Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Analysis of "The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill" by Hayden Carruth

Original Poem Reprinted Online Here: "The Afterlife: Letter to Sam Hamill" by Hayden Carruth
More Information about the Poet: Hayden Carruth




This isn't a tough poem as far as readability as an observer.  Actually, it's a pretty fast read and I think people will get this poem without knowing the context, the people, the emotion, or the personal.  This is a hard poem to reread emotionally as a goodbye.

Written in a epistolary style, the speaker is able to weave in and out of subject matters because, technically, this isn't a poem -- even the speaker admits that further in the poem.  The poem starts out addressing Sam Hamill (a great poet and translator in his own right, and a friend to Hayden Carruth), "You may think it strange, Sam, that I'm writing / a letter in these circumstances. I thought / it strange too -- the first time." Why would it be strange is pretty irrelevant at this point.  What is important is how the connection is formed through unusual circumstances.  What this does is not allow "Sam" to respond -- rather this is what the speaker thinks of Sam ("viz", perhaps).  

There is a quote that the speaker remembers, "After all, / you say, you've been creating yourself all / along imaginatively"  The creation of the self based on the imagination which is kind of funny because the speaker is constructing Sam through his own imagination too.  And this is the core of the poem -- how far can the imagination construct a person: friends and self.

"You imagine yourself / playing golf or hiking in the Olympics or / writing a poem and then it becomes true."  The imagination turning true is, what I feel, the speaker inspires to do.  And no matter how simple or outrageous the imagination goes, it becomes true.  But what is truth?  That's what the self-referential turn to the poem does -- question the truth, "Here I imagine a letter / and it's written," in a little tongue-in-cheek style.

I'm a little ahead of myself with this poem,  Another essential part of the core is that "it" has to be done,  "But you still have to do it [imagine], you have to exert / yourself, will courage, whatever you've got, you're / mired in the unimaginative."  This feels like the speaker is trying to enlighten Sam here, but the end of the statement -- mired in the unimaginative -- makes me think that Sam is in the "truth" something absolute like the speaker's death.  I think this statement hit me hard -- to imagine is to live, right?

But enough philosophizing or taking things too seriously, "Hell, this is heaven, man."  The inversion of colloquialism and humor:

     I can deluge Congress with letters telling
     every one of those mendacious son of  bitches 
     exactly what he or she is, in maybe about 
     half an hour.

This quote plays with the idea with time, politics, and humor -- I think the actual Sam Hamill would appreciate this line, but the next lines would hit his core, "In spite of our Buddhist / proclivities, when you imagine bliss / you still must struggle to get there."  There, another hit to the core of "Sam" hitting the "mired" version of him.

But then the play again of seeing "Buddha" with his place  across town on "Elysian Drive" (another tongue and cheek reference to heaven).  The description of Buddha as, "He's lost weight / and got new dentures, and he looks a hell of a / lot better than he used to."  Again seems tongue in cheek but the last part, "lot better than he used to." is a very physical description that could parallel the speaker's own physical decay.

Furthermore, the speaker lists a bunch of people, "Sidney / and Dizzy, Uncle Ben and Papa Yancey, are / over by Sylvester's Grot," likely dead but personal to the speaker and Sam -- even though this poem is out there, there's hints of the personal that can't and don't need to be fully understood by the reader.  And then this image, "Poems are fluttering / everywhere like seed from cottonwood tree."  Remember the discussion between Poem, truth, and imagination.  I feel it's tied together here -- that the beauty descending and floating all around is what connected the speaker and Sam, and it's still there where he is.

"Sam, the remarkable truth is I can do any / fucking thing I want."  This feign anger is trying to offset the mire that Sam is in.  But again, this poem is one sided, it's the speaker observing and trying to comfort the Sam.  But in the end, the wild gaze comes back, "Speaking of which / there's this dazzling young Naomi who / wiped out on I-80 west of Truckee"  A little bit of a morbid humor -- this would be a line that would be iconic about the personal speaker.

"Don't go way.  I'll be right back."
Maybe it's a typo, but don't go way could be going down that mired path.  The speaker will be back, in some form or another.

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