‘Poetry is the mathematics of writing,’ John Steinbeck observed, ‘and closely kin to music.’ If we accept Steinbeck’s analogy, then Anthony Etherin’s The Utu Sonnets is the poetic equivalent of the purest of pure mathematics. In previous publications such as his 2019 collection Stray Arts (and Other Inventions) Etherin has proved himself a master of constrained writing, pushing the boundaries of form in tightly crafted palindromes, exact anagrams and dazzlingly inventive sonnets. The seven sonnets presented here are his most constrained work to date.
Utu is the Sumerian Sun god, twin brother to Inanna who was the goddess of Beauty, Love and War. In these sonnets Utu and Inanna are accompanied by a host of other gods not only from Sumerian but also from Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies. Elegant line drawings of corresponding mythological symbols illustrate the text.
Etherin plays with words and constraints the way the ancient gods played with the worlds they inhabited. ‘By implementing an array of strict formal constraints,’ the poet writes in his afterword, ‘[the sonnets create] a nonsensical, hallucinatory lore, constructed from interwoven mythological scenes discernible only to the gods themselves.’
The constraints vary throughout the sequence. Every line in the opening poem ‘Osiris Bled’, which is Petrarchan in form, begins with the letter ‘o’:
Our Sun! Athena trembled Utu’s flame. Olympus wed a temple, wept a sea. Osiris bled beneath the spiral tree of Venus, where Inanna carved her name.
The remaining six sonnets are in the Shakespearean style and are constrained either by the number of letters in each word or by different types of palindrome. In addition, astonishingly, the poems are all perfect anagrams of each other (I checked this for the first and the last in the sequence and found, after much labour, that they were indeed anagrams. I decided to take Etherin’s word that this was also the case for the other five sonnets!)
Etherin is not only a poet but also a musician and there is an inherent musicality in these sonnets, which are all composed in iambic pentameter. Rhyme, consonance, assonance and alliteration are employed to intensify the sonic effects, as here in the opening and closing lines of ‘Below is Below’, a palindrome by word:
Go ever, spirits, and land auras where – below Ereshkigal, aside taboo – demise led Dionysus to declare infinity, in Aphrodite true. …. True Aphrodite, in infinity, declare, to Dionysus, led demise – taboo aside, Ereshkigal below (where auras land and spirits ever go).
Not surprisingly given the severity of the constraints, meaning is subservient to sound, form and language. Instead, we are treated to a sense of playfulness that is by turn awe-inspiring, mischievous and alluring – like the ancient gods themselves.
Anthony Etherin (2021) The Utu Sonnets 24 pp
Published by Penteract Press.
Posted on 3rd April 2021.