Exploring "Little Songs"
A review of Cindy Ellen Hill's Wild Earth
My grade school education on the sonnet (from sonetto, or "little song") began and ended with Shakespeare’s work, including some of his 154 poems of this variety. Otherwise known as the Shakespearian, or English, sonnet, these were a somewhat later form in the 17th century, derived from the original from as far back as the 13th century. Finally popularized in the 14th century by Francesco Petrarca was what came to be known as the Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet.
Cindy Ellen Hill, as demonstrated in Wild Earth, her collection of sonnets, considers the English style a somewhat lesser form than the Italian. Of the 26 sonnets she has written, only six of them are English. More than ten of the remainder are Italian sonnets, or some variation on the Italian sonnet, such as one of my favorites, "A Man Riding a Bicycle," which is a "caudate" sonnet, consisting of 14 lines plus a 2-line "tail" or coda. Following a man on a bicycle in the rain with no helmet, the poem concludes the sestet in the 14th line with,
Perhaps we should drop pretenses,
Then smacks on the tail:
realize our preconceptions are to blame,
admit we cannot show the consequences.
Hill works the sonnet to the bone in this collection, and she really extracts the elements of the structure that punch their strengths, taking obvious delight in the Italian form, for which she shows a particular fondness. I especially like the structural variation she uses in "In Praise of Weeds" and "My Neighbor is a Property Rights Man," in which she employs two quatrains followed by two tercets. The break in between each of the four stanzas gives the reader a moment to breathe and savor the depth of them. "In Praise of Weeds" concludes:
So let us, rather, sing in praise of weeds
and everything that grows along the edge
In Wild Earth, Cindy Hill takes the reader on an exciting voyage of the sonnet, exploring its many mires and crevices, and she does so with such enthusiasm
The title poem "Wild Earth" engages with an unusual form called the Lannet sonnet, which, by definition, thwarts the traditional rhyme scheme by having no end rhymes. As she waxes on the feral natural world in the first half of the poem, Hill brings us to the end of the second quintain:
waiting for a word of reason, for cause
launching the reader into the final quatrain:
for season, what would be the start or end,
between works of creation and of men.
Drinking in the dawn’s breath I embrace them;
Unlike Adam, I refuse to name them
Hill adds a variation to the variation here with an identical rhyme at the poem’s end.
Hill even includes a double sonnet and a couple of "Bowlesian" sonnets, which begin with the English structure, but use the rhyme scheme of the Italian form. My favorite of these is "G Pentatonic, Maine Pine," which documents and comments on the birth of a flute from a fallen pine tree,
The tree had died a good death—wind, not knife,
the most that we can ask for in this life…
It concludes with with emotional counsel addressed to the flute:
Sing now, flute, and set the sky alight
with joy, before the silent winter night
which reminds the reader to embrace the things that had "been trapped there all along…". "G Pentatonic, Main Pine" received the Lyric New England Prize of 2022.
In Wild Earth, Cindy Hill takes the reader on an exciting voyage of the sonnet, exploring its many mires and crevices, and she does so with such enthusiasm and gusto for formal poetry, which has been much maligned of late by advocates of free-verse only approaches. For those not aware of the almost endless multitude of sonnet variations in existence, the book includes a "List of Sonnets with Sonnet Type" on page 30. A welcome instruction to conclude a rare collection of solely formal poetry.
Cindy Ellen Hill is a writer, musician and obsessed gardener in Middlebury, Vermont. She has written extensively for Vermont Woman, Vermont Outdoors, VTDigger, and magazines, winning NENPA awards. She has published literary, environmental and science fiction short stories.
She is the author of two sonnet chapbooks, Wild Earth (Antrim Press 2021) and Elegy for the Trees (Kelsay Books 2022), and her poetry has appeared in Vermont Magazine, Vermont Life, Measure, The Lyric, and on National Public Radio. She is presently an MFA student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Find out more about Cindy Hill at https://www.cindyellenhill.com