about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, forthcoming 2011). Dew is also a regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Illinois, My Apologies
A Review of Illinois, My Apologies
by Justin Hamm

Spencer Dew

Beauty and threat, nostalgic longing and a lingering discomfort just under the skin—these states thread together in the voice of Justin Hamm’s poems as it looks back on a childhood lived out as “an alien among / the Rockwellian agricreatures” of the Farm and Fleet, the “cryptic / yup-n-mmm-hmm vernacular” of whom, “punctuated with inscrutable / handkerchief dabbing gestures / and carefully selected grunts” holds a poetic appeal despite remaining, in some deep ways, incomprehensible. Matured, this poetic protagonist finds himself, “for the first time” responding to his place of origin not with a scream but with an open ear, listening. And looking, too, of course, as when he studies the sight of “this man”

in the alfalfa field behind my house
who’d dragged his recliner
and a cooler of cheap beer
out to where the sunset
was at its most magnificent
for no other reason except
to kill with his rifle
whatever he could kill
in comfort utmost

Beauty and threat, again—and this sense of coming close to a connection, a sense of almost grasping, only to be repelled, returned to that original sense of alienness, fearful incomprehension. Adding to this dynamic are reflections on fatherhood, on the fragility and possibility of a newborn child, such feelings likewise threaded with recollections of one’s own father, one’s own maturing. There’s a longing for what can never, now, be, and, at times, a saccharine glaze to glances at past generations, times before “cheap plastic and wire ... when one could still find an abundance / of the rich, painful authenticity of life.”

Hamm’s voice, however, finds plenty of painful authenticity among the plastic and wire of today (as seen in that bit about the cooler and the gun, for instance). This collection is tainted by an idealism that reads as defensive, as a kind of denial, as when the narrator expresses his wishes to be more attuned to agricultural work, his desire, if given a second chance, to “not neglect to savor the smell of catfish frying, / the sound of soft banjo picking on the porch, / in the fading light of summer.” For all the clear-sightedness about the tangled realities of the rural now, this kind of imagery—half Hallmark card, half beer commercial—is jarring, and discredits the work of other, truer poems here. Certain tones of grief or longing come off cheap. Yes, “time will...knife through otherwise / perfect moondreams,” but does this need to get so plainly said? Likewise, is maturity really about “reading the street signs / in the language they were written” and “coloring with my own set of Crayolas / pouring my own cups of tea?” When Hamm hits, though, the very “rich, painful authenticity” to which he elsewhere only alludes, it resonates. Consider the poem “At Sixteen,” setting up a rhythm whereby “bleary eyed and bitter” fathers find their aging “joints” and “endless ... mortgages ... unknowingly” assumed by their sons, a pattern of wear and weariness. Against this rhythm, Hamm gives us the clearly cut image of a “black sheep” who

reads Boethius to the spiders
by flashlight
beneath the stairs
weeps for everything
worth weeping for
in a place where weeping
is forbidden

Official Justin Hamm Web Site
Official RockSaw Press Web Site

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