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T. Zachary Cotler. Sonnets to the Humans. Ahsahta Press, 2013.

In T. Zachary Cotler’s finely crafted book, Sonnets to the Humans, readers will find a wide range of poetic subjects—including “weather,” “cities,” “cortices,” and “chimerical cartographies”—all of which are presented within the formal constraints inherent in the sonnet. These fourteen-line poems, however pristine, and however whole they may appear at first glance, offer a provocative fragmentation of meaning, particularly as narrative dissipates, and any rhetorical explanation is pared away from the book’s visually arresting images. By creating this tension between formalism and fragmentation, Cotler uses form to complicate the content of a given work, the end result being a book that lends itself to multiple careful readings.

With that in mind, Cotler’s book is at its best when images illuminate and complicate one another, allowing for a proliferation of meaning within the parameters of formal constraints (although Cotler does take some liberties with the sonnet as a literary form). Throughout the book, Cotler creates a number of thought-provoking juxtapositions of images, which have a generative effect, affording myriad possibilities for readerly interpretation. I find this tension between strict formalism and purposeful ambiguity with respect to meaning to be wonderfully ironic and engaging. Although working within a prescribed form, Cotler offers us no easy method for interpretation, instead inviting the reader to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. Consider this passage:

A woman was leaving a man.
They left a department store
in Athens, looted other than
a pair of korai (batteries of marble
time divided by ardor
unlimited) mistaken for
uncanny heavy mannequins.

What’s interesting here is the way that as images accumulate, one complicating the other, creating a proliferation of meaning within a prescribed literary form. Even passages that seem, given their diction and syntax, to be rhetorical explanation of images that have been presented, serve only to introduce more imagery. This is one of the most thought-provoking aspects of Cotler’s work. He suggests, through evocative imagery and provocative formal choices, that our attempts to explain, to elucidate, and to pinpoint meaning serve only to obscure it, and to complicate the very idea we are trying to understand.

Along these lines, Cotler’s use of form to bury meaning is also thought-provoking. All too often, form serves as a way to help the poet convey a message, which is often built into the literary form. For example, a sonnet must convey a change in its subject, given the prescribed volta near the end. Cotler not only resists this impulse to rely on form as a way to discover meaning, but he uses form in a subversive way, frequently adhering to formal rules to the extent that they obscure meaning. The moments where the sonnet form literally ruptures the poem, rather than providing coherence or unity, prove to be especially thought-provoking. Cotler writes,

…Doves
in the cities, they
did not mean peace. I said
o the humans,
you are the doves
of system crash (you
come in shapes of weather
systems and flying crosses)…

Here Cotler breaks his lines in several unusual places. For example, the enjambments in this poem frequently rupture the syntactic unit, creating unnatural pauses and discontinuities, at least from a narrative standpoint, within the poem. In my opinion, these unconventional formal choices are ideally suited to Cotler’s project, given his subversive use of received literary forms. This adherence to a given form of writing, which most would use to convey meaning, to create unity, and pay homage to tradition, here becomes a way of undermining all of these things. Although adhering to the tradition of the sonnet, these constraints are used for the opposite of their intended purpose, ultimately expanding what is possible within inherited literary forms.
What’s most intriguing about Cotler’s work, though, is that he allows innovation and tradition to exist within the same narrative space. Reminiscent of Karen Volkman’s Nomina and Bernadette Meyer’s experiments with the sonnet form, Cotler’s Sonnets to the Humans ultimately offers new possibilities for inhabiting and revising received literary templates. In short, Cotler’s book is as finely crafted as it as it innovative—a thoroughly enjoyable book.

—Kristina Marie Darling