On Habitation: Collected Poems by Sam Hamill

Robert Kostuck

Sandpoint, ID: Lost Horse Press, 2014. 604 pages. $25.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Wednesday morning, August 19, 1936, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered by the fascist militia in Granada, ostensibly for his Marxist sympathies. These sympathies aligned with his pacifist beliefs, which later focused on a political solution for the problems of modern Spain. Three-quarters of a century have passed. Sam Hamill’s poetry continues in a tradition established by Lorca’s abbreviated life and extensive oeuvre. Lorca’s early death was only the beginning of the life of his work; Hamill’s work will outlive him as an individual and represents his social context. A dead poet can become a living martyr; a living poet, a unique mirror honestly reflecting culture and society. When Hamill holds up his mirrors to show us ourselves, they are mirrors fashioned from his own rough, inimitable experience and—for want of a better word—philosophy.

This collection, originally and painstakingly assembled, typeset, printed, and published in individual volumes and journals over thirty-nine years, shows the sun-burnt wrinkles of a life well-lived and maintains a concrete immediacy—not an easy task in an overloaded literary world. The poems lack chronological provenance and the book is not divided into sections: an intriguing presentation of an oeuvre sans distracting addenda.

Written in free verse, these poems utilize internal rhyme and assonance, and reflect the author’s knowledge of classical Chinese poetry, which he has translated in previous volumes.

In an interview from 2006, Hamill said, “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.” Editor for the on-line anthologies Poets Against the War and Poets Against War, this collection gives proof to his statement. His gaze is balanced and steady and shifts easily between simply observing our natural world and the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from these observations.

The first autumn rains make a tomb of my house,
erasing bird, beast, and flower alike,
writing “emptiness” across a worn slate sky
of winter. Like an old wound that has healed
poorly and aches when the weather changes.
The recent dead remain with us, but
their voices can’t be distinguished from the cries
of those still dying. (“September Sowing”)

These pervasive reminders of the transience of life are the chilly darkness before sunrise, the omnipresent reminder that this bittersweet and often painful life is quite short. These poems subtly question the reader: Now, what are you going to do?

Ani Pema Chöndrön says the image of a pilgrim ascending a mountain as a metaphor for a spiritual path toward enlightenment is wrong. Instead, she says, we are going down the mountain, immersing ourselves in day-to-day existence and participating fully in the cultural and social lives to which we are born. Mr. Hamill follows this spiritual path. His work is informed by his knowledge of Mahāyāna Buddhism and a devotion to a Zen practice; a grounding in pacifism and stillness, and a complicit involvement with the world. Poetry, as Mr. Hamill says, cannot be apolitical; for the artist, social realism is a razor’s edge: few tread there, fewer still tread it well. The aesthetic and socially conscious poem is where small epiphanies resonate with the sheen of reality, where common experience is anything but commonplace:

Li Po looked up at a pale, thin moon
and raised his sake cup. Not much has changed.
Those who claim to know murder those
they call false prophets while science
improves their tools. There is death
in Jerusalem, frozen death among the homeless
all across the heartland. A president
is impeached, and the stock market rises.
Tibet is Chinese and the Makah want whales. (“Rising”)

A full-blown joie de vivre is also evident it these poems. Noticing the weather and changing seasons, sexual pleasures, friendship, travel and geography, a love of literature, admissions of failings and success: the acknowledgement of one’s humanity. The immediacy of the reflective poems belies the passage of time.

Huddled by our fire, my girl
and I read Rexroth and Lawrence
until the last noisy crow
brought nightfall on its wings,
then tequila and philosophy.
Our smoke rose in a plume
and disappeared. Our love,
our sadness. Her beautiful
country and its history. Her
slender body. Our desperation. (“Taos, 1958”)

 

Forty-two years ago, in the cold
pitch black of the hours before dawn,
I huddled in a cell in Fredonia, Arizona,
rolling cigarettes from a Bull Durham pouch,
locked up for the crime of being
fourteen and homeless. How many nights
did I watch the stars through that barred skylight? (“Plain Dumb Luck”)

The socially conscious artist does not exist in a twilit limbo, but participates in and guides the prevailing culture. Such art can be gritty and in-your-face, invariably contentious by its nature; or subtle, and therefore often overlooked or dismissed as lacking content or relevance. Either way the viewer/reader is necessarily a participant. The subtle artist can be more difficult to parse because the work demands time, patience, and introspection. Such art asks that we bring our own experiences to the work. Ecclesiastes teaches us that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” yet while our collective memory is short—vita brevis—our records of what has been may last forever—thus, ars longa.

The sea retreats; the sea swells.
We need the story that only
the going-forth can tell.
      We need the tale
that spins the spell that gives us
eyes to see.
Thus, we grope, talking to ourselves,
      unable to find
meaning in a growing darkness
wherein no meaning lies.

The heart sees far beyond the eyes.
This is no country for this old man.
I’ll not find Byzantium. (“Ars Poetica”)

With age, our short and awful lives become condensed into singular memories of good and bad, pluses and minuses, hope and despair—all acknowledged by the cynic and the realist alike. The cynic stops and points a finger; the realist sweeps an arm across the sky to indicate the myriad possible solutions. The realist writes from a still, intimate point which encompasses the known world. This is not the only way to tell the story, but it is the most difficult and the most rewarding—for the writer and for the reader.

Mr. Hamill’s poetry takes pride of place next to Lorca’s abbreviated life and extensive oeuvre. As pacifists, both poets are poignantly aware of how culture and history—rather than jingoistic nationalism—denote what we become and what we believe. In Habitation honesty and compassion are front and center—the poet, like the Zen teacher, shows us the many spiritual paths down the mountain and into the politically and intellectually charged zeitgeist.

Our hearts tell us to take the first step.

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