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Habitation: Sam Hamill Collected

Review by Charles Potts

Habitation: Collected Poems
Sam Hamill
Lost Horse Press, 2014

At six hundred pages, one poem after another, in some apparent approximation of chronological order, and with no section breaks or indication which if any of Hamill’s previous books the poems were collected from, or if they are published here for the first time, a reader is presented with a long string of consciousness that varies little and doesn’t present any requisite dynamic development. In fact the poet seems to be altogether too conscious of what he is writing with very little sense of the unconscious, mystical, musical breakthrough which gives poetry one of its essential qualities. It often feels as if one is reading the same poem over again.

Hamill’s frequent modus operandi is to begin a poem by setting a scene, often starkly realized and concrete in detail. The chief purpose of this scene making device, usually with the initial stanza or poetic paragraph is to create a backdrop for a pose. See the poet in his garden, on the beach, at a café, troubled by the nature of things and his position in them. When the going gets thin, he conjures up what he considers to be his poetic antecedents, Du Fu, George Seferis, Kenneth Rexroth, and several dozen others, more famous names than you’d care to hear recited. This name drop soup, the great poets of the past with Hamill mugging for the camera, is often all that the work contains. “Summer Rain” is a good example of this literary echo chamber:

Kotaro duly noted, his echo
Of Han Shan’s echo of Lao Tzu,
And hundreds of years between.

Without actually counting it is likely that somewhere between a third and forty-five percent of the poems follow this template.

There are several finely realized lyrics of brief duration: for example, “A Visitation,” “Nagasaki Horses,” “Black Marsh Eclogue,” “Cooking,” “The Goldfinch,” and “Of Cascadia.”

Late in his life and recently as the American empire began its senseless war on abstract nouns, terrorism and terrorists, Hamill became a worthy leader of poets against the war. His complaints about the fascist in the White House, George W. Bush, and the general slaughter don’t add up to enough convincing poetry. There is no sense of the pounding terror of Robert Duncan in Bending the Bow for instance and most of the opinions and sensations reported are ordinary and predictable. “Southern Stars” is the best of its kind and after reciting the names of some of Bush’s cabinet he writes:

Criminals are the authors of our history.
The worst of evils lies in their impunity.

Combining the anti-war motif with the scene setting as described above, there is an especially lengthy and forgettable treatise called “A Pisan Canto” where Ezra Pound plays the role of a leitmotif. To be evenhanded, this poem is quite similar to many of Pound’s Cantos: tedious, preachy, irrelevant. It is quaint to refer to Pound as “Old Ez.” Using the diminutive “Charlie” referring to Charles Olson is genuinely inappropriate.

Hamill frequently refers to himself as a fool, and either one has to take him literally or scoff at the false modesty. It is a literary conceit, a pose like many others. Fools are best left in the impoverished hands of the composers of bad country music. There are several attempts to associate the game of golf with Zen. I hope this isn’t true but I know nothing of golf that I haven’t read in newspapers and I quit suffering any Zen lack many decades ago after finishing D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts.

The work is riddled with clichés, endings are too frequently platitudinous, and if running onto Du Fu’s name on every seventh or eighth page is what you are looking for then this book is for you. There is a danger to Hamill of citing so often this great poet who has been his lifetime literary companion. An astute reader may likely turn to the aforesaid great poet and abandon the author.

Speaking of clichés, anybody reading this been recently “moved almost to tears”? Hamill has been, many times apparently. In “Lives of a Poet: Four Letters to Hayden Carruth,” we hear about “Wily Su Tung-p’o” and before that third letter is completed, “You, like Su Tung-p’o,/are a master, a wily/old fox…/” The wily fox has been a hackneyed reference at least since Aesop. Mentioning the names of many great poets doesn’t make the work they are named in great poetry. There are a lot of epistles here, a classical stance of the poem in the form of a letter. In fact the book commences with a letter to Han Shan, (not that he will ever receive it). Writing letters to or dedicating poems to some relatively famous poet (dead or alive), can be a feeble attempt to strengthen an otherwise unremarkable poem.

“Sheep to Slaughter” contains several of Hamill’s limitations in one place. It even begins with the word “Like” as if we were in a non-Heraclitian world where things were like one another and not distinct and worthy of notice on their own merits. And it occurs again in the poem. Charles Olson was correct to try to bat similes out of poetry as a “bird that comes down too easily.” Harry Shaw’s Dictionary of Literary Terms asserts that similes are essential to all poetry. I doubt it. There are several “or”s in this poem, a sure leak to let the air out of the poem’s penumbra. As if the poet was on a fishing trip, unable to decide on something to say and reverts to providing alternatives. Fatal. The last line of the poem doesn’t seem to bear any relation to what has preceded it, an empty platitude in place of a strong ending with a flourish. Like and or drain poems of force and focus.

“Destination Zero” may be the strongest work in the book. Certainly the emotional resonance in its second section is undeniable. A written close reading of this fifteen page poem in six sections would be valuable. The signifier is the mockingbird, mentioned many times, and “elemental emptiness within,” itself an echo of emptiness within and without from the previous poem titled simply “Abstract.” The opening tone is morose and dour. There is an amusing and accurate delineation of the Protestant churches and the banks: “Banks and churches cherish firstness,” Hamill writes. First Unitarian, First National, they are first to pick our pockets, first to mislead us to a non-existent heaven. “Lastness is my way,” Hamill says, repeating the lastness from a few lines previous. There is a useful repetition with development. The poet is finding his musical voice. He is in north Texas, Mulberry, Texas, with another mockingbird and the state bird of Texas, the Cardinal, but he emphasizes the mockingbird, and the coyote, who are to show him the way.
Section II is funereal, the burial of his adoptive mother, and his overwhelming “refuse to forget,” the lies she told him and the terror she put him through:

My name was Arthur Brown
when first she lied to me—
for my own good, she always said—
driving me “home”
from the orphanage
to see my father and my dog.
\“That’s not my father,
and that’s not my dog,” I cried
angry little three-year-old terrified
of the dark and the switch
their farm an alien land,
“and you can’t keep me here.”
and I tried to run away.

The poet’s voice of the terrified three-year-old sinks in.

Charles Potts is an American poet. He founded Litmus literary magazine and the Litmus publishing company, which published his friend Charles Bukowski's book “Poems written before jumping out of an 8 story window.” He lives in Walla Walla.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23