A personal essay by Drew Pisarra

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Sonnets


by Drew Pisarra

I suppose you could say that I became an Ambassador of Love for the Borough of Brooklyn the summer I started seeing this grad student from abroad. He was eager for a whirlwind romance with New York and I somehow fell into the role of leading man. In all fairness, I knew it wouldn’t last long and I was okay with that until I wasn’t but by then it was too late. Fast forward a few years: I’m now Brooklyn’s Bard of Broken Hearts with an empty bed and a recently released book of gay love sonnets to prove it: Infinity Standing Up. If that sounds like sour grapes ahead, rest assured I drank till my cup ranneth over. Better to have loved and lost and got published then never to have written your heart out at all.

How I got from bedmate to balladeer had a lot to do with breaking some seriously longstanding patterns – my pattern of not having sex, of not dating, of holding fast to monogamy as a model, of quitting at the first sign of difficulty, of quitting at the second through fifth signs of difficulty, of not writing love poems to somebody I actually knew, of not rhyming.

It started as many gay relationships do, on Grindr — a relationship app posing as a sex app or vice versa. I’m still not sure how to classify it. Whatever it was, I had mixed feelings about venturing into this fast-lane of hook-ups and meet-ups. I was 50 years old, a hard truth I desperately tried to soften by growing a mustache to clinch my daddy status. Was it enough to get me a pass? I certainly didn’t see sparks flying when I first met Hector. We’ll call him Hector. Hector from Nicaragua. We’ll say he’s from Nicaragua. But enough of the lies for protection. Let’s admit that by the second date we were off to the races. The foreplay would bore you to death.

He had funny teeth. His hair suggested Topaz Man with a bob. His English wasn’t great. Oh, who am I kidding? He was prettier, taller, younger, and likely much smarter than me. I was protected from his intelligence by a broken English that didn’t prevent him from stringing together simple phrases like “I would like to kiss your lips” or “I’ve never made love to you in August.” I felt his mastery of the language was more than adequate. I was never as skilled at making my needs known in the moment. Perhaps that’s why I took to writing him sonnets early on.

On paper, I didn’t have to rephrase my thoughts until he grasped my meaning or to hide my feelings with self-consciousness that bordered on the taciturn. I was used to self-editing as a form of self-preservation. On paper, the brazen suddenly became not only accessible but liberating. On paper, I felt free, unguarded, salacious. The world of metaphor allowed me to express my wildest desires. Which I did. It also permitted me to convey my intensest discontent. Which I also did. But more on that part later.

Most sonnet sequences are an emotional catalogue accumulating power as the numbers in the titles increase in value. Did you love him for 20 poems? for 44 like Elizabeth Barrett Browning? for 154 like Shakespeare? My own numbers went off the rails as the requisite digits leveled direct commentary on the content more than 1, 2, 3 ever could…

The first poem I penned for Hector had to do with playing hard to get (“Sonnet 32°”); the second, with how alluring he looked wearing my pajamas (“Sonnet 11PM”); the third, with my refusal to further sing his praises (“Sonnet 0”), a bold-faced lie since I went on to write 40 sonnets total including ones about his manhood (“Sonnet 6””), his naked body viewed from behind (“Sonnet 18k”), and my unrestrained desire (“Sonnet 666”). I even wrote about his refusal to let me buy him dinner (“Sonnet $18.99”). Oh yes, he was very clear about the relationship’s parameters, both before he reunited with his ex and after, which somehow didn’t end the affair as witnessed by “Sonnet 24/7,” “Sonnet 6E,” and “Sonnet ¾.”

Does this sonneteering sound like obsessive behavior on my part? I won’t deny it was. I knew it at the time, too, and rationalized each makeup make-out session as potential source material to convert into iambic pentameter, perhaps this time in Petrarchan form. I wrote a sonnet with hyphens to show how we’d become disconnected (“Sonnet 13”), a sonnet entirely in lower case to show how small he made me feel (“Sonnet i”), a sonnet that repeated the same words over and over because I love Gertrude Stein (“Sonnet Ø”). I sent most of the poems to him — especially those insisting IT WAS OVER. Not that we were truly dating. I mean, neither of us was looking to fall in love. And only one of us did. I wrote about that too with a nod to Plato’s Phaedrus in “Sonnet 370 B.C.”

Some of my friends – none of whom met him – dismissed this affair as a matter of lust. After all, Hector and I spent little time together outside my apartment: a foray to the theater to see Sam Shepard’s Particle of Dread, a bowl of potato soup at the local diner… He went to the opera, to concerts, to museums, to the park across the street without me. I ran solo loops around that same park as a way to keep myself somewhat sane. I don’t think we even ever watched a movie together, although he’d occasionally entertain me with YouTube: ultra-strange, low-budget videos of some guy singing about September 11th or the latest single from Sufjan Stevens (“Sonnet 33 1/3”).

His English got better. Conversation shifted to politics in Nicaragua, the novel in Mexico, his disdain for Neruda, his disappointment in Shakira. Little of this made its way into my poems. What did was the inner chaos that comes with sustaining a relationship with someone who’s involved with someone else. Was it cheating to be his side dish abroad? I pretended it wasn’t. Was it cheating to be his side dish down the block when his lover had rejoined him in the States? I concluded it was.

Yet I continued to see him anyway. Sure, I missed him sleeping over, missed waking up in the middle of the night to find him kissing my back, missed waking up in the morning and seeing him sprawled out before me in all his golden glory, his curly hair shielding one eye like Ganymede or some other favorite of the gods. What did I want? Well, naturally I wanted him. What did I do when I realized I couldn’t have him? In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I wrote another sonnet. But who was I writing to really?

When a man becomes an amorous source of inspiration does he stop being himself? It’s debatable. He used to say to me, “I don’t think I’m a muse” to which I always replied, “That’s not your decision.” I felt confident in my answer at the time but now I would have to admit he was probably right. The heart is not the best judge of character. Nor is the libido. Nor are the eyes. Not that we can decide on the goodness of someone through a series of intellectual checkboxes but any organ or angle that assumes complete control comes with issues.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered I had a book. Or rather, my publisher did. Regie Cabico, the founder of Capturing Fire Press, heard one of my sonnets at a festival he runs then approached me about putting the poems together in a book. I agreed immediately although I hardly had enough material at the time. It was a mixed blessing because this is what led me to write the final sonnets, which ended up our divorce papers in verse. I delved deeper into how his AWOL ways in our FWB setup had left me SOL. These goodbye poems veered into the conceptual with titles like “Sonnet Tau,” “Sonnet Phi,” and “Sonnet Gazillion.”

By the time I wrote the final poem, I had exhausted him as a muse or even a memory. My friend and fellow poet Diane Mehta pointed out that my book’s final entry aptly ends with the word “done,” certainly an unintended bit of cleverness. For me, it’s that last sonnet’s title which shows that the romance was over – not a number or an algebraic symbol for a number or a Greek letter or a fraction or an equation. No. It was simply “Sonnet #,” a title with a number sign indicating a number that isn’t a number at all. In fact, # is pound, a word which has its only laundry list of uses – some of them sexual, some of them not. “To end this call, press the pound key” immediately comes to mind. So does a “pound of flesh.”

 

Sonnet #

When my therapist asked whether you had
any kinks I told her no and you know
I tell her everything, both good and bad,
not that she’s one to pass judgment although
there was that one time when but I digress…
When my therapist asked if you’d any
kinks, I told her no, not really, unless
she factored in ours as we had many.
She sighed then waited as therapists do.
Emboldened by silence, I decided

to tell her ALL be it odd, wrong, or crude
but then she interrupted me and said
I should wait before I’d even begun
because this afternoon’s session was done.

 

That last bit of doggerel was me finally admitting that fantasy and reality had parted ways for good. What I wanted and what I could have would never meet. Who he was and who I am were irreconcilable. I just hope he likes the book.


As one half of the conceptual art duo Saint Flashlight (with Molly Gross), Drew Pisarra has been finding playful ways to get poetry into public places such as film-themed haiku on a movie marquee and a series of lost-dog style flyers that drive to a phone bank of poems. These unconventional installations have been part of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, Free Verse: Charleston Poetry Festival, and NYC’s Poets House. His first book of poetry Infinity Standing Up, a collection of sonnets, came out in early 2019. (A poem therein was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.) His short story collection Publick Spanking was published eons ago by Future Tense. Additionally, he once toured his ventriloquist act Singularly Grotesque – commissioned by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art – up and down both coasts but has since retired from the world of dummies.

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