I think we’ve all heard sonnets called “small houses” before or “little rooms,” their shape commonly squat and uniform, containers for intense emotion. In Nikki Wallschlaeger’s second book, Crawlspace, her sonnets are cramped structures, passageways through a larger space that doesn’t quite see them, a structural choice that asks us to think about life lived within constraint. Crawlspace is made up of 40 sonnets, with a table of contents that starts at “Sonnet (1)” and ends at “Sonnet (55)” — the book has its own crawlspaces, poems redacted or erased or just hidden behind a door that we do not have access to. Some things are private, okay?
Each sonnet in Crawlspace is a little space of its own, self-contained, though there is a feeling of movement and a larger emotional narrative as we move through the book, a speaker that seems consistent from poem to poem. Wallschlaeger starts with 14-line sonnets that end in unrhymed couplets, and “Sonnet (23)” is the first that doesn’t end with this visual reminder of the form. Further along, we get doubled and tripled sonnets, 28 or 42 lines, sprawling across multiple pages but keeping the constraint of 14 lines per page. The last poem, “Sonnet (55),” is a sextupled sonnet, the longest in the book at 84 lines.
Much of Wallschlaeger’s language is sonically driven, making unexpected jumps across lines like “That hope is just another bloated moat / is worth the ringworm, is it really so cute / badass in a democracy when you rave / of the grand narrative Pomeranian flap.” Some language is straightforward and pointed: “it bothered me that she chose to end a book on disaster communities with an / epilogue listing her credentials as a distinguished scholar when most of the / book consisted of interviews and stories from the victims themselves.”
But I’ve started talking about form and movement here only as an entry point to think about Crawlspace holistically, to give you a sense of what you might look at if you read this book (and you should). Crawlspace is not just an exploration of what the modern sonnet might do — it’s a book that uses the sonnet as a framework to think about lives constrained by labor: labor in general, domestic labor, reproductive labor, Black labor, and in particular, the labor of Black women. What is a crawlspace if not the unacknowledged infrastructure of a larger house? What is white supremacy if not the unacknowledged infrastructure of the United States, and all the spaces within it where people of color are required to live?
The men who have touched me casually.
You grow, they grow, you grow, & they grow
as the number of flip-flops increases worldwide.
The horizon is personal, the horizon is a baggie.
Every bureaucratic wonk has a stash somewhere,
they place them over the heads of black schoolchildren,
demanding their first breath is one of hyperventilation.
There are many places in Crawlspace where Wallschlaeger makes it quite clear that the perspective we’re hearing is one of a Black woman in America, and “Sonnet (13)” is one where these inextricable layers of identity and experience coalesce: girlhood as public property, property increasing under capitalistic enterprise, and the claustrophobic way in which this country demands Black children behave. Even the horizon will get you. There is no way out. This point is emphasized later in lines like “you just learn how to live with sickness…you just learn how to survive with drought” and “I feel anxious space.” Only halfway through the book, lines like “You can only play with squirt guns / in the backyard never the front yard” are almost expected, a feeling that is echoed by the speaker in the very next line: “I may be saying the same thing again.” It’s that expectation that enacts exhaustion. “14 million blk folk / misdiagnosed not from medical / speculation but certainty that / we deserve this” are also exhausted. Dear America, “Greasy gangrene hamburger / wrapper of a country, you are incapable of sustaining a / relationship with anyone trying to move on their own.”
The only poem that doesn’t follow Wallschlaeger’s formal rules is “Sonnet (48),” which stands out in its use of persona, and cuts off early on the last page. The speaker is clearly identified as “a hired slave maid,” a Black woman who literally gives her body to the “little white baby with / the crocodile eyes.” She speaks directly to the baby, saying, “I put more work in you / so you might as well be / mine.” Labor makes a complicated relationship between the two, and the poem ends with the speaker nursing the baby:
She trails off at a moment where the two are physically connected — this last line contains the only caesura in the book. The moment is private, undescribed, and in leaving it unspoken, Wallschlaeger gives the speaker a bit of room. How does it feel to be made to reproduce the very framework that constrains you? If you don’t know (and I, myself, don’t), then you won’t find out here. There’s no place for voyeurism within this book.
The emotional movement in Crawlspace is frustration, surface tension that presses against the edges of these sonnets. Our speaker is critical of the world around her, the world that builds and builds and withholds. In “Sonnet (35)”:
Day 2 of gratitude challenge.
I decide that the rowers are
laborers producing colon bags
of teamwork that state farms
cultivate as cheapie fertilizer,
I don’t find wisdom desirable.
Accrued by elevated slaughter
there is no ground just growth,
PT cruisers that nobody drives
through the middles of woeful
strip malls. At least you’d be
awake for the disease
In the context of Facebook memes that encourage us to post our daily thanks, even the creation of gratitude is rendered part of the capitalist economy. We’re all in charge of producing ever-more gratitude, working to produce emotions for others. We’re making “colon bags / of teamwork.” Under capitalism, “there is no ground just growth” and the level of sarcasm is biting. It all kind of explodes in “Sonnet (50),” beginning with “Everywhere brown people / are sad everywhere white / people are good” and ending with “sterilizations executions intoxications / sunless moonless nameless homeless.” Read this book for the inventive language and the formal play, but read it also for the thinking behind those choices, which is sharp and critical.
We end with a poem that calls for the end of restaurants, making pointed statement after pointed statement about wealth and lack and access, about connections between wealth and white supremacy, the tyrannies of city living and celebrity: “That I’m supposed to feel grateful you act grateful / while pouring me a tasty Malbec paired with moldy / cheese.” Most of these sentences start with the word “that,” which builds the same sort of repetitive exhaustion we’ve been experiencing all along, and which is no less exhausting here. Our speaker is tired of this. Aren’t you tired of this?
And yet: “By the glow of mycelium lakes who are connecting / the old-growth trees for shelter: We, as marked women transform / ourselves. We are the wood violets & roses stretching in the rain.” I keep returning to this line. Here in this book made up of tightly controlled sonnets, a constraint created within and upheld by the white European canon, in these hidden and forgotten spaces underneath the rotten floorboards of our democracy, language is blooming. Even under the intense pressure of white supremacy and capitalism, the networks of survival and transformation that Black women create, stems and roots and inexplicable thread-like systems, are reaching toward each other and holding up the world. Please read this book.