Though the bulk of Paul Hlava Ceballos’s banana [ ] (University of Pittsburgh Press) presents long poems that collage government documents, primary and secondary history texts, tweets, photos, and video stills into an epic about the ongoing plunder of Latin America and the resilience of the people who resist it, he also includes a number of more traditional sonnets and elegies that wouldn’t look out of place in an anthology of 19th-century English poetry.
Of course, like any good poet, Ceballos puts his own little spin on the form to push the art forward. To explain how he does that, I popped open the hood on one of my favorite poems in the book, “Sonnet to the Country Club Ladies at a Madison Park Cafe,” and took some notes.
1. There are a handful of sonnet forms, but this one most closely resembles a Shakespearean or English sonnet. The poem contains fourteen lines, three quatrains with a “turn” after the second one, an argument about some aspect of the world, and a final couplet that resolves the poem’s problem. Each line (more or less) features five sets of paired syllables that (more or less) maintain an iambic beat; that is, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, as in the word around. And though he abandons the form’s prescribed end rhyme scheme, he does regularly rhyme within the lines. In the first stanza, for instance, easy rhymes with sweeping, and sight rhymes with night. But give him a break, he’s mopping!
2. Ceballos wrote the poem while working at the Madison Park Starbucks down the street from the tennis courts. “I would mop the floor of this giant place most nights, so it gave me a lot of time to count beats in my head,” he said.
3. True to form for a sonnet, the first stanza sets up Ceballos’s argument, which goes something like this: Well-off city-dwellers like these tennis moms use liberal-minded clichés to justify their participation in a system that exploits workers, but those clichés obscure the fact that shit work under capitalism actually is shit. It’s true that scrubbing toilets and sweeping up breadcrumbs is dignified work, but if you’ve ever scrubbed toilets and swept breadcrumbs, it doesn’t feel that way all the time. As the poem’s narrator mentions later, he doesn’t get to enjoy the stars (a symbol for celestial beauty), and scouring sinks and toilets sucks no matter how you look at it.
4. After the eighth line, Ceballos makes a “turn” from his initial argument, beginning to see the dignity in his Sisyphean task of keeping the cafe tidy. He compares his work to a monk toiling away by match light and a Chinese philosopher who practices a task that reminds him of life’s
5. Aside from producing a striking image, the phrase “I’ll sign my name with a wet mop” recalls the epitaph etched on the headstone of another legendary sonneteer, John Keats. His tombstone reads, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” A nice little wink.
6. The image of a sparkling cafe floor in the final couplet stitches back to the earlier image of the stars in the sky that do not shine for workers on the night shift. With this final flourish, the poet resolves the problem he presents in the first stanza: Every job might not be “dignified,” but every worker possesses dignity, and he dignifies his work—whether that be mopping a cafe or writing a new version of an old sonnet—by putting his soul into it, by leaving his signature in some way. In his case, he transforms his mop work into a starry night.