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As for Dream
Saskia Hamilton
Graywolf Press
64 pages, $12.95

Reviewed by: Ryo Yamaguchi
Book rating: 8 out of 10 stars

View three poems from As For Dream here


Where we find ourselves in Saskia Hamilton's, As For Dream (Graywolf Press, 2001), is on a cusp: of the loss and gain of love, of sympathy and criticism, of the private and the social, of abstract confession and imagistic description, and surely, of life and death. Such dualities create for this poet a motivating anxiety, a grief, a "dangerous man" that pulls the reader through the eclipsed poems and fragmented prose that make up this collection. As the speaker describes in the opening poem, "The Song in the Dream:"
The song was of two wholes joined by hinges,
and I was worried about the joining, the spaces in between
the joints, the weight of each side straining them.
What is so remarkable is Hamilton's skill at weaving these various dichotomies within each other, the tenors of her metaphors "fleeing" from poem to poem, transfiguring themselves and thus touching upon the various aspects of her life. To be sure, this collection is about the death of a loved one, but like Basho's work from whom she draws her epigraph it freezes the period surrounding the event, moving through all of its contours, assuming multiple perspectives much in the manner of Cubism. This allows the speaker an incredible artistic capacity as well, speaking in tones at times querulous, profane, empathetic, or beholden, and from an authorial distance ranging from a third-person narrative to an almost unbearable psychological intimacy. These approaches are not scattered however, but are in fact finely organized, creating a dramatic arc that glues this book together, a cohesiveness on par with Louise Gluck's in The Wild Iris. Look at how the theme of renewal transforms from a third-party's desire to plant bulbs on his death-bed ("In the Hospital"), to the speaker's own obsession with preparing ("Work" — quoted in full):
Will you hand me the bulbs?
I have to plant them, he said, but I can't reach them.

and then:

All night long, my body was hot and impossible to slow down.

      Why do I say I can't do it? It's all I say to myself.

There is everything in the world to be done. Everything to prepare for.
These are simple, prosaic lines, and do not represent Hamilton's equally lyrical moments, but in their simplicity the reader comes as close as possible to the poignancies underlying the thing described. The subject's desire in the first excerpt is felt with compassion and empathy. We can see him reaching for the bulbs in an earlier, more private moment, which, coupled with its irrationality in the setting of a hospital, reveals the intensity of the desire, the degree to which it arrests him. This is conveyed in the separate stanzas allotted each of the lines in the second excerpt , the way each feels like a non-sequitur to the previous, the brutish, forced breath it takes to utter them. She is convincing herself, and although this is a different way of speaking than the dying man's, it is driven by the same sort of will.

Indeed the major change the poet undergoes is a realization of agency. As she approaches the death, handled "offstage" like a Greek tragedy, she also approaches the ineffable and inexorable forces of nature, a "wind out of control," resulting in a series of pieces untouched by her confessional, self-berating hands, as pure in image as Basho's haikus. What she gains from such acquiescence, ironically, is power. It is the archetypal journey to the edge of the known and the subsequent return, this time with a renewed sense of how to live in the world. Let's look at one final comparison. The first excerpt is from "Winter Rain:"
The bird is crushed in ice.
Fuck off. The winter says.
Short, but masterfully crafted. The perfect iambs are interrupted by the spondee of "fuck off," and the result is a terse, tense stanza with an embittered but also intimidated tone. The power the speaker would gain with the profanity is actually attributed to "winter." This is a harsh world, occurring before the death. The following excerpt, from "Listen," occurs after:
I have the ingredients of the dream in my hands in the morning.
Moving from the iambic to the anapestic, as well as lengthening the line, allows the speaker greater breadth while also reducing the force necessary to achieve it. She is comfortable here, the proclamation simple, moving through her as if she were simply a medium, the two unstressed syllables coming from something else. But this is also an assertion, begins with a powerful "I" and describes equally powerful "hands." It is this conundrum that lies at the heart of these poems and plays catalyst to the poet's realization not only that the "debris" at the end of a life or relationship can be "put to use," made fresh again, but also that the end and beginning of such things pivot on the same force. Hamilton describes this better in "Late Winter:"
I used to think it was the cunning of sickness.
Now I think it is the cunning of love.

View three poems from As for Dream here

Poet's Biography:
  Saskia Hamilton was born in Washington, D.C. in 1967. Her poems and prose have appeared in the Threepenny Review, Colorado Review, and McSweeney's Quarterly, among other journals. She is also the editor of a forthcoming edition of Robert Lowell's letters. Hamilton currently teaches at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

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