Habitation: Collected Poems by Sam Hamill

Reviewed By

“Being alive is simply processing erotic data,” says Sam Hamill in an interview with Rebecca Seiferle in The Drunken Boat. Seiferle goes on to say, “his work makes a clear path in the snow.” And look here how deftly he portrays the universal eroticism-

your hair flooding out

in waves

around your face

As Hamill personally agrees, eroticism here isn’t the sexual, but the Universal constituencies that make life worth living, waiting for, romanticized and critiqued.

Stung by the brevity of his songs, I enter the long corridor of dying light. On entering, I reflect that maybe the only other person who can understand the pain of writing a good poem is a milkman–the processing of the grass, the labor of the blood to churn milk out of it and the hands of the milkman that witness the sore teats of the animal. Habitation is such a witness of Hamill’s mind. It is a feat of appropriate lyricism: faint, cold and clawing to the affections of reading. It is a fire that singes, mellows the hard crust of life, and makes favorable humus to sustain generations of thinkers. The portraiture of turbulence and calm in Habitation is indefatigable. The poems are epistolary and uncanny, they overpower and soften the stubbornness poets die of just for that moment of excess ego, that conflict between celebration and delirium.

His rejection of First Lady Laura Bush’s invitation to the Lincoln Hall poetry symposium over a protest against the ‘Shock and Awe’ war strategy over Iraq tells us he is what he is, fundamentally instinctive and brutally honest. His poem, “On the Third Anniversary of the Ongoing War in Iraq,” which is addressed to Hayden Carruth, informs us that poetry is an extrapolation beyond the known numbers. From W.B Yeats’ “Second Coming,” to “They Feed They Lion” by Philip Levine, the ferocity of such incantations transitions through sustenance to sublimity in Hamill’s collected works, with particular reference drawn to a poems like “Getting it Wrong Again”:

I

wanted

the power to save,

not civilization, but one small petal

from its blossom.

The most memorable poems are from the “Letter” series and “Songs”. The ones that will dwell in me forever are “Children of the Market Place,” “Body Count,” and “To Elisa Ortega,” which reminds me of Sachin Bhowmick’s “Monae Pore Rubi Roy,” an eclectic number for the 80’s Bengal. And of course, all is well that ends as promising and prolific as “Of Cascadia,” where Hamill surmises himself as “A poor poet, I studied war and love.”

Words like shadows, friends, mist, maple, breathing, bone, soul, loneliness are looked down upon by urban poets. samhamill-682x1024Such words are viewed as gooey and overtly sentimental. But like “a rose is a rose is a rose,” a shadow is a shadow is a shadow and hence deepening with every possible color that the eyes cannot see. A soul is cubism and therefore tangible. The mist, the maple, bones, breathing, Hamill’s allusion to Chinese meditative poems, loneliness, and emptiness are not one-dimensional. These are as absolute as new age experimentation in poetry.  The poems are swords of light sailing outrageously across the most abrupt of human consciousness.

To put it the Ferlinghetti way, Hamill’s poetry is “spreadeagled in the empty air/ of existence”. His works cruise through emptiness that beguiles, warn our irresolute ideas of beauty we gather from our surroundings, or from the very place of our living. “Splay your shadow,” if you can and then put a “Nootka rose” to compare the colors of these two different wounds. This can only happen in the works of this quintessential American poet, Sam Hamill. With Habitation, it is American poetry regained.

Escalante
for Edward Abbey

Dry. Dry.
Stone and this dry runt river.

You would think the wind
carved my mother
from this red-rock terrace:
strong bones
& all the weather in the world
in her eyes.

Ten thousand years
this runt river carved these lines.

Yet even now, deadly in August,
I find in a recess
lichens working their alchemy,
turning stone
to soil
to survive.

If Kenneth Rexroth were to write a blurb for ‘Habitation’, it could possibly be– There are poems/in this Habitation “more durable /than the configurations of heaven.” Habitation is the mastery of the void. And as depicted in the book’s cover image, Habitation is the Mushin.


Linda Ashok was one of the 25 feature poets selected by the Prakriti Foundation for The Hindu Lit for Life, 2014. She was selected for the 2015 Napa Valley Writer’s Workshop with Arthur Sze. Her recent works appear on the Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry, other press/publications can be found here. Linda is the Founder/Director of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts (rlpoetry.org). She tweets at @thebluelimit. More from this author →