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Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)
It is a pity that in conversations about poetry the word formal has become associated so exclusively with questions of rhyme and meter and design, while the outside world retains a use of the word that bears broader application. Conventionally, of course, formality indicates a style or protocol or, in its primary sense, a tone. Tone, by its very nature, conceals (or at least colors); it is absurd to refer to a tone of lucidity or candor. A formal tone, which incorporates a measure of discipline, distance, or restraint, creates particular complications, and the irony of Saskia Hamilton’s poetry rests in how her language, superficially clean and direct, navigates them so ably.
Hamilton’s Divide These makes great use of the common kind of formality. As the reader begins to determine the outlines of the narratives that undergird these poems, it becomes apparent that this formal tone finds its origin in the incomplete details of events or conditions that have somehow gone wrong, and which thus force the speaker to resist hysteria or overwhelming grief with severe discipline. Of course, these events gone wrong need not be spectacular or even unlikely, since much of what brings us distress is part and parcel of daily life. Consider “Year One,” from the first section of the book:
If the eyes move to the right: no.
If they stay in the center: yes.
The left is for listening because they sit
on the left side of the bed.
Only the eyes move. Someone
swabs her lips.
The first nurse is too cheerful.
The second does not know
how to speak to the speechless.
The third strokes her arm:
something settles down:
one lying, one sitting,
one in the doorway.
The inaugural year of the title indicates the beginning of an end, induced by stroke or accident or the simple depredations of age. Part of the formality here is clearly a matter of withholding: the speaker chooses to transmit only the most spartan details of what is, rather than an elaborated account of how whatever is came to be. Readers of Hamilton’s first collection, As for Dream, will recognize this approach, and will not be surprised to find Divide These as disciplined in its use of language. Hamilton’s writing has been called spare and delicate, but neither of these quite gets at the effect of her poems, which are delicate only in the way a suspension bridge is: neither is marked by unnecessary ornament or fragility, and it would be a mistake to regard either as anything other than rigorously tough. Yet despite this lack of gilding, Hamilton’s poems do not lack for pleasure. In “Precisions as to Place,” which constitutes the whole of the second section of the book, Hamilton writes:
The mouth of the anemone
opens in stone. The minister
who spoke of it shone
a little brightly in his robes,
he did not care
that there was something
cheap in the fabric, he
was neither cheap
nor expensive. The fathers
sat by the well in their suits.
That’s a lovely image, the anemone in stone, and an equally lovely sound, followed by the kind of wry comedy more frequently apparent in As for Dream. But this passage is about as close to whimsy as Hamilton gets in Divide These, which is a more fraught and fatal book than its predecessor. The longer poem of the second section participates in as equal a measure of anxiety as the poems of the first, though here Hamilton shifts the focus from the domestic to the civic. The persistent sense of a condition that must be abided makes it difficult to resist the impulse to complete the narratives suggested by these poems. What has happened here that requires such forbearance from the speaker? Some of the poems limited to home and garden lend themselves to the spectral threat of aged and infirm parents; others raise the terror of 9/11 and the difficulties of resuming or maintaining daily life in an environment commensurate with injury.
But while these interpretations are easy enough to indulge, the poems do not present themselves as puzzles to solve. The central concern of Divide These is not with specific events, because any one event that might demand a formal discipline to survive points finally to a set of conditions Hamilton clearly associates with the fundamentals of human conviction. For the poems themselves, the consistency of the restraint is sufficient to focus the reader’s concentration on what is immediately available, in much the same way a person endeavoring to maintain control will perhaps count his breaths or pay particular and deliberate notice to her surroundings. Along these lines, we encounter the poems of the book’s third section, such as “Storm”:
Across the street, the park.
The wind lifts. What withdraws.
The dog on the line strains to get on
The path hurries away.
And “Listen,” the poem immediately following:
The shaded window.
Voices from the garden rose
to the room and soon the green blanket
soothed you. The phone rang. A door
closed. No one turning
down the gravel path, no one
taking up the garden shears.
The primary risk here, and one that Hamilton imperfectly avoids, is that the poems’ cumulative effect will be too consistent a tone, too successful a restraint. In the third section particularly, the poems often leave the reader falling asleep in the middle of a lightning storm; the poet’s effort to restore rhythm and stability to an uncertain and jarring circumstance must pay equal allegiance to the methods of the struggle and the forces struggled against, and Hamilton errs too often toward the former at the expense of the latter. She also concludes the section by letting slip a bit of metaphysic—“Blessed is he who came into being / before he came into being”—which might have been better placed had its ken been distributed throughout. The line suggests the ritual of prayer, certainly, but Hamilton makes so uniform a case for all studied observation being equivalent in function to prayer that the more traditional kind, when it appears, seems redundant. These two lines adopt the weight of the whole section, and they collapse beneath it.
Nevertheless, the third part does introduce at greater length a device Hamilton employs in the book’s fourth, final, and fully effective section, one that successfully transmits a sense of urgency without capitulating to plot. “One by Two” is a long poem that is actually a long sentence plus a brief coda, a set of independent clauses set out mainly in couplets and tercets over 12 pages. Instead of deploying commas to create a stuttering sense of haste, Hamilton relies upon the colon to set the pace of the poem:
They cut the flax and lay it in a ditch
for weeks: it did not rot,
it softened in the water:
they beat and beat it, then
the men spun it, splitting their fingers
and then, in spring, the weaver came,
stayed a week, going
from farm to farm:
Considered alone, there’s no reason this description should require its own special punctuation. But look at what follows:
In one film, a man turns the page of a
in another film, a man turns the page
of a book: the director moved
from continent to continent, he worked
in translation, but the one image
did not change: the man breathing,
the page turning, the weight of
the paper in his hand:
There is no obvious relationship between these two abbreviated stanzas, other than their shared intimations of methodical labor. And it is the repeated use of the colon that allows Hamilton to reproduce the effect of, and also to meditate upon, this theme, and thereby to link the anxiety of the prior sections with the ritual formality of the book as a whole. This particular mark of punctuation suggests that what is to follow will offer a satisfactory elaboration of what precedes: Here, I’ll say something unclear, and this list will clarify it for you. But Hamilton subverts this expectation and, in so doing, creates the urgency that will require an accompanying restraint.
Divide These is a book about perpetually unrewarded efforts to secure peace, and if that implies an uncertainty, that is not the same thing as saying the book is or even requires a mystery. If it relied upon plot—upon details the revelation of which would realize expectations—then it would merely be a story delayed in its telling. But what concerns Hamilton is not the story of what happens, but the ways in which we seek and fail to shore ourselves against those stories’ consequences. In that sense, the wreck and ruination embedded in the daily, the epistemological pressure it applies, stands in for what occurs to the left of the colon’s promissory mark. And what we wish to occur to its right is clarification, or a cure. If all language is ritual, and ritual itself is a kind of spell to soothe the wildness of the world, then Divide These proposes both diagnosis and treatment, and wisely and patiently documents the paradox of how to live with the fatal affliction of doubt without ever fully submitting to the folly of believing in its perfect remedy.
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