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Saturday, September 22nd, 2007
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Measured by Stone

by Sam Hamill

A review by Chris Faatz

Sam Hamill has -- or has had -- fingers in more pies than I can count. He's not only a poet and essayist, but he's a translator (roughly two dozen volumes), an activist (founder of Poets Against the War), and the founding editor of the legendary Copper Canyon Press, one of the most highly esteemed publishers in the country. His new book, Measured by Stone is, in many ways, both the culmination of his career, and the dawn of greater things to come.

Hamill hasn't had an easy time of it. Homelessness, addiction to heroin, and a stint in the Marine Corps all play a role in his past. But so does sitting at the knee of Kenneth Rexroth, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and developing an early interest in Zen and Asian poetry.

In fact, Rexroth was key: he is Hamill's master. Much of Hamill's early work was, consciously or not, modeled after Rexroth's; it struck the reader as derivative, thoroughly soaked with the voice of the great man. More recently, Hamill clearly struggled to come into his own, with ever increasing success. And, at last, in Measured by Stone, he has come round and found his own true voice.

And what a voice it is! There have been hints and promises and premonitions in his work for years, but the real deal just simply outdoes everything that's come before it. Don't get me wrong: Rexroth's still there, and so are the T'ang Dynasty poets Du Fu and Li Bai, but Hamill's voice, lovingly entwined with all of his influences, enters the great river of poetry as something strong and visionary, deeply committed, ironic, angry, and even, at times, slightly melancholic.

Hamill models himself after a Zen or Taoist wandering hermit, stumbling along from encounter to encounter in his life, consciously acting to make it better. Not "it" as in his life alone, but "it" as in all things, in the sense that "it" represents the interconnection of all being. And, in Hamill's poetry, that understanding is key: he is an heir to a tradition that values our connections, and tries to act in recognition of the responsibilities that lie in those connections.

I must have read this book, or parts of this book, ten times. But, let me rush right out and say that this was pure joy. Measured by Stone is a varied selection of poems, many of which are congruent with the tortured political period that we're going through right now in this country and internationally. But, the poems are much deeper than politics alone. They blend shadow and light, friendship and memory, history and yearning, anger, betrayal, and hope in a way that makes them eminently, even compulsively readable. As Hamill writes:

Poetry is a
perfectly natural thing.
Some grows Sequoia-like,
taking forever to
become magisterial.

Some poems blossom
beautifully, only to fall
and be blown away
like cicada wings in the
pale, solemn dust of August.

A language is born,
a language dies. A culture,
a continent, or
a dream. Poetry is just
a moment when things appear

Exactly as they
are -- a rotting pear with bees
humming in nectar,
the exaltations of the
ever-industrial fly.

And you? And me? Don't
make me laugh. Our agonies
and our ecstasies
are no greater than a flea's.
What should one aspire to be?

The poem invents
its world -- Basho's frog captured
forever airborne,
frog and mind and foreknowledge,
in the moment before sound.

In his translation of the Tao Te Ching, Hamill writes that "great perfection may appear imperfect/but its usefulness is inexhaustible." This is an inexhaustible book. May it reward you through a lifetime of readings.

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