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Border Songs
reviewed by Peter McDonald

Border Songs
Sam Hamill
Word Palace Press


If you want to know what not to read, visit your local Barnes & Noble poetry section and browse. Charitably one might want a few new doorstops, Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems comes to mind, and more recently, Louise Gluck’s gravestone-sized collected. Other than these, and some reissued classics, the rest of the shelf space is almost certainly filled with the endless MFA graduates who seem to have prize-winning collections each. On a cheerier note, a book you won’t find there, burning brighter by far, is Sam Hamill’s new collection of 22 mordant poems, Border Songs— out on Paul Lobo Portuges’ unassuming Word Palace Press. Now that’s something to crow about.

Hamill, of course, is a prodigious poet, with over forty books under his belt, including poetry, translations, essays and edited works. Indeed, a good many of the finest poets in the land owe him a debt of gratitude for his tireless years as founder and editor of Copper Canyon Press, and for publishing them. Who but Hamill had the ear to rescue Hayden Carruth from the oblivion of the New Directions remainder bin, or edit Rexroth so luminously in The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. His departure from CCP was a sad day for poetry.
Lucky for us, Border Songs is some of his finest work in years. The poems are by the whole short, some at a page, the longest, “Body Count” stands at four and a half. The work opens with a paean “To My Muse” in a voice anyone who knows this poet will be familiar with. It is tender, almost pleading, an overture to weary lamentation:

I’m no longer dazzled
by philologists
arguing the subtleties
of antiquities. I’m baffled
by poets who succeed.

No envy here, though literary success, at least measured by national book honors, has eluded Hamill, much as he has deserved them. Poets Against War may have put him squarely on the Bush-era zeitgeist, but it doubtless did little to shortlist him for any major literary prize you might mention. Partly because the man is nothing if not a contrarian, the poems in this slim book cry out with a poignancy and anguish at the madness of this world that write wrongs in the crosshairs of Hamill’s characteristic, if Buddhistic, wrath. Two poems in particular stand out as indictments, “Children of the Marketplace” and “Body Count” whose list of the dead and dying is like a Poundian incantation of iniquities: “We are Darfur. We are Medellin. / We are Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad.” One admires at once the strident cadence and honesty, but these two poems, in the end, are such a catalogue of injustice, one is tempted, quietly, to turn the page for a calmer quay.

Then suddenly, the clouds part, the scent of an Argentinian Malbec wafts up, and Hamill writes us a love poem of an evening in the city of Buenos Aires just months before his wife Gray died, a poem of such tenderness and lonely regret, that it is truly and stunningly a heartbreaker. For anyone who knew Gray Foster, an artist muse who died of cancer in 2012, “Another Love Song” is a sun-dappled eulogy of a life shared in struggle and consensual creativity. Here is a man still madly in love after so many years, sharing penury, and cheap wine, unstinting in his pained revelations.

It is almost solstice. In El Norte,
winter storms howl in the trees.
Friends have drained the pipes in our
Port Townsend house and prepared it
for a lengthy freeze. Here,
my wife and I return to find relief,
to heal a little from the assaults of age
that in the end no one can escape.

For a slim book, this is a work of a master craftsman. Like a tocsin, it calls us to a higher understanding of our frail place on this battered earth. A point of praise is due, and a few minor quibbles. The cover, a frame from a larger painting called “Farewell to Yin Shu” (after Li Po) by the inventive book artist Ian Boyden is both delightful and macabre, a skeleton drinking wine in a skiff upon coal black waters. But to publish a poet like Sam Hamill, arguably the finest hands-on letterpress printer of the last 25 years, to go to press with mistakes in editing and lazy typography. Really now. The title page, sadly, seems downright slapdash. And the title poem in the table of contents is mis-numbered as to page throwing the rest off too. These are unnecessary errors.

In the end, though, this wafer-thin book has something of the holy repast in it. A counterbalance on the scales of justice that extols us to act against the vile ignorance of the arrogant and the powerful, a light in the darkness, if you will, to those of us adrift on this pearl of a planet shattering even now in imbalance.

Peter McDonald is the Dean of Library Services, California State University, Fresno. He is a published poet, writer, and publisher most recently on “First Light: A Festschrift for Philip Levine on his 85th Birthday” published by Greenhouse Review Press (in collaboration with The Press at California State university Fresno). He is the director of the Fresno Poets Association.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #18