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Like a Sea
University of Iowa Press ($17)
by James Reiss
Wallace Stevens published only one poem whose title, “Of Hartford in a Purple Light,” mentions his adoptive city. In his prize-winning debut collection Samuel Amadon, a Hartford native, titles eleven poems “Each H,” one of which contains eleven twelve-liners—for a total of twenty-two ways of looking at Hartford. Amadon alludes to down-at-the-heels areas in Greater Hartford: its piers, its harbor on the Connecticut River, as well as its North Meadows neighborhood and its outlying Community Road.
As opposed to Stevens’s glacial detachment, Amadon’s poems, despite their experimentation, are often ingeniously personal. Like the beginning line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Like a Sea’s first line is in iambic pentameter: “I could not sound like anyone but me.” Aside from its traditional meter, what could be a more self-celebratory, non-Stevensian how-do-you-do?
Not that Amadon is a latter-day local colorist or proponent of the egotistical sublime. He’s closer to early modern cubists like Georges Braque or the Picasso who painted “Woman Playing Mandolin,” as he chooses “to see everything at once.” He especially relishes the word “moment,” using it as much as three times on one page. But if experience comprises a hodgepodge of countless moments—sometimes epiphanic, usually not—Amadon frequently melds disparate impressions into fused sentences that play with syntax and sense like kittens batting balls of yarn.
This may be difficult for those who would prefer to view a woman playing her mandolin frontally or in profile, but avant-gardists will appreciate Amadon’s logistical enjambments. Take the opening stanzas of “Pass-Pass, or All My Pulses”:
Let us acknowledge there is an audience
or that the passage being read a bird
taps on a model home in Northern California
has caught hold of the first three rows of
warranting a lecture with their little bags
of looking forward from who they were
here to be onto that portion of dedicated
reminiscence they expected to include
These lines describe a public address or poetry reading, although the sequence of events is far from straightforward. Thoughts and images lead to apparent culs de sac; the final word, “of,” in line 4 appears to go nowhere, unlike the first word, “of,” in line 6. Yet “of” ends line 4 with a grace note-like flourish, a grammatically feisty version of Elizabethan English. Considering the template of couplets here and in many other poems, Amadon’s rage for order comes up against his connoisseurship of chaos with shrewd aplomb.
Elsewhere, a sequence of quasi-sonnets riffs all but bucolically, as in the opening of this untitled fourteen-liner from the sequence “Like an Evening”:
And then went down to Sam’s Quality
Verité, had a comfy malt between
shelves. Delicious, and could not see
how unappeasable we would be
after the parkway gardens, where
dogs gather from gutters
photographs of their owners in joy,
After his initial parody of Pound’s Homer translation, the speaker recounts his and a friend’s wacky, sentimental odyssey among dog walkers. Anyone contending that Amadon is an obscurantist should read this poem, plus at least three other transparent wonders: “Each H (VI),” “Archipelago This, Archipelago That,” and “A Clean Shirt.”
In his caesura-laden cento, “Nine at Nine,” Amadon’s sources, among seven others, include E. A. Robinson and J. D. Salinger. Accordingly, in Like a Sea Amadon invents his own mini-portraits of locals named Brass, Jackie in track pants, and Sheik, each of whom he views wryly but with compassion. Another poem, “Foghorns,” based entirely on bits and snippets from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, reverberates like a warning signal in the miasma enveloping the play’s characters.
Many first poetry books are epigonic, but Amadon steps beyond his influences with a Connecticut Yankee’s inventiveness. He calls one poem about a talkative hair cutter “The Barber’s Fingers Move October,” and devises a Rube Goldberg image, “Sometimes listening takes / stealing a bus.” He cooks up trademark epigrams such as “the only ears that can ever hear one’s secrets are one’s own,” and formulates a sphinx’s riddle whose second line sounds all the more patent-worthy because of its resonant iambs: “How do we find a thing which // isn’t concerned enough with us to hide?” This is certainly a debut of note.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010