Poetry is an art of play and of rules. You can play by the rules, following inherited conventions of form and meter. And you can play with the rules, poking at them, tweaking them, even toppling them. Over the course of a poem, the rules that are supposed to govern play often become playthings themselves. There is a pleasure in obeying rules, fitting language perfectly to a given structure (a sonnet, an iamb), and there is a different sort of pleasure in breaking them: acknowledging an obligation by defying it, calling attention to an expectation by declining to fulfill it. Every poem is a negotiation between these competing pleasures, a tightrope balance of constraint and creativity, deference and defiance.
Megan Fernandes wields these dynamics to captivating effect in her new collection, I Do Everything I’m Told. These formally rigorous poems explore the complexities of love, desire, and intimacy, and the book’s title announces a submissive impulse that extends across many of the poems within. “I believe so much in being led,” muses the speaker of “Sagittarius,” who has proved susceptible to the magnetism of charming strangers. Being led, doing what you’re told—these are passive positions, performances of a mode of submission most often gendered feminine. “I do everything I’m told” might be the tagline of a submissive partner, sensitive to the whims of a beloved, but it could also be the catchphrase of a careful poet, obedient to the demands of language. Threading together the erotic and the aesthetic, the collection explores the relationship between submission and subversion, and floats the possibility that a posture of perfect submission—in a person or in a poem—can generate its own subversive power.
The final lines of the titular poem call attention to an underlying slipperiness that makes it difficult to neatly separate submission from subversion: “I do everything I’m told, and can’t tell / what is kink or worship or both.” “Kink” and “worship” of course carry opposing connotations, of deviant sexuality and religious devotion, respectively, b. But the line implies a striking symmetry between them. Kink and worship, the poem suggests, are two parallel ways of articulating desire, two available strategies for orienting oneself and inhabiting a role that promises pleasure and fulfillment. We imagine them as antithetical, but in practice they may prove indistinguishable in practice.
This strange symmetry emerges again in the second section of the book, titled “Sonnets of the False Beloveds with One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion.” This section contains a crown of sonnets, a poetic sequence that traditionally consists of seven interlocking poems. The last line of one sonnet provides the opening line of the next, and the final poem ends with the first line of the first poem, thereby closing the circle of the crown. This form has historically proved conducive to straight worship: John Donne famously deployed it in his sequence La Corona, a pious meditation on seven marquee moments in the life of Jesus. But Fernandes’s poems dazzle by demonstrating its suitability for something more like kink as well. The rules governing the crown form dictate a structure within which language can play. Per the requirements of the form, the fulcrum lines clearly link one sonnet to the next; however, each is slightly modified in its repetition. Thus the perennial appeal of forbidden love that concludes “Brooklyn Sonnet”—“I know how much you dig … someone who breaks a rule to love you”—gives way to the offbeat eros that opens “Los Angeles Sonnet”:
In love, the rules are meant to be broken.
In role-play and foreplay, I break character
and make things as unsexy as possible.
I’m the coy babysitter. You’re the dad.
I ask: How’s it going at the geophysical
In love, as in poetry, rules provide the scaffolding for play. But here, we see rules give way to role-play, and if rules are meant to be broken, what of our assigned roles? The laugh-aloud absurdity of this scene shows that it’ is possible to follow the rules so intently that you end up breaking them, playing your role so enthusiastically that you break character and “make a stage of every bit.”
These poems are often playful, but other moments in this section reveal with stark clarity the chilling power of language constrained. Each sonnet in the crown is paired with an erasure poem distilled from it; the text of the original poem provides the limiting condition for the subsequent erasure. The striking lines that conclude “Paris Sonnet” are breathtaking when subjected to this treatment:
That was the era of violence. And it was
over fast because you knew you were
an experiment. I am your goddamn slum
experiment, you laughed. Your criminal.
No. Just the cruelest person I have loved.
On the opposite side of the page, the sonnet infrastructure vanishes, and the erasure reads:
No the person I loved
From one page to the next, the crown partially dismantles itself as it proceeds, constructing an elaborate meditation on a relationship gone wrong and then stripping it for parts to reveal a glimpse of its brutal emotional core. Throughout this section, Fernandes hews closely enough to the prescriptions of the form to play by its rules, but in doing so, she also pries open space for the rules to play with the language.
The relationship between rules and play, romance and form, also shapes the memorably titled “Fuckboy Villanelle.” Here, Fernandes deploys a famously rigid verse form to reimagine the mythic legacy of Orpheus. Again, she plays by the rules: Aa traditional villanelle consists of five three-line stanzas capped off by a final quatrain; the first and third lines of the opening stanza repeat alternately in the stanzas that follow and then snap together at the end to form the final couplet of the quatrain. And she plays with the rules: We’ll have a refrain, but it will be exhausting, not stirring; there will be seduction, but it will be disappointing, not tantalizing. In the poem, Orpheus is cast as the original fuckboy, and the long-suffering Eurydice is overwhelmed and finally jaded by his lusty amours. This poem sees hot air where others have lusted after mesmerizing charm: Orpheus’s famed gift of music is deflated to a “dry, tired score / of notes,” “the same watery tune,” and by now Eurydice has “heard it all before.” by now. The refrains of a villanelle are traditionally supposed to function as sturdy anchoring points for the poem as a whole, but here, they work to a delightfully unanticipated end: exposing the repetitive circularity of the eternal fuckboy’s antics across time and space.
Parsing the contradictory dimensions of desire, the twinned pangs of longing and disappointment, the poems of I Do Everything I’m Told pursue an ever more perfect mode of submission. They emerge out of a submissive impulse that becomes subversive as it generates surprising revelations and releases unruly energies out of perfectly sculpted forms. Unfolding these insights, Fernandes’s erotic poems draw from familiar tropes, feeling out new possibilities in old forms.