Drew Pisarra’s Infinity Standing Up, a collection of sonnets titled after numbers of various sorts, self-consciously aspires to a five-act dramatic structure and laments its speaker’s inability to move his hot-and-cold hookup forward into the domain of Shakespearean romance. Progress, indeed, stalls in the early stages: Act 2 is followed by Act 2A and Act II. Act IV is the last section in the book. This interruption of formal progress makes a pattern that many of the individual poems follow, too: iambic pentameter is surprisingly uncommon in this book of sonnets — indeed, I heard the seductive anapest as these lines’ most characteristic metrical foot — but the poems absolutely delight in their digressions.
Take “Sonnet 11PM,” for example, whose opening tucks a little extra into its claims about formality: “Pajamas are a form of formal wear, the tux / of the bedroom, the suit of the boudoir. I own / two pair.” The opening clause’s iambic pentameter (“Pajámas áre a fórm of fórmal wéar”) could be a whole sonnet line without the tux. But the tux gives it something extra, renaming formality, filling in an example, and pushing the coming rhyme (“pair” for “wear”) into the line’s interior. That’s a good choice, though, since these poems make room for other things than rhyme to be exposed, as in “Sonnet 6””: “Oh, thick-headed prick, oh tool of no pretension, / oh wood that could, and dick shaped like a can of beer.”
If it gooses your juices (as it does mine) to encounter such images in a sonnet, this book is for you. If, however, you are irked by the form’s imperfection — if you would throw back the words “Neither you nor your manhood would measure / up to my far-flung desires” at a wonky line — then you risk missing out on a number of treats, not morsels of humor only, but also effective calls to the somber emotions attendant on love lost and on the vanity of trying to replace it. See “Sonnet X=X,” which measures 10 syllables to a line with the persistent feeling that they are never enough. The titular equation insists both on the self-identity of the lost lover and on the anonymity of the one who climbs the stairs to replace him temporarily. The narrative in “Sonnet X=X” is a bit airy — perhaps the speaker need not tell us that 3 a.m. is “frankly the middle / of the night” — and yet the poem feels utterly honest in its plainspoken account of the speaker’s misplaced lust:
… From my peephole, I saw
him leave the elevator then look my
way. (I’m at the end of the hall.) I pawed
at his lithe body without caring. I
knew all along he wasn’t you.
Plainspoken — yet the rhymes fall subtly at the line breaks (“saw” / “pawed” and “my” / “I”).
Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Pisarra marshals formal fidelity in order to counterbalance either feelings or behaviors that threaten the speaker’s sense of self-control. The measured lines (and hours) mitigate the speaker’s unmeasured lust for this night’s sex partner, a younger man celebrating his birthday. Similarly, in the most formally perfect of the poems (“Sonnet 8x10,” titled after an actor’s headshot) formal meticulousness creates an impression of control even as the speaker rejects the lesson of his mother’s “sad marriage.”
Perhaps this habit of hewing more closely to formal conventions at times of unease explains the somewhat bitter rejection of polyamory that surprised me in “Sonnet Pi.” The poem begins musically, if sharply:
“Love never ends.” Or so you contend. “Well neither
does pi” is my curt reply. “Affections divide
till the end of time.” Basically, you can either
come to terms with that cold truth or chase the big lie.
Pisarra is clearly alert to the irrationality of Pi’s endless and non-repeating digits. The speaker alludes to that irrationality as he dismisses his lover’s facile claim that love’s never dying makes it redemptive. And the speaker counters the lack of pattern in Pi with sing-song rhymes that vie to establish an order of their own, independent of the sonnet’s requirements. It struck me here, however, that the lover aims not at a disordered eternity of ever-changing love but at the potential for love in triangles, “magic in threes,” an orderly geometry that Pisarra’s speaker nonetheless consigns to the realm of bad math: “Polyamory has always struck me as less / than the sum of its parts.” As a poly reader, I was disappointed by this resistance to alternative geometries of love, this insistence that polyamory has to have the unsettling unpredictability of Pi. It is indeed hard “to measure / a heart’s full capacity.” That should be cause for humility.
Still, as I took in the poems of Infinity Standing Up, my heart expanded; so did my sense of the sonnet’s contemporary possibility; so did my joy in pure language. The strangest poem of the bunch — and it’s not even close –— is “Sonnet IIX or Sonnet VIII.” The title shows the rules breaking, and then the language breaks them: “Zounds! Glue do what verb / hype prayer dooming silo phone encrypts, / hand major dial pram nigh dram pore lean …” and so on. But there’s the logic here of a fun-house mirror, a distorted reflection of what has passed before. IIX or VIII depends on the direction one is going, but both are eight (infinity, stood on its side). Look back to “Sonnet 8,” the collection’s opening poem, and you can find this apparent madness made clear. It’s love and lust for language that twists this spitting verse into new shapes, and praise be to Pisarra for those passions.