When I was in grad school I became obsessed with sonnets, and once wrote a paper analyzing the ways that this week’s poem adheres to and departs from the traditional form. Robin Becker’s “The New Egypt” follows sonnet tradition in having 14 lines, a turn, and internal logic. On the other hand, its meter is not regular, choosing instead to follow the rhythms of colloquial speech. It also steers clear of end rhyme, accumulating sound in other ways. One is by using consonance, repeating the initial consonant sounds of words like “drive” and “drag.” Another is by using parallel syntax, as in “from his father” and “from my father.” Finally, the lines are rich with internal assonance and near-rhymes like “believe,” “slave,” and “drive.” My favorite is line 2’s “outwit fate”—a marvelous stacking up of three stressed slant rhymes.

Traditional sonnets contain a turn, or change, called a “volta.” The setting might change, or the speaker, or the subject, or, as in this poem, the speaker’s attitude toward her subject. Petrarchan sonnets turn in or after the eighth line, and Elizabethan sonnets turn in or before the closing couplet. “The New Egypt” makes turns in tone in both places. Lines 1 to 8 reveal the speaker’s wry skepticism toward her father’s convictions, notching up to a more pained resentment in “To conform, I disguise myself.” But at the end of line 8, the word “ponder” shifts the tone into something more wistful and vulnerable, followed by a surprisingly sensual description of the internal workings of a lawn mower: “the silky oil, the plastic casing, the choke.” This is indeed a pivot point, for when the speaker next discusses what she has learned from her father, it is with quiet respect: “From my father, I learned the dignity/ of exile.” Line 13’s image of an orange tree executes a kind of double turn, transporting readers from suburban America to a desert in the Middle East and presaging a last shift in the tone to the triumphant “irrigate, irrigate, irrigate” that celebrates the tenacity and survival of an entire nation.

Many sonnets address conventional subjects, with love being the perennial favorite. Becker’s subject—property acquisition and its relation to ideas of family and homeland—is an unconventional and powerfully moving choice, proving again what I learned from my own study of sonnets: the infinite elasticity and enduring vitality of the form.

                                       —Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


The New Egypt

I think of my father who believes
A Jew can out-wit fate by owning land.
Slave to property now, I mow
and mow, my destiny the new Egypt.
From his father, the tailor, he learned not
to rent but to own; to borrow to buy.
To conform, I disguise myself and drag
the mower into the drive, where I ponder
the silky oil, the plastic casing, the choke.
From my father, I learned the dignity
of exile and the fire of acquisition,
not to live in places lightly, but to plant
the self like an orange tree in the desert
and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.


“The New Egypt,” from Domain of Perfect Affection, by Robin Becker, c. 2006. All Rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

imageLiberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published five books in the Pitt Poetry Series, most recently Tiger Heron, in 2014. Her previous collections with Pitt include Giacometti’s Dog, All-American Girl, The Horse Fair, and Domain of Perfect Affection. All-American Girl won the 1996 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. Becker writes the poetry column “Field Notes” for the Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as Contributing and Poetry Editor. During the 2010-2011 academic year, she served as the Penn State Laureate, traveling to 14 commonwealth campuses to meet with students and faculty, visit classes, and give public readings from her work.

Becker has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Institute at Harvard. In 2000, she won the Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching from Penn State University; in 2007, Penn State awarded her the Shields Prize for mentoring of women students. Becker has served as final judge for poetry competitions including the John Ciardi Prize, New Letters Poetry Prize, the Benjamin Saltman Book Award, the Prairie Schooner Book Award, Idaho Prize, and, in 2015, the PEN New England Award for Poetry.

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  • ellensue spicer-jacobson May 5, 2015 at 10:11 am

    I met Robin Becker when I lived in state College. So glad to see her wonderful poetry here in WVFC.