Every poet in the United States lost a mentor and exemplar when the poet Sam Hamill passed away this past Sunday. Translator, publisher, poet of conscience, Hamill stood both for truth and beauty—indeed stood for them above the easy and all too familiar conventions of academic poetry writing in the U.S.. I was lucky to have known Sam and even luckier to have had the opportunity to talk with him about literature on more than one occasion.
This is not an obituary. Nor is it a dinner toast. My goal, such as I might have one, is to invoke a great poet’s thrilling intelligence and contrarianism, as Hamill cut his teeth studying informally with Kenneth Rexroth who saw no distinction between protecting Japanese immigrants during World War II and writing a clean, clear headed poetry driven by a profound affection for the world.
So it was with Sam who fought for human rights and human dignity throughout his long career—but don’t mistake me—he fought as a poet with discipline, intellect, and yes, with soul. He was the pacifist’s pacifist. An ex-Marine, Hamill grew to quicly see the imperial disdain of America—North America—and he wrote about our incontrovertible and malignant destruction of innocents around the globe. Over dinner he’d never talk about literary prizes, campus gigs—the careerist piffle that poets all too often share over wine. He talked about human rights.
I’ll have much more to say about the work of Sam Hamill in the coming months. Let me leave you with some lines of his:
Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.
The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.
Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace.”
And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.
Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.
Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium—his generous heart
turned magically to stone.
What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I’ve learned?
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger