Collected Poems by Sam Hamill
|Lost Horse Press, 2014
Sam Hamill has had a long and diverse career as a poet, publisher, editor, and translator—his work as a translator of poetry from ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Greek alone would place him in a rare arena of those who have contributed greatly to expanding our literary sphere over recent decades. As a poet, he has explored the physical and culture landscape of the American Northwest in a way few others have, bringing to his efforts an uncanny eye for not only detail but for what the Japanese in their complex program of traditional aesthetics call “mono no aware,” a concept with no direct analog in English or most European languages, but one centered on the idea that nothing lasts forever. This is a key and intriguing concept for those from any Western tradition: while much of Western religion and culture trumpets the benefit of the eternal, mono no aware is based in the sense of mujo, or the lack of lasting in most things, whether natural or man-made. It is undoubtedly a concept Hamill would be well aware of via his work in Japanese literature, but it is one he seems to locate in the most organic of senses within his explorations of the Pacific Northwest as well. Topical poetry that in the hands of someone else, no matter how gifted, would come across as tragic (in all meanings of the term) becomes something more in Hamill’s approach; he can concern himself with a fire that consumed a skid-row hotel and the effect is completely different from what one would expect, not centered in pathos nor condemnation but in the mujo understanding of how easily things can dissolve—how easily lives, how easily structures, how easily cultures, all may find themselves in ruins, in ashes.
This collection offers something of Hamill’s work that is essential, which is the ability to approach it in a vast anthology. Many of his poems work very well alone or in a multi-author collection, to be sure, but here one is able to get a real feel for the poet, despite Hamill not being an easy man to read in any regard. His poetry is approachable, inviting even, but it can be difficult, it can demand that you read one long poem and then five more to really place that first one where it belongs and garner its full worth. This task is possible with a collection such as Habitation. Poems such as “In the Company of Men” can be approached fully on the beauty of their language or on the separate if connected beauty of their descriptions of natural habitats, but they deserve further inclusion in the scope of work that Hamill seamlessly makes at once autobiographical yet isolated from the poet. Hamill has taught in prisons, an experience that expectedly carries over into his poems, but he doesn’t treat this experience as do many other writers who have taught in prisons, inner-city schools, or other institutions thought to be challenging. In poems such as “The Egg” he is able to write about his father in similar terms, able to talk about memories and experiences in a subdued manner that doesn’t demand attention but instead invites the reader to consider everything on their own terms. However personal his poetry becomes, Hamill retains a deft ability to take a step back at almost all instances, a skill I feel he probably learned as a translator of poetry and perhaps one of the greatest skills we who translate from other languages pick up in our work.
In “Requiem,” one of the longer poems collected here and one dedicated to Kenneth Rexroth (an ambitious and daunting dedication if ever there has been one), Hamill is able to unite much of what we see now and then in his shorter poems, these references to landscape and the muted colors of the Northwest, these inclusions of man’s hand on that landscape in references to things like new houses with their indoor plumbing, this overall stretch to be inclusive yet retain a light hand, as if the words he’s using are only replicas for the meanings of those words—and how acute that truth is when using those words in critical situations. Anyone who knows of the ways in which both Chinese and Japanese replicate meaning in a character, how meaning is built into language like blocks more than in any extant Indo-European language, will see at once where Hamill is coming from, why he knows of the merit in treading lightly.
Nobody knows what love is. Nobody understands the past.
This is from “The Cartographer’s Wedding,” a shorter yet very powerful poem. It’s a line that could just as well be in a torch song or heavy metal rocker from the later 1980s—it’s not exceptional and is in fact expected, trite even, when it stands alone. But in the context of the title, the idea the map-maker is getting married and there is no map for the territory ahead, the idea that folly is basic to love yet the world is vacant without love, that the past is unable to inform despite being the entire reason for a wedding—that tradition cannot serve well the best service it should provide us. All of this puts far more power and depth into this two-page poem than we could even hope, and it carries off its feat with flying colors. Mystics and oracles turn up commonly in Hamill’s poems and they take on the roles they’ve had since their early days in Greek theatre, the roles of soothsayers, of explaining the future, yet no one understands the past, how ironic, considering if there is anything that an oracle actually is good for, it is the legacy it brings forth from its tradition, especially its Greek tradition. The oracle, the mystics who see the planets align, the Three Weird Sisters—all of them really are adept at telling of the past, not the future. The languages Hamill has built his translator’s career around are languages steeped in tradition, ancient and of great value not only for their literary merits but their historical ones. When we come back to the fact that Hamill made so much of his career in the Northwest, we have to contend with another truth: this region of the United States for decades was at once considered under-known, new, removed, remote, but also holding some of the oldest of Native American culture traditions and some of the most-ancient of geological ones. Therefore, the return to mystics, the return to the question of the past, the return to a timeline uncertain, lacking in accurate waypoints, devoid of constant stewardship and predicated on the mythical seems apt.
His joys were neither large nor many.
But they were precise.
In this, in speaking of an old Chinese poet “in the October of his life,” Hamill hones in on something often missing from like-minded poems: that sense of mono no aware, that sense of neither pity nor sorrow but of understanding and gain. A joy precise in a world lacking in certainty and exact joys is a prized thing, even if not great in size, worth, or number.
