Friday, February 25, 2011

International Harvesters, a Chaplinized shuffle, irresponsible use of sucralose - reading Illinois, My Apologies

The fifteen poems in Illinois, My Apologies do not tell a story, not exactly, but they suggest one.  The speaker is from Illinois and has a bookish temperament.  His father, “a massive hulk \ of hardened laborer,” has a decidedly different personality.  The mother is gone – the father is now “The Electric Widower”:

In the weeks after
my mother passes on
the old man contracts
a scorching case
of the lonesome
electric jitters
and takes to pacing head floorward
feet all atwitter in
a Chaplinized shuffle

That’s probably my favorite image in a book that has plenty of good ones.

A new baby– no other kind, I suppose – makes an appearance, as does the poet's mother, or a mother, in the energized, roaring “The Autobiography, Nearly,” right at the end.  She has her own movement, she:

sometimes oracled
and danced the Quixote wild
or sucralosed without regard
for independent testing

As I look at that fragment, the joke about “independent testing” feels hilariously un-roaring, but that, of course, is the son talking.

Perhaps those are different fathers in different poems, someone else’s mother at the end.  On the page, they are characters, fictions, good ones, composed, since this is poetry, of almost nothing.  What do we know about the grandfather, an old farmer, in “The Last Year on the Farm”?  He has glasses,* he will eventually suffer from dementia, but in the poem we, with the poet, mostly watch him watch

     an ancient International Harvester
rusted beyond orange, a fragile,
     a fossil-like thing half-swallowed
by the unruly bluestem and Indian grass
     bearding the rough face of the prairie.

Hamm tells us more about the old combine than about the grandfather, but of course it is all about the grandfather.

How much am I allowed to quote in a proper review?  I never get this right.  Just one more.  Voice, this time, not character, the beginning of “Show Me Forlorn”:

Welcome to
the great state
of Missouri.

I haven’t listened to the Hamm’s own reading of the poem, but I think you really want to emphasize those line breaks.  “Welcome to” (depressed sigh) “the great state” (forlorn silence) etc.  International visitors to Wuthering Expectations might want to know that Missouri calls itself, irritatingly, The Show Me State – they’re a bunch of empiricists, unlike those gullible theorists in Illinois, why those rubes’ll believe anything you tell ‘em – and that Hamm, I fear, plagiarized all three lines from a highway sign.  The outstanding line breaks are his own.

Hamm begins his book with this kind of clipped line, sometimes just two or three words, and then relaxes the line as he progresses, lengthening it, packing in more words, slimming down again at the end.  Illinois, My Apologies has a thick midsection, just like the state.

Eh, reviews.  I just like messing around with the bits I like.  Illinois, My Apologies has a lot of those bits.

That’s a crummy blurb.  Justin, if you sees a better one here, if I wrote one by accident, let me know.  The part where I accuse you of plagiarism would make a good anti-blurb, a kind of punk poet gesture.  Probably not what you’re going for.  Be sure to let me know about the next book.

* Uh, glasses, right, Justin? Where is grandpa sitting?


  1. Remind me to read this book when I come to visit. I especially like the International Harvester. It painted a perfect picture. Perhaps the Volga German farmers or the Swedish farmers in my background have influenced me there.

  2. Will do. It's can be so satisfying to read a passage like that in a poem nad think, yes, that's it, I've seen that.

  3. Again, thanks so much for shouting out about this little volume. I'm glad you found a lot to like in it.

  4. Very much my pleasure. I'll keep an eye on your website. Stop by any time!

  5. I'd been waiting since I saw this in your sidebar to hear more; after some Googling I figured it was probably a must-read for me. Um, yes!

    And it's perfect, because I've been looking for poetry. Also because I have been known to sucralose without regard for anything.

  6. When you finish, Nicole, be sure to connect and let me know what you think. It's thrilling to know people are reading your work.

  7. Thanks for calling my attention to this volume.