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CHINOOK & CHANTERELLE
Fugitives
East & West
TRIAGE
WONDERLAND
BECAUSE YOU ASKED: A Book of Answers on the Art and Craft of the Writing Life
Habitation  
|
  Sam Hamill

ISBN 978-0-9911465-5-0    $25  /  $30 (Canada)    6 x 9   624 pp   SEPT 2014    Awards Poetry





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No one—I mean no one ever—has done the momentous work of presenting poetry better than Sam Hamill. His poetry is no less than essential.

—Hayden Carruth

When future generations want to know the truth of these times, they will turn to the words of Sam Hamill. This poet is a visionary—the kind of visionary who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. In his, ‘Ars Poetica,’ he writes: ‘We go down to the sea and set sail/ for a world beyond war, / knowing we will never find it./ We are not heroes./ We sail The Justice and The Mercy/ because these boats need rowing.’ In these poems of justice and mercy, with great clarity of thought and language, Sam Hamill defines a culture of conscience.

 —Martín Espada

Sam Hamill has reached the category of a National Treasure though I doubt he’d like the idea.

  —Jim Harrison

Sam Hamill is a writer unabashedly taking his place within the community of literature and the community of all sentient beings—his fidelity is to the magnificent truth of existence, and to its commensurate singing.

  —Jane Hirshfield

 The shape of Sam Hamill’s mind is the shape of both a revolutionary and a monk at work. His sacred text is poetry.

 —Terry Tempest Williams

samhamill

About the Author

Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill was born in 1943 and grew up on a Utah farm. He is Founding Editor of Copper Canyon Press and served as Editor there for thirty-two years. He taught in artist-in-residency programs in schools and prisons and worked with Domestic Violence programs. He directed the Port Townsend Writers Conference for nine years, and in 2003, founded Poets Against the War. He is the author of more than forty books, including celebrated translations from ancient Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Latin.

Awards

REVIEWS

 

On Habitation: Collected Poems by Sam Hamill

by Robert Kostuck

Sandpoint, ID: Lost Horse Press, 2014. 604 pages $25.00

Wednesday morning, August 19, 1936, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was murdered by the fascist militia in Granada, ostensibly for his Marxist sympathies. These sympathies aligned with his pacifist beliefs, which later focused on a political solution for the problems of modern Spain. Three-quarters of a century have passed. Sam Hamill’s poetry continues in a tradition established by Lorca’s abbreviated life and extensive oeuvre. Lorca’s early death was only the beginning of the life of his work; Hamill’s work will outlive him as an individual and represents his social context. A dead poet can become a living martyr; a living poet, a unique mirror honestly reflecting culture and society. When Hamill holds up his mirrors to show us ourselves, they are mirrors fashioned from his own rough, inimitable experience and—for want of a better word—philosophy.

This collection, originally and painstakingly assembled, typeset, printed, and published in individual volumes and journals over thirty-nine years, shows the sun-burnt wrinkles of a life well-lived and maintains a concrete immediacy—not an easy task in an overloaded literary world. The poems lack chronological provenance and the book is not divided into sections: an intriguing presentation of an oeuvre sans distracting addenda.

Written in free verse, these poems utilize internal rhyme and assonance, and reflect the author’s knowledge of classical Chinese poetry, which he has translated in previous volumes.

In an interview from 2006, Hamill said, “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.” Editor for the anthology Poets Against the War, this collection gives proof to his statement. His gaze is balanced and steady and shifts easily between simply observing our natural world and the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from these observations.

The first autumn rains make a tomb of my house,
erasing bird, beast, and flower alike,
writing “emptiness” across a worn slate sky
of winter. Like an old wound that has healed
poorly and aches when the weather changes.
The recent dead remain with us, but
their voices can’t be distinguished from the cries
of those still dying.
(“September Sowing”)

These pervasive reminders of the transience of life are the chilly darkness before sunrise, the omnipresent reminder that this bittersweet and often painful life is quite short. These poems subtly question the reader: Now, what are you going to do?

Ani Pema Chöndrön says the image of a pilgrim ascending a mountain as a metaphor for a spiritual path toward enlightenment is wrong. Instead, she says, we are going down the mountain, immersing ourselves in day-to-day existence and participating fully in the cultural and social lives to which we are born. Mr. Hamill follows this spiritual path. His work is informed by his knowledge of Mahāyāna Buddhism and a devotion to a Zen practice; a grounding in pacifism and stillness, and a complicit involvement with the world. Poetry, as Mr. Hamill says, cannot be apolitical; for the artist, social realism is a razor’s edge: few tread there, fewer still tread it well. The aesthetic and socially conscious poem is where small epiphanies resonate with the sheen of reality, where common experience is anything but commonplace:

Li Po looked up at a pale, thin moon
and raised his sake cup. Not much has changed.
Those who claim to know murder those
they call false prophets while science
improves their tools. There is death
in Jerusalem, frozen death among the homeless
all across the heartland. A president
is impeached, and the stock market rises.
Tibet is Chinese and the Makah want whales.
(“Rising”)

A full-blown joie de vivre is also evident it these poems. Noticing the weather and changing seasons, sexual pleasures, friendship, travel and geography, a love of literature, admissions of failings and success: the acknowledgement of one’s humanity. The immediacy of the reflective poems belies the passage of time.

