May 24th, 2008

Review by Keith Woodruff

by Sam Hamill

Curbstone Press
321 Jackson Street
Willimantic, CT 06226
ISBN: 978-1-931896-40-5
90 pp., $13.95

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:

There are some to whom a place means nothing,
for whom the lazy zeroes
a goshawk carves across the sky
are nothing,
for whom a home is something one can buy.
I have long wanted to say,
just once before I die,
I am home

When I remember the sound of my true country,
I hear winds
high up in the evergreens, the soft snore
of surf, far off, on a wintry day,
the half-garbled song of finches
darting off through alder
on a summer day.
Lust does not
fatigue the soul, I say.  This wind,
these ever-
green trees, this little bird of the spirit--
this is the shape, the place of my desire.  I'm free
as a fish or a stone.

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.
Thumbing through Hamill's newest book, Measured by Stone, I felt I'd read it before. Like Dumb Luck and before that Gratitude, Measured by Stone is a mix of elegies, epistolary pieces and lyrical (sometimes) invective hurtled at our government. Enough so that it seems more like a continuation of the earlier books than anything new to Hamill's impressive body of work. I think of what Kaplinski says in memoir piece from Evening Brings Back Everything: "my poems often aren't poems; they're parts of a long declaration of love to the world, a long poetic list of people and things I love."

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.

The history of our humankind is dark, cold,
wrought and writ in bloodshed, ...
          (Awakening in Buenos Aires)
And history is written most often in blood.
          (Strolling Calle Florida)

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.

The girls I knew at such a tender age
Wanted no part of me. And now my daughter
Could, indeed, be their mother. They are beautiful
And intelligent, and happy to be kind ...
          (With Ilaria and Francesca in Piacenza)

And so forth for another fifteen or so lines. I compare those lines with these from Canto Amor:

We will cultivate
The white rose in June, in January,
And be the deer that listens,
Seeking refuge on the mountain,
Wistful and hopeful,
Dreaming an opal sea.

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.

… Her laughter crackled
when she wrinkled her nose, squinted ...
… And she giggled,
taking Gray's hand with a grand
conspiratorial twinkle,
about to tell a secret.

With all the crackling, wrinkling and twinkling, it is hard not to picture Levertov as some kind of fairy godmother.
Among the better poems in Measured by Stone, I would list Poem on his Sixty-Third Birthday, A Word in Farsi, Vigilance and Lessons from Thieves, a numbered tanka sequence that opens with the following:

Someone has stolen my orchid--
nothing left but a circle
of emptiness in the dust.
Alas, Alas, goddammit.
I loved that flower too much.

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:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

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...



Keith Woodruff is a 1995 Graduate of Purdue's MA Creative Writing Program. His work has appeared in Tar River Poetry, Modern Haiku, Mayfly, Zone 3, Bottle Rockets, The Panhandler, Frogpond, Big Sky: the Red Moon Anthology, Snapshots and Poetry East.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.