Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Almost Paradise

New and Selected Poems and Translations

Sam Hamill

Shambhala Press ($15.95)

by Christopher Luna

Sam Hamill's Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations is an inspiring collection that boldly insists poetry matters. Hamill possesses the tender voice of a compassionate soul, and the vivid imagery that he presents reveals a refreshing generosity of spirit. Here is a poet who believes that “a few words can change a life,” and who endeavors to prove this belief by tracking the enormous effect that it has had on both his understanding of human nature and his development as a poet.

The book begins with a selection of Hamill's translations, most notably of poets of Chinese and Japanese antiquity. Hamill renders these ancient texts in a contemporary American English that allows them to be accessible without sacrificing the wisdom of their sentiments. Many of the poems address the life of a writer; Lu Chi's “The Masterpiece,” for example, describes the constant struggle of the poet who seeks to create a lasting impression of this life:

Wanting every word to sing,
          every writer worries:
nothing is ever perfected;
          no poet can afford to become complacent.

We hear a jade bell's laughter
          and think it laughs at us.

For a poet, there is terror in the dust.

A selection from Issa's The Spring of My Life captures a parent's love as well as the profound loss that is felt when a child dies.

It is often said that the greatest pleasures result in the greatest misery. But why is it that my little child, who's had no chance to savor even half the world's pleasures—who should be green as new needles on the eternal pine—why should she be found on her deathbed, puffy with blisters raised by the despicable god of smallpox? How can I, her father, stand by and watch her fade away each day like a perfect flower suddenly ravaged by rain and mud?

Two or three days later, her blisters dried to scabs and fell off like dirt softened by melting snow. Encouraged, we made a tiny boat of straw and poured hot saké over it with a prayer and sent it floating downriver in hopes of placating the god of the pox. But our hope and efforts were useless and she grew weaker day by day. Finally, at midsummer, as the morning glory flowers were closing, her eyes closed forever.

Her mother clutched her cold body and wailed. I knew her heartbreak but also knew that tears were useless, that water under the bridge never returns, that scattered flowers are gone forever. And yet nothing I could do would cut the bonds of human love.

“A Lover's Quarrel,” the second of Hamill's own poems included in the collection, establishes two themes that recur throughout his work: a deep reverence for nature coupled with an acute awareness of human suffering. For example, “New Math” examines the etymology of “husband” and “wife,” then compares the union of two people to the cycle of growth and harvest:

We become the sum
of all we can give away.
The garden and the
gardeners, the soil and sun,
love and labor: all make one.

In “The Orchid Flower” Hamill ruminates upon the eponymous blossom, which remains “purely erotic” even “to a white- / haired craggy poet”; the poem ends with a moving scene in which the poet teases his wife, “who grows, yes, more beautiful / because one of us will die.” Hamill also demonstrates an ability to engage the poetry and mythology of the past, as in “Hellenic Triptych”:

it would be good to give one's life for the beautiful
if the beautiful would last. But the world
casts us out and it is impossible to touch anything
except one another. So we reach out when we can

for the outstretched hand of another,
knowing that when it is withdrawn...

Recently, Hamill has received attention for founding Poets Against the War and editing the volume of poems that resulted from his call for writers to post their anti-war poetry online. His own work addresses such issues quite effectively, exemplifying his belief that poetry has a role to play in stemming the tide of political violence. The lengthy poem “Blue Monody” is an epic meditation on warfare and the struggle for justice in which he successfully utilizes images of loneliness, his sense of poetic lineage, and his life in Port Townsend, Washington to declare that "we are not alone," despite the overwhelming endlessness of global conflict:

It is one thing to stand against murder,
and another to do without supper.
We stammer and cuss and blame one another.
The heavens continue to burn.

“The New York Poem” ponders how a poet might respond to a tragedy like 9/11, and asks whether our words have any effect at all. Not surprisingly, Hamill turned “to poetry, not prose” in an effort to understand the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center:

The last trace of blind rage fades

and a mute sadness settles in,
like dust, for the long, long haul. But if
I do not get up and sing,
if I do not get up and dance again,
the savages will win.

I'll kiss the sword that kills me if I must.

Many of the best poems in Almost Paradise celebrate the people in Hamill's life, including poets such as Gary Snyder, W.S. Merwin, Kenneth Rexroth, Olga Broumas, Adrienne Rich, and Denise Levertov. It soon becomes evident that one important aspect of Hamill's practice is expressing his gratitude for friends and teachers. In “To Adrienne Rich,” he thanks the poet for showing him “the deep sickness of men / of my grim generation.” Another poem dedicated to Hayden Carruth thanks Carruth for “doing / the real work of poetry” that showed Hamill how to open his heart. Here as elsewhere he rails against the commodification of art and implores his fellow writers to give their work away:

Fuck money. Fuck fame.
There are three worlds. In this one,
gratitude flows like honey.

The suffering world
brings about its own demise.
This world is neither
fair nor wise, but paradise
reveals itself in every line.

What finally, is love?
Willingness to face the end
without blinking? The
gift made--and given freely.
I bow to the poem, my friend.

Hamill returns again to the usefulness of poetry and reiterates how essential it is that it is not financially lucrative in the long poem that serves as the book's summation and crescendo, “Pisan Canto.” Part manifesto and part conversation with Ezra Pound, the poem chronicles Hamill's trip to Italy in search of some insight into Pound's genius and his madness. But there is also a journey of the mind, as Hamill invokes poets living and dead, and leaps from Spokane to Dante's Hell to New York to China to Iraq in his search for answers. Ultimately Hamill comes to accept a truth that we all must come to terms with, the realization that "The journey itself is home" and

the poem is a mystery, no matter
          how well crafted:
is a made thing
          that embodies nature.
And like Zen,
          the more we discuss it,
the further away...

Of course, acknowledging this paradox does not discourage the poet's desire to know. Almost Paradise is a book that will hold meaning for those who have made poetry their life, and who persist in their stubborn faith in its transformative powers.

          To believe in poetry
is to believe the heart can be opened,
          and in the commerce of the heart,
thrift is ruin.

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents