The wise, the warm and the
Yes, poetry saves lives. All wars begin at home within the warring self. ( On the Third Anniversary of the
Ongoing War in Iraq)
SAM Hamill’s political faith in poetry — as declamatory as Walt Whitman, as insistent as convict work songs — has added to his reputation in recent years. The war in Iraq had no sooner started than he refused an invitation to the White House, calling on poets to take a stand. The online movement Poets Against the War was the result, and Hamill has been its director since.
Before that he was mainly known as the founder of the influential Copper Canyon Press, and as a translator of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. His work from Basho and Issa is especially vital, a canny and clear bringing of the East into our ordinary speech and lives. His own work has been translated into a dozen languages. Measured by Stone is his 15th collection.
It is an evocative, elegiac book inhabited by the ghosts of Hamill’s friends, most of them poets. In fact, Hamill may be read as an echo of the best that has been written by the west coast poets since the 1950s. His poems work as conversations in the wisdom tradition: invitations for more talk, one more drink late at night before turning in and getting up early to sit on the meditation mat. Their appeal lies in the warmth of experience the poem has under its belt, along with its rootedness in the dissenting tradition.
His poems are also acutely solitary medita-
Measured by Stone By Sam Hamill Curbstone Press, 90pp, $ 13.95 Almost Paradise: New and Selected Poems and Translations By Sam Hamill Shambhala, 261pp, $ 33.95 The Blue Hour of the Day By Lorna Crozier McClelland & Stewart, 251pp, $ 22.99
tions, written with the wind blowing from the cold Pacific at night. Somewhere someone is untangling the heavy nets of desire beside a small fire at the edge of the sea. He works slowly, fingers bleeding, half thinking, half listening, knowing only that the sea makes him thirsty.
( The Nets)
Hamill is at his best when he hits on an image that grounds the poem in a habitat, and which implies the Buddhist tradition in which he is so well versed. The Nets is the first of his own poems in Almost Paradise , a good place to start with his life’s work.
Like an artful singer of the blues he knows just what not to say, although he says enough for us to know that as a boy he was beaten by an adoptive mother who lied to him and that, as a heroin- addicted youth, he was rescued by mentors such as poet Kenneth Rexroth ( whose work he has splendidly edited). Hamill’s anti- war stance is at one with his work with men in prison, just as his faith in poetry, his sense of poetry as an avocation, is offered as heart- work for the polis.
He writes of the need for gratitude and we should be grateful to him. The integrations of his poetic musings make him potent and important.
If the Pacific inhabits Hamill’s poetry, a vast space of another kind dwells in much acclaimed Canadian poet Lorna Crozier: the prairies of Saskatchewan, where she was brought up. She now lives in British Columbia and teaches at the University of Victoria, but in this selection from her eight books, the prairies speak. Wind turns back the sheets of the field. What needs to sleep, sleeps there. What needs to rest. The door has fallen from the moon. It floats in the slough, all knob and hinges. Now the moon’s so open anything can walk right through. Only the fox is travelling . . . Outside my mind, the wind is reckoning. Always there is something to figure out.
This is a wonderful book of figuring out. Crozier’s works are a long meditation on the interpenetrations of flesh and light. From her first collection, The Garden Going on Without Us ( 1985), to the most recent, Whetstone ( 2005), she seems to have known exactly what she wanted to say with regard to things invisible, the carnal ( her The Sex Lives of Vegetables and The Penis Poems are very witty), the lives of others, the mystery of creation. She is a poet of light without mysticism.
An earthy diction, the chiselled stanzas that ask to be read aloud, has made Crozier very popular in Canada. A gusto informs her laments. There is a power of tact, too. Even the poems about her wild, callous father have an inherent balance, as if some wise doctor of the prairies ( a Chekhov, perhaps) guides her hand.
Crozier’s deft, implied narratives put her in the company of her compatriot, the great short story writer Alice Munro. But most of all there is her confessional physicality; she brings her body into a poem in ways that are excruciating and redemptive.
( It Is Night)