Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill’s Dumb Luck

I’ve decided to take a break from Chinese and Japanese poetry and refocus on Western poetry for awhile. Luckily, Sam Hamill’s Dumb Luck makes the transition rather easy. If you’ve been following for awhile, you might remember that I discussed several of Hamill’s translations, and this volume of his own poems, like the previous one I discussed, also contains a number of translations.

The book is divided into four sections. Section one includes poems that generally seem written in the western tradition, though a number of my favorites include allusions to Eastern poems as does this one:


As Chuang Tzu would say
when some good Confucian talked
about righteousness
and virtue, “Not quite there yet,
eh?” knowing that words can say

only so much, that
behind the words are more words,
and more behind those.
What the old man understood
is that each word names, and by

naming, it divides:
this from that and on and on.
But the Tao is one.
What is good is good for whom?
Do dogs have Buddha nature?

Say yes or say no,
and Buddha nature is gone.
The practice refines
itself. All the words I’ve loved
so many years? Going, gone.

Buddha nature, Tao,
the practice of poetry-
going, going, gone.
Present mind and future mind
lie beyond what is contained.

What mind do we bring
to the poem or to bed?
Stuck in samsara,
dreaming of truth and virtue,
just who is that butterfly,

just who is that man
who says again with a grin
and shake of the head,
“Struggle and judgment and pain-
still not quite there yet, eh?”

Having just spent most of the summer focusing on Chinese and Japanese literature, references to Chuang Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha all take on a new meaning, one that relates directly to the paradoxical nature of trying to write about Buddhism. Each word attempts to describe a small segment of “reality;” words are by their very nature “divisive.” How, then, can one use them to convey the idea of the underlying unity of our world?

And in the end, of course, no matter how much I read once I am drawn back to the “real” world, and particularly the world of politics, I find myself muttering “still not quite there yet, eh?”

Still unsure whether I want to shut out the whole world of politics or, like some Buddhist monk protesting the Vietnam war, sacrifice myself to help create a world that I would want to live in.

The second section of the book is entitled Lives of a Poet: Saigyo’s Soiitude. My favorite poem in this section is:

On the clear mirror,
just a single speck of dust.
And yet we see it
before all else, our poor world
having come to what it is.

Although I suspect that there are more than a few specks of dust on my mirror, it’s good to be reminded that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from our original purpose by those imperfections. If we are, we will forget that the purpose of the mirror is to reflect ourselves so that we can see ourselves as we truly are and continue our journey of becoming.

Theodore Roethke

Roethke’s “The Geranium”

Here’s a poem I promised Jonathon, one I’ve loved since first reading it in college even though I was still living at home and had never tried raising plants on my own:

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine–
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she’d lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured!–
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me–
And that was scary–
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

Turns out I’m no better raising houseplants than Roethke was, particularly as a bachelor. I wonder if that says more about my personal relationships or my habits?

Perhaps it says more about how lonely I was as a bachelor.