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Sam Hamill. Dumb Luck.

Sam Hamill. Dumb Luck. Rochester, New York. BOA. 2002. 102 pages $13.95. ISBN 1-929918-25-9

DUMB LUCK, Sam Hamill's recent verse collection, reveals an unorthodox blend of influences. On one hand, we have Zen-based poems written in a characteristically restrained voice but with a stubborn American "I" still lodged in them; on the other hand, we have full-voiced poems (like the title poem) in which we hear a plain, direct, and sometimes gritty American expression reminiscent of Richard Hugo and James Wright. In fact, the volume almost divides itself equally with poems in each voice with a midsection devoted to translations of poems by the Buddhist poet Saigyo Hosho (1118-90).

Hamill's poems are best when he relies heavily on evocative imagery, as in the haiku "Awakening": "In early morning / fog, the great cedars emerge, / still wearing bed-clothes." This is Zen poetry at its strongest, fully in the tradition of poets like Hsieh Ling-yun. Sometimes, though, Hamill cannot resist overpowering his own poems with a strong didactic tendency. Admittedly, a strain of didacticism is inherent in the tradition, but Hamill frequently becomes merely pedantic or even self-righteous, as in these lines from "The New York Poem": "I turn to poetry, not prose, / to help me come to terms-- / such as can be--with the lies, murders / and breathtaking hypocrisies // of those who would lead a nation / or a church." Such moral self-certainty does not serve Hamill's poems well.

Still, there is much to admire in the collection, especially when Hamill's two voice-strains combine in a more integrated style. Many of the poems are intelligent, meditative explorations, relatively free of stylistic affectation. Hamill is at his best when he speaks directly with emotional honesty and humility, as in these final lines from "Plain Dumb Luck": "... Turning / off the radio, I sit alone, counting breaths / in the dark until counting disappears, / bowing to the dark itself, surprised to be / the luckiest son-of-a-bitch alive."

Fred Dings

University of South Carolina
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Author:Dings, Fred
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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