I have recently started watching an animé called Noragami; I wrote a thesis on architecture in Japanese animé and have long been concerned with the genre as a fan and critic alike, yet Noragami is different.Noragami’s plot tells of a “stray god”—a young god without worshipers or temples—and his regalia, or sword, he uses to slay demons and perform other feats. This sword is not forged of steel, but is the afterlife manifestation of a young teenage boy’s soul—of a soul that departed before its time. So, the animé which for all of its fantasy and cartoon humor actually follows many Shinto and Taoist traditions quite well, is built around the characters of a teenager who is a god without godship and his weapon, which is the soul of an even younger teen. I bring this up in the midst of reviewing Hamill’s poems to make a very clear point: the spiritual conception of Japanese religion and of the place of that religion even today in society is complex and of an outlook very different from Western faiths. While watching this animé and reading Hamill’s poems I kept seeing similar themes appear, often in subtle ways, but certainly present. What is regalia in America or the United Kingdom? It is the formal trappings of a king or university president or bishop. 式服 (Shikifuku) is not regalia, though it translates as such into English. Shikifuku could be a formal scepter of pomp and circumstance but it also, per Shinto beliefs, could be the manifestation of a soul as it is in Noragami with Yukine, the boy transmogrified into a sword. The Chinese in the Taoist tradition speak of the 神器, the fetishes, or holy weapons of the gods, which are of the very same idea. In Hamill’s work, we find though never fully explicated as such, a similar theme: the transient soul becomes etched in the service of others, its flaws their strengths, its immortality the tangible touch of physical world.
But I am dumb. Winter draws in its nets of silver.
The above is as random a line as I could pull out of one of Hamill’s poems, but I wanted it to be this random. I want an appreciation of his language even when separate from its context. This idea—the harmony the Japanese call wabi-sabi—of cohesion found in nature across the board from blade of grass to human life to forged sword (which, again, Noragami reminds us could even be made from an innocent soul) is central to how Hamill writes. It is for him a calling card, an invitation that allows entry into places most of us cannot go, into the response we need to allow at the ready in order to ask if there is evil in the world (this, a question in a poem asked and answered sublimely by Hamill). It is both blessing and curse of Hamill’s writing and his age that he has so many answers ready to his own questions, but overall it is a welcome aspect of his poetry. Also, as I’ve found expectedly with other older poets, there are ample tributes to peers, wishes for the departed, all those issues older people dwell upon that those of us in our youth do not, though as I write this I learned that an airline pilot in his late twenties probably crashed an airliner into a mountainside, taking his life and those of 149 others aboard. Perhaps we all need the somber face Hamill provides at times here, regardless of age.
“life after life after life goes by,” the poet said
When Hamill quotes others, it is oft like this: it is the warrant for his vocation, the reminder that he’s in the right line of business and is one of a long line of distinguished gentlemen plying this trade. He reminds us often, but never in a self-serving nor arrogant manner, of the role of poet in society. He again often turns to Chinese traditions, to places and points in the scope of time where poetry mattered more to society. Hamill is not aloof, but he realizes his own worth. He remarks in a poem of the value in getting poets to translate poetry—not a non-poet translator. He reminds us often, maybe even constantly, of his study of the Orient but he reminds us of such in the best way possible, by showing not saying, by providing a depth of understanding of what he writes. It was when I was watching Noragami and reading his poems and found the Zen aspects most not in those poems that speak of such on surface level, but in the poems that do not when I realized Hamill was, for lack of better term, for real. He was able and adept of bringing the core values we find in writing based in Taoism to life in cases where he was writing of Greece, or of Jesus. As life goes by, Hamill is fixed upon its trajectory. And also, we have to remember, Hamill has translated poetry from Greek—he is very aware of Greece as Greece when he writes of it, but he writes of it nearly as if it isn’t Greece but maybe Honshu as the specter of Asia has followed him to this topic, yet with beautiful, awesome, results.
Overall, Habitation is a greatly impressive collection, though at times due to its sheer volume it can at once overwhelm and depress. Part of my reaction in this manner is probably due to a difference in age and outlook I have from Hamill: I’ve noticed often that collected works by older poets have this effect on me. There’s too much emphasis on departed friends, on other poets they knew, on the wistful in general. It is hard for me, with my interests and approach to life, to connect with some of this though I understand how at their age and station it would be apt. Hamill can pull off tributes better than most though, due to the mono no aware sense you get from his poetry. He can write about loss or passing in a way that retains fully all necessary dignity. That said, many of these poems focus on the past, not the present nor the future, just as I complained of the soothsayers I mentioned when they appear in his work. Everything tells us about the past, and for the past, is not that an unfair share of the attention? When nature is the topic, Hamill is at his best. In “Malbolge: Prince William Sound” he offers us that view of nature we’d hope for in the best of poetry and still a very personal view. In “Blue Monody” he uses the same techniques but due to the personal-historical nature of the foci I find them less compelling, though no less astute and well-crafted.
There is no doubt as to the worth and the scope of the work collected in Habitation. Hamill’s career, despite his many and diverse accomplishments, is still under-known and perhaps this will be the volume to remedy that situation. There is repetition despite the diversity of poems and at times, if you’re reading much of the book at once, that can become tiresome. However, it’s a powerful and very intriguing collection and shines a light on Hamill’s many general talents as a writer, allowing not only an exploration of his poetry but via that poetry also insight into his work as a translator and what a rich background has allowed for these poems in the first place.