A mathematician who immigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1960, my father was reverse gravity: the kind of man whose pull was stronger the farther from him you were. After my parents divorced in the early 1970s, I lived with him before going to college near my mother. I came into my own at that departure, while my father and I experienced a decade of equilibrium.
During the mid-1980s, my father had a few minor heart attacks, an aneurysm, and a quintuple bypass. When he died of a heart attack in February 1993, I was across the country on vacation skiing the California side of Lake Tahoe.
By the time of my father's death, his second marriage had deteriorated to the point where he and my stepmother slept in separate rooms. Because he died in his sleep, he died alone down the hall from his wife, who found him the next morning. The police officer who arrived on the scene first was a friend of mine from childhood and played on the soccer team that my father coached. My stepmother had to comfort him when he realized my father was dead.
In the poem “Sonnet,” Stanley Plumly describes a traditional relationship among a father, mother, and child. The speaker in the poem is the child, which creates tension. Although the speaker knows what will happen to his parents, he can only sense the reality of his parent's relationship.
The title “Sonnet” establishes structural expectations, creates drama, and sets thematic anticipation. Before continuing beyond the title, the reader understands that the poem will follow some established rules related to structure, drama, and theme. Besides serving as a scaffold for the narrative, these rules create a type of shorthand between the poet and the reader.
Most sonnets follow an established set of rules: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, at least two stanzas (an octave and a sestet), and a predictable rhyme scheme.1 In “Sonnet,” Plumly bends these rules quite a bit. He does use 14 lines, but no discernable rhyme scheme exists. Iambic pentameter is not present in any of the lines of the poem, although one comes close: “I think of him every time I fall in love.” Like a heartbeat, iambic pentameter is a pattern of five “feet” in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. Because only one line in “Sonnet” meets the reader's rhythmic expectations, this line has extra weight and is the theme of the poem.
“Sonnet” has three stanzas (two sestets and a closing couplet). In the sestet, the speaker introduces his father sitting “on the edge of the bed” letting “the tears fall to the floor.” Without providing details, the speaker states that his father “was a dead man and he knew it.” In the second sestet, the speaker relates to his father as well as idolizes his physical and intellectual prowess. The closing couplet introduces the speaker's mother “sitting on the edge of the bed” with her “arms around” his father.
On a technical level, Plumly is a masterful poet. For example, he uses em dashes in the second stanza to create movement, powerful and straight. Additionally, he alludes to morning in the first stanza and states in the closing couplet that “it is morning,” which pulls together the beginning and ending of the poem.
The subject of most sonnets is love, love in every form; sonnets are about craving, seeking, finding, losing, and regaining love. Describing the love between father and son, between husband and wife, Plumly's “Sonnet” also depicts the inevitability of death. As “Sonnet” shows, this form of poetry balances structure with immediacy while allowing the poet a remarkable degree of flexibility in terms of subject matter, rule breaking, and surprise.
To increase immediacy, most poems are written in the present tense. However, the verb tenses shift in “Sonnet.” In the first and second stanzas, the speaker and father are in the past tense; in the closing couplet, the father and mother are in the present tense. The effect of this shift is to make the speaker's father alive again.
Plumly once said, “By definition death leaves unfinished business.”2 “Sonnet” moves me because it forces me to reconcile my complicated love for my father with the fact that he died before I was 30. Although I cannot make my father alive again, I can use poems like “Sonnet” to begin to overcome my father's reverse pull. We have unfinished business, he and I.
1Barnet S, Berman M, Burto W. The Study of Literature: A Handbook of Critical Essays and Terms. Little, Brown, and Company. Boston, MA, 1960.
2Matthews S. “The Literary Life.” Poets & Writers Magazine. 〈http://www.pw.org/mag/0403/matthews.htm
〉. Accessed 21 November 2005.