May 24th, 2008
Review by Keith Woodruff
I miss the sea in Sam Hamill’s poetry these days, those wonderful poems of his earlier work; the solitude, the meditations on place, those poems in love with a place of sense as John Haines once wrote, inverting the familiar phrase. For instance, here is the opening section of A Lover’s Quarrel:
With these lines, we are not too far from the poems in Roethke's Far Fields and all their intensity of feeling and detailed language. All the gorgeous particulars. I come back to this and other earlier poems like Kah Tai Purgatorio, With the Gift of the Nootka Rose and September Sowing for light and air.
The book is divided in three parts, Eyes Wide Open, Lessons from Thieves and Measured by Stone.
In one poem, the lengthy Nine Gates, Hamill writes "May the poem bring / a little light / into a world of suffering." Plenty of the poems in this collection do bring light, but plenty also sink under the weight of politics. The Iraq war, all wars, vampire corporations. Our murderous government. Hamill's outrage and contempt are well-placed and on target but again and again the poems that take up this subject matter are washed out and weakened by rhetoric and the tone of agitation. The language is flat. Catch phrases are used and reused.
Clichés like "history written / writ in blood" are musty enough, but when used in consecutive poems alongside numerous references to "empires made of sand," I start hearing Anderson Cooper in my ear. As a result, the voice in such poems comes across as reportage or commentary. From his introduction of his collection The River Returns, Roberto Sosa asks "how best to combine poetry and politics, craft and commitment" into what he calls the "artistry of dissent." In Hamill's political poems, I find too much bullhorn, too much protest without the poetry, accusation without art. I would point to Treblinka Lights, Conscientious Objection and Dresden Cattle from Hamill's earlier poetry as examples of the "artistry of dissent."
Hamill's style is often praised for its deceptive simplicity, its plain spoken elegance. However, in many of the poems, I find myself wanting a little more music, a little more metaphor. Too many prosy passages like the following make quite a few of the poems sound more like chat than poetry.
And so forth for another fifteen or so lines. I compare those lines with these from Canto Amor:
Sentimentality gets the better of quite a few poems as well. Like the poem With Ilaria and Francesca in Piacenza quoted above, which shows us the "tear in an old man's eye," the poem Mountain, an elegy for Denise Levertov, is also a bit mushy.
With all the crackling, wrinkling and twinkling, it is hard not to picture Levertov as some kind of fairy godmother.
Hamill blends a lot of wonderful echoes here: Issa's heartbreaking "and yet, and yet," a little of the anger in Roethke's Geranium poem, and at the heart of it all, Ryokan's famous haiku:
Measured by Stone is not a book I will read over and over. Though, like Milosz is for Hamill, Hamill is for me "a totem, an icon, a teacher." His own poetry, especially up through Destination Zero, and the many poets he has held up through Copper Canyon Press, have been an endlessly rewarding source of inspiration and nourishment. If you want to know Sam Hamill's poetry (and you should), begin with Destination Zero. It contains his best work. And then, work your way back through all the poets he pays homage to: Rexroth, Rukeyser, Seferis, McGrath, Basho, Saigyo, Tu Fu...
Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.