Even an empty corner, if painted by Rembrandt, can be filled with human feeling. Saskia Hamilton’s new book of poems, Corridor, reminds me of the Dutch painter. Whether touching on forests or train compartments, cemeteries or canals, books or conversations, Hamilton brings to each scene the life she carries in her, each poem another compartment we are allowed to see inside.
The opening poem, “Night-jar,” serves as an entryway to the collection, placing us in a dark wood wandering, as it were (the “Night-Jar” is a nocturnal bird):
Hawking for moths at dusk: the night-jar
in the fen near the worn stone markers
of the old bishopric: ceded
to sentries of the forest: thence their fall,
one by one: thence centuries under-
foot of branch and brush and peat. Near us,
but where, it’s gone: past the rides.
Hamilton is a realist, starkly so. You might even call her a minimalist; her poems are often short, their utterances brief and unindulgent. But “minimalist” hardly begins to describe the richness of this poem, syllable by syllable, line by line, beginning with the assonance of the first line (“hawking . . . moths . . . jar”) and the near-monosyllabic “in the fen near the worn stone markers” of the second. As the poet describes this natural world coexisting with the ruins of the “old bishopric,” her language moves to a more historical-poetical rhetoric (“sentries,” “thence,” “centuries”). The overlapping registers of language make us aware of the auditory present and the passage of lives and time, just as the imagery does—the elusive bird is both “near” the tombstones and “Near us” before “it’s gone.” There’s wit here, combined with resignation. The poem seems to touch on the venerable, crumbling tradition of poetry itself.
Hamilton’s are not poems that tell us how to be, but how things are (and become, and fall), and how one moves among them with a thoughtful, if elegiac, discernment. In “Spiral,” a surprise landing on one of life’s severe truths is offered as an aside in the midst of description told in loose blank verse that narrows as the poem unfolds:
Rows of pines, planted years ago—so many,
were you to count them on your fingers, you
would give up past a hundred span; and pain
doesn’t yet know about it, while lording
over all other feeling. I’ll explain these things
some day. In the meantime, rows
of pines, the quincunx pattern lost
in spirals and thickets of lesser branches
increasing their reach inexorably. . .
How much is expressed in the subtle craft here: the pines, those who planted the pines that have grown beyond their intentions, the poet’s sense of all that outlives us (the pines “can’t be counted on your fingers,” the “pattern lost”). —And the speaker of the poem commenting upon, feeling, as what we are told indicates, perhaps, one person protecting another from knowledge ( . . . I’ll explain these things/ some day.”).
Corridor exhibits a range of subjects and objects, some more detached than others, some almost, in fact, still lifes. The unassuming but striking, “Whorls by Bike-Lamp” makes use of imagism for its troubling message told almost entirely through juxtaposition:
It was snow on water
snow whitening the world
or vanished along the black walls
of the canal. Paint and mould.
A coot paddled towards
the discarded television.
The turn here is with “black walls of the canal”: Though the first two lines of the poem describe place beautified by nature (“snow whitening the world”) the last four alter that initial vision, showing a landscape in which “snow” and “coot paddling” coexist with paint, mould, and a “discarded television.” Hamilton’s placement of these objects in her poem prompts us to reflect upon a world in which such things have been given equal space, equal measure. Could a more outspoken poem, one with specific complaint, convey with such accuracy the sadness, and absurdity, of our changing environment?
Hamilton’s understatement—her measured working through of experience, memory, and idea—precludes melodrama, and encourages a deep attentiveness so as not to miss the tones of meaning. One of the most affecting poems is “Compass”:
Occluded, the hours with you,
as we wait the arrival of an answer
that is too big to voice. Should your desk
face the wall or the window? Does the mind
go there when you’re not there, when you’re
not working at all but travelling again,
on the ferry, on the train, in the motor
driving up to the other house.
That question without a question mark at the end of the poem emphasizes, with a sort of piercing quietude, the “other house,” that the “you” is “driving up to”—a “you” the speaker seems to miss. The exact story here is not revealed, and that doesn’t matter to the human truths of the poem, its calling up from me, as reader, a sense of distance and loss. It moves me more than a direct statement could. The title of “Compass” is also telling; it implies renaming the instrument for direction. The experience of the speaker, as she considers “where” the you is, as well as the poem itself, become a compass.
Corridor is well-titled: doorways, portals, rooms, and trains appear, literally and figuratively, providing opportunities to glimpse, and to turn one’s perspective, one’s thought in another direction, for another view. This means we get glimpses into things we might not have imagined. In “An Essay on Perspective,” the speaker begins her ten line poem with the witty yet sensual, “I wanted to read an essay in his wrist,” and continues with what appears to be a scene of love unfolding between two people. The two in the poem come to the “true but unlikely moment” when
only one of us has to make a move
for our troubles to be told and halved.
I find it remarkable how the words and sounds here are paired: “One of us” rings with “troubles” which also rings with “told and halved.” It’s as if the “troubles” are literally divided into two in the poem, the language enacting the human moment.
With such intricately knowledgeable poems, it’s worth nothing that both the speakers and the people in the poems are aware of a potential for pretension and tend to undercut it. “Superlatives aside,/diction is telling” says the speaker in “Disuse,” which begins with perhaps my favorite line of poetry this year:
Without you is within all utterance
(though I don’t like to say so, nor do I
much like the word).
. . . . . .
“Without you is within all utterance,” is such a tautly resonant line of English it might have been taken from Shakespeare or Dickinson—then the poem moves on to (and through) contemporary utterance. Hamilton has the rare ability to modulate from lyrical to idiomatic with a believable and unembarrassing grace. I also can’t help but hear wry allusions to, and echoes of, other American poets; Elizabeth Bishop, for example. Or Wallace Stevens, in the poem “Thaon” (a town in Normandy) which features another bird:
The bird’s call seems to turn though it is
still in its bracken. Its round eye, somewhere
in there, takes in the dark
under the blackening
canopy of branches. Reversal, portal.
Reminiscent of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Hamilton’s lines disclose the bird’s eye not only moving (“the only moving thing/is the eye of the blackbird”), but, more complexly, absorbing. Nature is complicit in its detachments from us; as much as we pay attention to it, its “round eye, somewhere,” is not just a “reversal,” with that word’s implication of mutually dependent opposites—but a “portal,” if we but would, or could, go inside.
“Inroads,” reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Arrival at Santos,” in which a literal journey and an emotional one correspond. The poem begins “This is a small country, he said,/there are too many trains.” As the journey continues
The moss encroached on trees, giant beech,
slender beech, old leaves encroached,
ivy and holly joined in dominion,
one birch marked itself, another
signaled from afar, leaves in ruts,
leaves in ditches, ditchwater and water
on the path that leads either
out of the forest or farther within.
Separating that last line from the winding, textured lines that come before it serves to single it out for dual resonance, just as Bishop’s “We are heading for the interior,” does at the end of her poem.
I have focused on poems that touch on nature for much of this review, but the book is filled with a variety of scenes, rooms, compartments, objects. “Once,” consisting of one sentence, ends with an unusual circle: a record people are listening to. This archaic object, the record album, has been worked with Donne-like wit into a metaphor of casual brilliance:
. . . the past was not our destiny,
the foreboding or foretelling was left
on the shelves to the longplaying records
we’d switch on for the warmth of the scratches
that pocked the music like rain, as the needle
wandered all that black circumference—
Other poems mention books; in “II to III,” a man reading books of Milton’s Paradise Lost experiences a coincidence of life and art. After reading the line “Accurst, and in a cursed hour he hies,” the man in Hamilton’s poem “laid the book down, felt himself falling/short.” It’s unclear if the man in the poem dies. But Hamilton describes the correspondence of his life’s “fall” (whatever that entails) with Satan’s in Paradise Lost:
. . . The shortness of breath was the hour
of reckoning, set by some keeper—the keeper
of inhalations—is it common, does everyone hear
like this? He was caught . . .
. . . . . . .
He shifts his weight and lies down, there in the leaves.
We are presented with coincidence, which may underscore an emphasis on this life, and on our own, inevitable physical fall, rather than a biblical one. Or, alternatively, the poet may just be showing us how life and reading oddly correspond. Or she may be leaving us in a thought thicket. And what about that great trope, “the keeper/ of inhalations”? A lesser poet would have strung the phrase up in lights. Here, it remains wry and unsettling, adding humor to the sad grandeur of Milton.
In “In the Corridor,” someone—a writer, a reader—who also collects “memoirs of the old poets,” ruminates:
. . . It is a painful mistaking,
this setting something down,
saying aloud “It is nothing, yet”
when he’d meant, not anything—
but then nothing peered
through the keyhole, nothing
took possession. . .
This person means to put “something” down, but “nothing” takes over in spite of that: nothing is the ultimate key to our stanzas and our rooms.
As I mentioned, doorways and portals appear in Corridor as literal and figurative passageways. Perhaps the book’s most objectively beautiful poem is “Faring” (which means, in the archaic sense, “to travel” forward, but also, of course, to do). Here are its first then lines:
A door opened on another room,
its own were ajar, white doors,
a figure removing into the shadow,
I thought I should call your name,
or learn what names you were called,
bearer of joists, bearer of metaphor,
you turning to the left, or the bereft,
the light nervous and uncertain
through the leaves of the birch,
the light precision of your glance . . .
How “ajar” the poem itself remains from line to line and stanza to stanza. Indeed, the entire poem works this way. There is no period, only commas (and a comma is a punctuation of the phrase that’s ajar; of a connected openness), until the poem’s touching last few lines:
should I ever learn your true name
I should know the house, the floor, the windows,
the doors before which I was allowed
to stand, as if ajar myself,
as if opened despite
where we were or were not to go—
“Faring” sounds like an elegy, for a belief, abstraction, deity, or person I do not know. But the subject of the poem’s address seems less important than the state of the speaker, who remains partly opened, “ajar myself.” To my mind, this poem describes what openness poetry allows us. “Faring” could be a poem about poetry itself.
“I passed through, I should have paused” says Hamilton in another poem (“In the Corridor”). There is much to be discovered in this collection, where tenderness and detachment, intimacy and distance, conversation and poetry thoughtfully coexist. In Corridor, Saskia Hamilton displays a breadth of historical, poetical, and linguistic awareness I rarely find. I want to read these poems again and again as I look at their resounding, narrow spaces for clues to the humanity there.