Huddled by our fire, my girl
and I read Rexroth and Lawrence
until the last noisy crow
brought nightfall on its wings,
then tequila and philosophy.
Our smoke rose in a plume
and disappeared. Our love,
our sadness. Her beautiful
country and its history. Her
slender body. Our desperation.
(“Taos, 1958”)

Forty-two years ago, in the cold
pitch black of the hours before dawn,
I huddled in a cell in Fredonia, Arizona,
rolling cigarettes from a Bull Durham pouch,
locked up for the crime of being
fourteen and homeless. How many nights
did I watch the stars through that barred skylight?
(“Plain Dumb Luck”)

The socially conscious artist does not exist in a twilit limbo, but participates in and guides the prevailing culture. Such art can be gritty and in-your-face, invariably contentious by its nature; or subtle, and therefore often overlooked or dismissed as lacking content or relevance. Either way the viewer/reader is necessarily a participant. The subtle artist can be more difficult to parse because the work demands time, patience, and introspection. Such art asks that we bring our own experiences to the work. Ecclesiastes teaches us that “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun,” yet while our collective memory is short—vita brevis—our records of what has been may last forever—thus, ars longa.

The sea retreats; the sea swells.
We need the story that only
the going-forth can tell.
We need the tale
that spins the spell that gives us
eyes to see.
Thus, we grope, talking to ourselves,
unable to find
meaning in a growing darkness
wherein no meaning lies.

The heart sees far beyond the eyes.
This is no country for this old man.
I’ll not find Byzantium.
(“Ars Poetica”)

With age, our short and awful lives become condensed into singular memories of good and bad, pluses and minuses, hope and despair—all acknowledged by the cynic and the realist alike. The cynic stops and points a finger; the realist sweeps an arm across the sky to indicate the myriad possible solutions. The realist writes from a still, intimate point which encompasses the known world. This is not the only way to tell the story, but it is the most difficult and the most rewarding—for the writer and for the reader.

Mr. Hamill’s poetry takes pride of place next to Lorca’s abbreviated life and extensive oeuvre. As pacifists, both poets are poignantly aware of how culture and history—rather than jingoistic nationalism—denote what we become and what we believe. In Habitation honesty and compassion are front and center—the poet, like the Zen teacher, shows us the many spiritual paths down the mountain and into the politically and intellectually charged zeitgeist.

Our hearts tell us to take the first step.

 

ROBERT KOSTUCK is an M.Ed graduate from Northern Arizona University. Published work appears in several American and Canadian literary journals. He is currently working on a novel. His body is in Florida, but his spirit wanders the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.

 

Sam Hamill’s Habitation Compiles Poems from Across Forty Years
by Barry Hill
from THE AUSTRALIAN, 12 June 2105

Sam Hamill is a substantial figure in American poetry. As the founder of Copper Canyon Press he has put out dozens of important and beautiful books. As a translator, he has delivered work from ancient Greece as well as East Asia, books that have often become classics.

He has essayed grandly on poetry, much of his work published in the American Poetry Review, and he has written passionate, important poems over 40 years, an achievement marked by political grit and what he likes to call his own ‘‘avocation’’ of poetry—a vocational bent indispensable to individual souls and the soul of a nation, if it has one.

The advocacy came to a head after 9/11 when the US invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Hamill, having been invited as a publisher to sup at the White House, declined. He started Poets Against the War and soon hundreds of poets were submitting their anti-war poems online. A book followed, and Hamill became a leader of a poetry movement thoroughly politicised by the historical moment we are still in.

He ruggedly occupies, then, a space well articulated by several other major poets of his generation: Adrienne Rich, Denise Lvertov, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, to name a few. Numerous poems in Habitation, a huge collection of his work, honorifically name these mentors.

Of course, there are many differences among these poets; they variously rise to the task of speaking politically, and they do not strike the same notes as Hamill, who has gone about his difficult business in several ways. If I had to summarise his strategy—as distinct from responding to individual poems—I would say that he has mastered an art of unironically speaking ‘‘from the heart’’, while at the same time making poems that work obliquely, modestly, with a depth of cultural reach and sophistication.

I think of you often these days,
old master, when some people say
my poems aren’t poems at all,
but merely occasions
of political provocation,
and of course they may be right.
Like you, late at night,
I scratch my songs on a wall
by firelight, and drink, and bow,
only to begin again, somehow.

This poem, the first collected here, is one of his most recent. It’s called "A Letter to Han Shan," referring tothe zany Chinese mountain poet of Zen fame, a poet of crags and clouds and simple, solitary living with a sense of infinite time and the oneness of all things. Like so many other west coast poets of the 1960s, Hamill inhaled Zen as easily as marijuana, and he carried Zen austerities into the forest of Port Townsend, Washington, when he installed his press in 1974, in the days when it was handset.

Looking back, his refuge was hard-won. He had arrived on the coast as a mother-beaten homeless 16-year-old, a kid who lived on the streets and developed what he calls, in his poem to Snyder, ‘‘a little heroin habit / and a gift for self-destruction’’. His muggings led him to prison cells where he might well have scratched his own songs into the walls. The authorities gave the boy what they called a choice: do real time or join the army.

Off he went to the American base in Okinawa. There he encountered Japanese culture for the first time, along with a clearer at the base who led him to Buddhist temples. Back in the US, he went to college, and began to induct himself into the ancient poets of China and Japan, many of them irreverent contemplatives who had eschewed public life in favour of their own company and the freedom to do what they liked, including drink.

So this is the first thing: Hamill’s political stance is never far from a hermetic renunciation of politics. Many poems turn on a twin impulse: to meditate on one’s wisdom or lack of it—the essential emptiness of the Buddhist teaching—versus the impulse to fight for social justice and equality. He has poems saturated with quiet and sad resignation, in the manner of Wang Wei, Tu Fu or Li Bo; and he has grumbling, bitter poems of indignation, as direct as a protest song, their diction therefore running the risk of being hackneyed.

Between these two poles, most of the poems of Habitation dwell. Their canny negotiation of the two poles is what gives Hamill’s oeuvre its stamp of literary quality and enduring political bite.

The first few collections contained in Habitation earthily evoke the Utah Hamill knew as a damaged kid—‘‘the difficult beauty of my boyhood’’, as he wryly puts it. Hamill’s typical form of address has the democratic ethos Walt Whitman wanted of poetry. Yet all along there is, as with Whitman, the solitary, in-turned voice within an open field of speech. He is ‘‘almost fifty’’ and ‘‘almost overcome with loneliness and gratitude’’, when he ruminates on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

It is spring, full moon in a cloudless sky
after a long dark winter, a year after
another stupid war. Maybe these unconsoling stars
know the secret names we cannot know . . .
A Leaf

It is hard to find a note of political consolation in Habitation. There are vivid, love poems, and their limpid, naked speech is consolation of a kind. But those experiences are mostly transitory. The ‘‘true peace’’, as he writes in a poem of that title, comes to him as he is ‘‘half-broken’’ on ‘‘a smoky night, hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive’’: he finds himself contemplating news of the monk burning himself to death in Saigon. He wonders

what it can possibly mean
to make a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.

In the longest poems in Habitation Hamill strives to work everything out at once: historical wounds, the commemoration of the dead, the rebarbative politics, one’s damaged heart, the climate of opinion, the climate itself—the ­poetics, in fact, of the totality.

The best of these are tours de force of lyrical specification and allusion. "A Pisan Canto," for example, shines as a critical lament regarding Ezra Pound—no mean feat for a leftist to pull off.

The older Hamill has grown, the more deft the ‘‘wisdom’’ statements threaded throughout. My favourite collection, Border Songs (2011), is his most recent: it is saturated with grief for the death of his wife and informed by the studied humility that becomes a sage, albeit a sad, rather embittered one. “What is true peace, I cannot know . . . mine’s the heart that burns . . .’’ We come to this a few lines after reading about Shelley’s heart that ‘‘refused to burn.’’

It has to be said, I suppose, that overall Hamill is a romantic poet in extremis. Hence his morbid tendencies, which are not always alleviated by Eastern teachings. But it’s a mistake to focus too much on the solemnities. Here is "Road Hog Sutra," a poem from back down Hamill’s track, in the middle of his dark wood, as it were.

Bodhidharma’s face—
big bushy brow and long beard
and dangling earring—
on my lapel pin prompts a
postal worker to ask, “Hey!
Who’s that biker you got there?”



 

A Letter to Han Shan-tzu

I think of you often these days,
old master, when some people say
my poems aren’t poems at all,
but merely occasions
of political provocation,

and of course they may be right.
Like you, late at night,
I scratch my songs on a wall
by firelight, and drink, and bow,
only to begin again, somehow.

—Sam Hamill