Habitation is Sam Hamill’s witness to a perverse, tumultuous and glorious world, and it ought to have been received upon its publication with respect and rejoicing for its importance to Anglophone letters.
These collected poems are Hamill’s witness to a blasting and triumphant life at which he has not blinked. Although he’s very much a poet of the American Northwest, he’s also, via his translations and experiences, a poet of the Far East. But his oeuvre doesn’t rest well in those categories. He often reminds us of the Stoics Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and Zeno, and of Catullus, the neoteric republican poet.
Hamill’s free-verse poems are testament to a slippery truth about free verse: practiced with integrity, it demands more discipline than rhymed and conventionally metered poetry. It requires improvisational meter unique to its original impulse, not impulse harnessed to preexistent form. It is poetry consumed by its first-heard music. It resembles jazz in this respect.
The poet’s choice of title is easily understood, but a strong argument could be made for Habitation as The Book of Awareness. Hamill is, above all else, the poet of awareness. The implications of this for him and his work are immense and sometimes unbearable. His witness makes him more an outlier than most poets, a man destined to look too hard and fixedly at the accommodations we make to fit in. And that is perhaps why he founded Copper Canyon Press with Tree Swensen in 1972, a press once synonymous with independence, excellence and a maverick streak.
Habitation has much to say to the small-talk editors of today. Its vernacular may at first glance suggest small talk, perhaps a misinterpretation of William Carlos Williams’s imagist ideals, but it’s anything but small talk, and that’s just the point. We often confuse lack of substance with plain speech, which may explain why country music is never considered by the press’s death-of-poetry dodos. Hamill has an unerring ear for what people are saying, for its musicality, its beautiful austerity.
His poems often remind me of my first encounter with the Southernism, not hardly. I was listening desultorily to a high-toned conversation in a newspaper composing room in the South when one of the speakers condescendingly asked a nearby compositor if he didn’t agree with the consensus. “Not hardly,” the dour compositor said. We became fast friends because he saw that I got the incredible breadth of that bon mot.
Hamill has this same disdain for pretense, for flourish, for much in fact associated not only with the academy but with in-group knowingness. It’s why the poems are so often breathtaking. Another crucial reason is his immunity to the received idea. He knows what he knows, he’s studied what he’s studied, but he’s not taking much for granted, even when it’s granted by a high hand.
Some poetry is redolent of a syllogistic circuitry, a logic that encloses the crux and does not encourage further consideration. But Hamill’s poems are, for the most part, rather like our Constitution, an arena for further exploration of issues raised. They tend to engage rather than shutting out the reader as some varnished poems do. That’s one of the virtues of free verse when plied well; it opens passageways that more conventional verse navigates with bravura but doesn’t invite readers in its train.
The Constitution comes to mind in another respect. The historian Joseph Ellis, whose elegant clarity resembles Hamill’s, thinks of the Constitution as unfinished business, ongoing, and it’s not a far fetch to think of the finest poetry a civilization can produce as unfinished business, which suggests why we return to it. Who, for example, can say that the vital concerns and longings we find in our fragments of Sappho’s poetry don’t speak directly to our own times? Poetry as finished business has not even archaeological import—we might as well let it lie in the oxygenless waters of a black sea.
Hamill’s sensibility is such that it leaves trail marks, a door ajar, a clue to a subject we’re bound to revisit. His shorter poems are sometimes like watching a skirt disappear behind a closing door. He’s not out to impress, he’s out to engage, even when his work is trenchantly elegiac, as:
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.
Some collected poems are arduous as a whole. We feel such a large dosage is contraindicated, but Habitation is an express train of a book. It doesn’t chug, it doesn’t falter, and there are few tunnels. The production values, design and editing of this book make it an alluring collectible.
Hamill’s sense of place is sublime. Here he begins the poem called “Port Townsend”:
Little dories bob helplessly at their moorings.
Islands rise and fall through the fog.
Old gulls stagger on their wings….
and ends it here:
There is little greed
and little crime.
And only winter is on time….
Hamill is immersed in Japanese and Chinese poetry and recently translated 300 ancient Chinese poems in Crossing The Yellow River. It’s not surprising, then, that Asian restraint should characterize his work. He lived on Okinawa as a young Marine. It’s the scene of one of the largest and bloodiest military engagements in history, and Hamill has had good reason over time to consider the clash of the culture whose uniform he wore with the culture he came to admire:
LAO TZU CALLED
for a grand return to Nature,
and he wandered, preaching wu wei.
Written music, he claimed, is artificial,
contrary to natural flow.
There’s a clue here to Hamill’s testament. Written poetry, he might be saying, is artificial; instead we must encourage it to flow from our actions and interactions. He says it in this poem in the middle of Habitation, as if he’s telling us: Read on, please do, but please remember there’s something more important, more important than me, you or anything we write—it’s how we live. He’s not preaching it. He never preaches. He’s qualifying his own poems, all poetry. Striving to write the poem is not as important as striving to be a poem.
But Hamill is also a man of the West. On the very next page he writes:
in Picasso’s ”Guernica,”
but no one heard, no one came.
Here, on pages 236-237, it strikes me that Hamill confronts the inevitable limitations of art, the reason some poets conclude that all poems fail the impulse to write them. But he find no reason to lament, no reason for remorse. It’s the endeavor that counts, that ennobles us.
composing Lycidas or imagining paradise—
imagine Milton struggling to achieve
”the music of not overly excited speech.”
Imagine Sam Hamill struggling to achieve the music of not overly excited speech, see him doing it here, bearing witness to a life of being aware, celebrating failure along with success, betrayal along with loyalty.
If Sam Hamill’s sense of place is sublime, his character studies are not unlike Lucien Freud’s portraiture or Andrea del Sarto’s red-and-black-chalk detail. Their chief characteristic is their exquisite mnemonics. The poet has posited his memories in the cornices of his memory palace and he calls them out like a conjuring flutist. He seems unaware of what may come until it situates itself on the page, and then he picks up the refrain. He tells us of May Empsey:
She married the cussedest man in town.
Papoose, they called her
as a child, and later simply
Poose until no one remembered her name.
Now an interesting thing happens in this poem, and in many of Hamill’s poems, especially the ones about people. We hear him think between the lines. How much do I want to tell them? he asks himself. How much is decent? How much telling can I live with? This is a rare moment in anybody’s poetry. We’re usually stuck with what the poet says. But Hamill finds ways to admit us to his unspoken sanctum. No hoopla here. If you’re not listening, just move on, but if you are listening you may hear what the poet had to say at the moment he stood on the brink of saying what he finally does say, and there’s not much poetry you can say has this mysterious crack in dimensions, this beckoning crack.
The poet continues in “Mae Empey”:
O handsome, strong
as her desperate land, she traded vows
with the only man
she knew she could not mend….
I think Hamill traded vows with a secret muse he could not mend, and that’s why his humility as a poet is his seal:
I came here nearly forty years ago,
broke and half broken, having chosen
the mud, the dirt road, elder pollen and
a hundred avenues of gray across the sky
to be my teachers and my muses.
I chose a temple made of words and made a vow.
So he begins the poem “Of Cascadia” at the end of his collected poems, ending with this couplet:
A poor poet, I studied war and love.
But Cascadia is what I’m of.
Sam Hamill is an important poet, editor and translator. To young poets struggling for admittance to real and imagined adyta he may have seemed, perhaps for having co-founded Copper Canyon Press, an insider, but he isn’t, and today he’s a well-recognized but nonetheless neglected poet whose neglect is a black mark on our contest-sore, commodifying literary scene.
— Djelloul Marbrook © 2016