Unbeknownst to many, Hartford enjoys one of the richest and longest literary traditions of any American city. Connecticut’s capital was the longtime home and workplace of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and served as a major formative influence for later poets and writers like Wallace Stevens and Dominick and John Gregory Dunne. Its pastoral grace caused Twain to remark, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see [Hartford] is the chief . . . You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.” Now far removed from its zenith as the country’s wealthiest town in the nineteenth century and later as “The Insurance Capital of the World,” however, today’s Hartford conjures images of gang violence and drug-addled squalor, the soiled concrete skeletons of a long-forgotten hopefulness rather than the Gilded Age pillar of commerce. Samuel Amadon shows us in his powerful collection The Hartford Book this city of destitution and darkness.
In a most general sense, the book’s twenty poems perform an act of reconstruction—a bridging of the memories and psychological accumulation of a post-collegiate poet (ostensibly the author) who’s come back to the streets where he grew up. But this is not the triumphant hero’s return à la Joseph Campbell; this poet immerses himself in a crumbling modern labyrinth containing crackhead neighbors, indifferently promiscuous women, dead and dying relatives, a pervasive shuttered-factory gloom, a pathologically lying roommate who may or may not have cancer, and an acutely debilitating urge toward self-destruction that leaves him “drunk & doubting my own mind.”
Fortunately, in the midst of every whiskey-and-vomit-soaked collapse, there is an intensely curious and sharply self-aware intellect that tries to sift among the layers of self-imposed drear for solace. A fascinating series of incisions cut through centuries of New England minutiae and a more immediate childhood, the intertwined failings of a community and a man that have both seen better days. From all of the detritus arises a curious, grudging solidarity:
we never own up to much more than
being from Hartford
which is something no one from
Hartford would ever deny because
though we’re all fucked
we’ve all been fucked before & for
so long that unlike the rest of you
we’d have to be crazy not
to know by now what to expect next.
More than anything—and perhaps ironically—the unassuming, Beat-meets-email style contributes to The Hartford Book’s profundity. Eschewing straight-up lyrical narrative, the poet effortlessly weaves his own murky sensory experiences with those of his Puritan ancestors and ill-remembered Hartford historical figures, creating a multi-layered psychological portrait, novel-heavy in its depth. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Wells,” in which Amadon contemplates a now-derelict plaque on a statue of Horace Wells, the forgotten inventor of anesthesia, juxtaposing Hartford’s current plight with Wells’ tragic, insane life (he committed suicide in jail after throwing sulfuric acid at prostitutes) to elicit personal truths that are as dour as they are prescient: “the only people now who think / he discovered anything are some people / in Hartford who can’t read / the sign & probably don’t care what it is.”
This simple vernacular honesty allows the poet to tread along a path of dark confession; the poet spares no shard of unsavory recollection in chronicling the abject years spent living in and with the city of his youth. The result is a book that scratches, in a silky voice, at the scars that can’t heal—a testimony to the past that is as deadly as pushing a syringe, and nearly as addicting.