Book Review: A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind

A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind:
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton

Alfred Starr Hamilton,
Edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal.
Song Cave, 2013

reviewed by Mike Walker

A poet, perhaps more than any other type of artist, can toil in total obscurity. He doesn’t need a band or a pianist to back his singing; he doesn’t need a dance company or theatre; he doesn’t want for a gallery to show his work or even a local art supply store clerk to one day ask with a friendly smile what he’s painting with all those brushes he’s purchased. He can write, safe at home, for hours on end day after day, night by proverbial night, and no one may know. Thus, there are poets who are unknown their entire lives, by either personal design or despite their efforts to bring their work to publication. Either way, it is fully possible that decades could flow by before a poet’s work becomes known and yet he or she has been working devotedly as a poet. Such is next to impossible with someone in the performing arts, with the exception of perhaps a composer and is unlikely for most visual artists. It could happen in other genres of literature, true, but poetry seems most suited to this lonesome life.

Alfred Starr Hamilton is one such poet, a poet who worked in more or less isolation and produced a body of poetry that is only now becoming widely known. Granted, he did publish duing his lifetime (he died in 2005) and an anthology of his work at the time both published and unpublished came out as early as 1970, yet it wasn’t until this year with Song Cave’s publication of A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind that his work has found the benefit of the logistics of major publication to reach a wide readership in the United States and beyond. Hamilton is unique—certainly that can be claimed of any poet, but he really is: his poetry defies both today’s MFA hot-house environment and the rise of contemporary poetry of the 1960s when he began to publish. No one else was nor now is quite doing anything akin to his efforts—at least no one known. His poems are fits and starts, they have the type of juttering feel that the poems of teenagers—especially boys—often have where the writer becomes carried away with thought and at once is lost from his attention to the form and where it’s going. Hamilton asks many questions, offers few answers, visits multiple metaphors and yet never settles on any running motif for long. Yet, somehow, it all really works. His “January Gallery” is a good example:

Did you say today?
Did you say tomorrow
Or the next day, or the day afterwards?
Did you say a picture at a January Gallery?
Did you say a glass eye for your mirror
For a club foot for a clump of wintery woods?
For a little lavender that stares back at you
Today and tomorrow, and days afterwards.

The focus on time recalls something similar I found in the first poet who really captured my attention: my high school friend Terik Trout and his poems at age fourteen, where he’d write things like “four years from then two years ago” in a way that was half between a faux Olde English, kings-n-castles attempt at sounding serious and imposing and half towards some obscure suggestion of time-travel or bending the very being of time as we know it so that what is future and the past became the same geography. The attention to physical features and ailments is also a common thread in Hamilton’s poems: the club foot, the glass eye—these sundry asylum items of severe deformative or recompense from misfortune or injury fit well the rugged woe of the “outsider” poet, the man who writes both from within and without.

There is no doubt that Hamilton desired his work to be read: he had sent poem after poem to literary journals, especially to Epoch of Cornell University which eventually did publish his work. In later years following his death, The Boston Review and New York Times would even get into the act with articles offering high praise for Hamilton’s offbeat work. Even before that, within his lifetime, poets who were established enough to make their livings and careers off poetry were becoming fans of Hamilton and word of his work spread, if slowly and in the shadows, through American literary circles. I mention this because whenever Hamilton garners a review or critical article such as the present effort, his “outsider” status is played up to the grandest levels of despair: he may have not had much—in his later years he lived on a paltry sum of inherited money—and he did in his letters let on to being lonely, but his legacy was far from neglected and he knew that, too. I don’t think it mattered very much to him either way though: he wanted his work in print but over time just writing appears to have become more central to his efforts.

Once we thus free Hamilton to a degree from the chains of forlorn hope and look at his writing without setting it aside as the work of a man seperate from society, I do feel we can actually appreciate his efforts even more: It’s a coy turn to make a writer’s work about himself, but it’s also one that runs the danger of subtracting from Hamilton’s best poetry its own unique powers. If there is merit in Hamilton’s isolationism, it’s located in his deft ability to craft poetry that doesn’t care at all about outside impressions. Yes, he wanted it read—Emily Dickinson also wanted her own poems read, despite the mythos to the contrary about her own isolation—but Hamilton valued his external status for the lack of demand it allowed. The lack of demand for given output in certain terms, certain timing, certain sizing, certain anything. There were no given guidelines to follow, no ready exclusion criteria. 

To sting a centipede around

A pineapple bend, on a peach –
truth is
Studied on the breast – abysmally

This is from Hamilton’s poem “Tampa, Florida” and is representative of his way with language, his wonderful lack of respect for conventions of syntax, for one, and his lust for what language can accomplish when free of its obligation towards narrative. Isn’t that part of the purpose of poetry? To be free of narrative, at least of traditional narrative? Yet how much contemporary poetry tells the tale of the poet’s move into a new apartment, how his bike was stolen from outside the economics building at his college, or how his sister came to leave her husband? Hamilton’s poem really is about Tampa—I can say that with some authority having been raised in central Florida myself—but it tells no story, explains no premise, leads us down into no beach, via no path, devoid of any human move from here to there. No street, no mayor, no “this is here”. It’s static, yet fully dynamic as few poems are: when a person is mentioned it is “A picture of a tramp is being excruciated/Betwixt a splintered parked bent bench” thus not really letting on in full whether there is a tramp, a park bench, an actual “parked bent bench” or a picture thereof of any or none of the above. I think it’s great that we get these blurs of images, of icons, really, as if he had been forced to paint Tampa from afar for us—which perhaps he was. We mostly expect a writer to provide a dispatch from a location to inform us—he can tell us with authority of this place because not only was he there, but he wrote from there: the words in hand were fostered by a pen in the very locale described. But is a second-rate writer or busy journalist more adept to describe a place just by the virtue of being there than a first-rate dreamer is to craft a portrait of it in a few scant lines from a distance?

What’s charmingly interesting about Hamilton is how at once his poetry can, on one page, read like a laundry list of glances and notes that make little immediate sense yet comes together in a delightful if odd construct and on the very next page, his work can read like a pop song’s lyrics. Hamilton seems keenly interested in describing the smallest of details yet in a manner that repeats, truncates, then somehow repeats again these details and the necessary verbs and adverbs to rescue them from the black hole of suck they’d otherwise trip into without his help. He retains the base connection between between actual life and pop/folk memory. Take as an apt example:

were you ever a little reindeer
out in the rain
not a big rain
but a little rain
and the way was clear

and you had your umbrella with you
not too big an umbrella
but a little umbrella
and your name was Cinderella

On some level this is simply pleasing nonsense, isn’t it? The verse here represents faux observations that are not really (we can only assume) factual observations able to actually tell us about anything going on—almost like nursery nonsense verse of old. These are words that feel good to read together, to say aloud as they sit on the page together, they seem to beg to make sense together yet they don’t: their syntax is correct, of course, but their meaning is truncated, limited, by no obvious trajectory or larger scope of narrative.

“And your name was Cinderella”: That’s about the level of narrative Hamilton commonly seems to provide, yet it works more often than not. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton intends this, that nothing he offers is by way of accident, mental mischance, psychological disease or overly honest toil sadly misplaced in intent: too often in reviews and articles he’s made out to be someone to pity, someone who was so far from the mainstream, such a loner perhaps, that he must have gone a bit mad. I don’t buy it. I think he was laughing all the way to the bank, even if his pockets were empty when he got there. His poetry reveals a complex sense of wonder, a delight in how people work even though this is a delight he would rather cloak away from direct details of a human nature much of the time. Did people scare Hamilton off in social constructs—in typical social aspects? Maybe. Did they fascinate him? Most certainly. Animals, too, but mostly people it seems. Places, also, but still people foremost. People could be addressed, they could be actors, they could play someone else, they could be stand-ins, replicas, evolutions of themselves. All of this comes across here and there in Hamilton’s poems when we look for it.

Hamilton also found language itself to be a landscape able to deftly entice and wrap us up in its darker ways no matter our first intentions when borrowing it for our own devices and desires. That is very clear in how he approaches words, often skirting their more-positive or most-common meanings and digging up the less-decent aspects. He is not often openly morbid, but as in his line quoted above where he asked “did you say a glass eye for your mirror” he is adept at dragging out obscure items, odd nouns, things that are a bit Victorian, a little gothic, or simply unseemly for polite discourse. A glass eye . . . what an interesting article, that. A device that cannot do what an eye does, but only replaces how others see an eye—a cosmetic item unable to do what its original does but required to take care of “looks”, the very thing it should be able to do but cannot even attempt. And a mirror? Is it a mirror? It produces a gaze, it’s needed for vain reasons alone, right? We don’t speak of glass eyes—well, in part today because thankfully we have improved medical solutions to many problems glass eyes once were called upon to—if not remedy—cover up. Like the ear-trumpet long before it, the glass eye is an older device by virtue of high technology now on its way out, though sometimes still necessary. Moreover, we tend not to speak of something that is unfortunate, something of an injury or its repair. Outside of sailors in bars near their ports or doctors in the hospital’s hallways late at night, such things are not supposed to reach the level of conversation. Even now, even when horror movies can show every awful act and then some, even when the television news can speak frankly of rape and murder, the glass eye is a bit awkward, a little not-for-the-faint-of-heart. It’s a replica, it’s meant to replace, it can be removed and set below the bathroom mirror apart from its human, ready to scare the child who wanders past it as uncle sleeps at night.

The main core of Hamilton’s world appears to be quintessence: he is focused on what is most-apt, most-common, most-repeated, most-associated with certain words, places, or concepts. He can do this and divorce it from things or people that are specific because his concerns are often so general, yet he still locates the unique within the broad, the global. Most of his geography is American, but he is not chained to the regional or national on a topical level at all. He is not a Robert Frost or Lorine Niedecker. His poetry is not, overall, useful in providing nuanced introspection into a cohesive landscape or cultural geography. However, here and there just as in the poem regarding Tampa, Hamilton is able to tell us a lot about a place while really saying very little. His poems stand alone, as they do not pretend to any vast designs of narrative, yet they speak nearly as letters would, the same voice coming back once again to pick up where he left off—even if on a totally new topic. You still know who it is, you don’t need to read the envelope. Again, quintessence. On his own terms, Alfred Starr Hamilton has a view of the world and all its worldly designs long in mind and he’s keen to say a thing or two about it.

For a retrospective anthology of a poet’s work, I don’t think I could ask for much better than this. Hamilton’s poetry is unique, forthright, and engaging and the organization of it here is produced in a manner that makes you want to read the entire book in one fell swoop, not overlooking anything, in desire of more and more.


Filed under: Book Review, Mike Walker, Poetics, Prose