistered form contains trapdoors, hidden rooms. Many of the sonnets in Seuss’s book end with a couplet used to ironic effect. ‘I could do it,’ one begins grimly, ‘I could walk into the sea./I have a rental car. It’s blue and low on fuel./I have feet, two, and proximity. I could do it.’ We’re then given a mordant catalogue of infamous deaths by drowning before the closing couplet changes the tone entirely: ‘It’s dark. I love the dark and it loves me./It would be fun! I could walk into the sea!’ Here rhyme allows for the performance of childlike exuberance; light verse that articulates dark matter suggests that suffering has a tune.

It’s a tune Seuss likes to sing. Perhaps by doing so, by making pain formal, or rendering it as a joke, she also makes it tolerable. If this book is haunted by corpses, the poet’s own body is also an abiding concern throughout: ‘There is a force that breaks the body, inevitable,/the by-product is pain, unexceptional as a rain/gauge, which has become arcane, rhyme, likewise.’ Here pain and rhyme are both understood as forms of measurement, records of injury. Seuss can’t help but play with the analogy: internal rhyme (pain, rain, arcane) is less overt than end rhyme, just as internal injuries are less conspicuous than external ones, but, if the analogy holds, no less real. Seuss wants to be the suffering body: ‘much better to be/pain’s host, body of Christ as opposed to Holy/Ghost’. The internal rhyme between ‘host’ and ‘Ghost’ seems like self-inflicted injury, the manifestation of a masochistic desire to be disfigured. But the logic of this poem, and the final rhyming couplet in which that logic is encoded, is that internalising pain is preparation for letting it go: ‘when I have been suffering at times I could/step away from it by embracing it, a blues thing,/ a John Donne thing, divest by wrestling, then sing.’ Rhyme may be ‘arcane’, a done thing, but what the blues and Donne (Seuss must be thinking of his sonnet that begins ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’) show us is that formalising pain can be useful.

Seen this way, the sonnet becomes a machine for living, its primary function to intercede in the subject’s suffering, to metabolise pain. The need for such a machine is evident in the book’s opening lines:

I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t
have the energy to get out of the car. Rental. Blue Ford
Focus. I had to stop in a semi-public place to pee
on the ground. Just squatted there on the roadside.
I don’t know what’s up with my bladder. I pee and then
I have to pee and pee again.

For Seuss the sonnet is also something like a rental car: a borrowed vehicle that allows you to visit life’s disappointments (which are often, even as disappointments, disappointing).

A sonnet sequence – and that is what Seuss has written here, 127 sonnets that comprise a verse memoir – turns singular events into serial experience. Like a film, a sonnet sequence creates the animated illusion of life, even or especially in the impression it gives of what has been left out: ‘a sonnet is one frame in a long strip/of celluloid most of which will end up on the cutting-/room floor.’ Sonnets needn’t necessarily form a sequence, but one paradoxical corollary of the form’s compactness is the compulsive desire it seems to evoke in the poets who write sonnets to write more of them. Writing sonnets, for Seuss, is like having to pee in a semi-public place again and again: an embarrassing and seemingly pathological compulsion to disburden herself in print: ‘Thought about going into the Ocean/Medical Centre for a check-up but how do I explain/ this restless search for beauty or relief?’

How, moreover, to find relief without accepting the sonnet’s artifice as a substitute for life? This is the aesthetic and ethical quandary that lies at the heart of the book. ‘I was afraid to touch you,’ she says in one sonnet, addressing Mikel. ‘I was afraid of the lesions you’d described to me/over the phone, their locations and the measurement, in centimetres, of each.’ Those would have been Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, a then untreatable late-stage symptom of Aids. Seuss’s fear persisted through her friend’s dying – and beyond. Here, in its entirety, is one of the book’s most devastating sonnets:

Things feel partial. My love for things is partial. Mikel on his last legs, covered
in KS lesions demanded that I see the beauty of a mass of chrysanthemums. Look,
he demanded. I lied that I could see the beauty there but all I saw was a smear
of yellow flowers. I wanted to leave that place. I wanted to leave him to die
without me. And soon that’s what I did. Even the molecule I allowed myself to feel
of our last goodbye made me scream. What would have happened if I’d opened
my heart all the way as I was told to do if I wanted Jesus to live inside one of its
dank chambers? Whitman told me to ‘Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew
the doors themselves from their jambs!’ Let love come streaming in like when
the St Joe flooded Save A Lot and drove it out of business. The only store in town.
Don’t put my ashes in the river, Mikel said. Put them in a tributary. I did. I put them
in a tributary without touching them. Now I want to chalk my fingertips with them
but it’s too late. I want to hold them like he held me and touched my upper lip and called it
Cupid’s cusp, a phrase that made me wince. I felt love all the way then, and never since.

Her friend asked her to see the beauty that surrounded his dying, but what she wanted was relief. To have opened the door, in that moment, to love would have meant being flooded, overwhelmed, driven ‘out of business’. In a literal way, she was afraid – these were the early days of the Aids crisis – that touching her friend might have led to her catching his disease. But her aversion supersedes the literal: to make contact with the dying body of someone you love is to establish a bond that you know is about to break. When that body is gone, contact is what you want. That is the brutal lesson delivered in the condensed couplet where the poet’s past ‘wince’ at her friend’s attempt at intimacy sits uneasily alongside her realisation that she has never felt love so fully ‘since’. The sonnet doesn’t simply record this recognition, it acts as a kind of time machine, stitching together today’s desire and yesterday’s aversion into its own world.

We can’t live in that world, not really. But we can spend time there. In another sonnet Seuss tells of how Mikel once told her that after he was dead she would never again be able to listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue – so painful, presumably, would be the memories of having listened to it together. She calls his saying so a ‘minor curse’, then ends the sonnet with a turn: ‘and so I listen now/in defiance of you. In the listening the pronoun shifts. We are listening. There is no death.’ When is the ‘now’ of the sonnet’s penultimate line? A curse is a particular kind of speech act, one that makes claims on a future that its speaker need not live to see. Seuss’s act of ‘defiance’ reverses the temporal direction of those claims. To play a recording Joni Mitchell made in 1971 summons, of course, her voice from the past into the present. But it also – and perhaps precisely because of his curse – summons Seuss’s memory of Mikel’s listening to the album into the present of hers, now. And when she writes the lines out into her sonnet, the listening itself becomes a recording. A recording of memory that can be played in the now of our reading. Seuss knows damn well that there is death. And yet, for now, there isn’t.

This book is a response to death, a way of living in knowledge of death’s privations, and in recognition, too, of the future that the death of everyone now alive will bring. ‘I hope when it happens I have time to say oh so this is how it is happening,’ the final sonnet in the book begins. ‘I want enough time to say oh so this is how I’ll go and smirk at that last rhyme.’ I suppose the rhyme she has in mind here is the one between ‘oh’ and ‘go’. But that rhyme is embedded within another, between ‘time’ and ‘rhyme’. What Seuss is hoping for is an extended enough death to allow for a witty recognition of the shape it is imposing on the life it ends. Beyond that, though, what she wants is enough life to make her death into a kind of ‘last rhyme’, a sound that radiates both into the past and into the future, where it might make contact with your body, or mine.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences