In a way befitting his Midwestern upbringing, Justin Hamm’s latest collection features many sides and scenes of the poet as a humble public servant.
Hamm often takes up the pen and the plow like a poet-farmer. He pauses to note the changing weather; he stays in physical contact with the terrain that many consign in memories and rear-view mirrors; even ground enough language to capture the common experience.
As a poet and journalist, Hamm recounts the passage of time, and its effect, often weathered, and sometimes refined, on the people, places, and things around him.
And the writer from Mid-Missouri fulfills the priestly function of a poet: shaping the confession and summoning a wake for moments that naturally get out of hand. This ideal is reflected in the book’s title, “Drinking Guinness with the Dead,” but Hamm doesn’t just care about the deceased.
He honors because of the days and nights that are etched on our hearts, children who grow tall and stand firm as trees, and the twin acts of writing and preserving.
The spirit and substance of the collection, which brings together selected and new poems written between 2007 and 2021, came to Hamm during pandemic nights when he was alone but never alone, he writes in a foreword.
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“Sometimes, late at night, the Guinness tells me to look back through old family photos. To write to the friends I’ve missed,” he writes. “Streaming episodes of M*A*S*H or highlights from ’80s baseball games. And eventually re-reading my first three books of poetry.”
“Drinking Guinness With the Dead” watches over those old friends while setting up folding chairs for new company. Thanks to his permanent pact with form, Hamm is free to represent the poet in action. Unfolding over nearly 15 years, these verses take as long as they need, encouraging readers to sit down with them and do the same.
Starting with a ‘thank you’
The book opens with a new job and words of thanks. In “Gratitude for Poets,” Hamm tips a wide-brimmed hat to his forerunners and companions. Appreciating his words, little miracles made of syllables that free us to appreciate what is hidden in plain sight, he adds welcome entries to the canon:
“Thank you for Wednesday night church / And the fifty-two ways light can fall on a leaf.”
Throughout the poem, he gives thanks for the community poets create, adding his “Amen” with clasped hands: “Thank you, poets, for giving/love your own language./Thank you for giving language./Thank you for give love.”
The collection houses a large number of images and individual lines that will remain as memories. Hamm venerates the humble “Shower Beer” with lines worthy of a natural wonder:
“Press each temple / to count to ten / then open / and drink slowly / in the rain / like soft flames / creeping through the map of flesh / of tectonic tension / we call neck / and shoulders / and back.”
Throughout the pages, Hamm’s speakers meet a stranger from the gas station who “says he wrote quite a few / Of early John Denver songs”; promise a ghost “I’ll keep my sad words / In a pocket with a button”; and face “The Third Day of Winter” where “The snow blows on the bales of alfalfa, / On the hood of the forgotten Nova.”
In “The Reason,” his speaker deems “the loneliest bull moose/remaining in America,” then brings his witness home, placing himself in a lonely and worn spot.
“I, I saw myself precisely / as I would be if I ever / lost you or those babies. / Uncertainty of movement. / Floating in a field of nothingness. / Almost too much effort / even to lift my prickly head.”
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Some moments may find their twin elsewhere, but they read like they could only happen in Missouri. Hamm presses hard on his stamp on the spiritual ink pad with the opening lines of “Waltzing Toward Hospice”:
“In the brief silence between summer storms / ‘The Missouri Waltz’ sobs from the speakers / of a van idling.”
“Storm, Rural Missouri” accompanies “time-wrinkled angels” who “don their Carhartt robes” and intuit that “Every storm here is forty nights / From the affirmation of the deep.”
Outside of a specific time or place, other proverbs will elicit breathless assent from anyone caught in central standard time: “Of all things holy the barn is the most holy” (“Last lesson in ruins”) and ” Rust, you’re an impressionist/Heartland painter” (“Rustsong”) rings especially true.
‘The clocks go on’
Hamm is at his best when he’s chasing time, creating a taxonomy of all his changes. Sometimes his words are tender, dewy; in others, he is no less resourceful for remaining practical.
“Dalí was wrong. / The years melt away”, he writes in “Photography”, a new poem on the first pages. “The clocks go on, / Brutal as jailers.”
“Drinking Guinness with the dead during a pandemic,” which inspired the book’s title, guides the living to their place.
“The world… is still the world,” writes Hamm. “You’re on it, for now. You have a feeling that the dead appreciate / your silence. After all, who are you to demand to know / if the eye of God is anything other than the shape of an / open flower?”
Hamm’s poems regularly refer to his elders, who are not easily mocked or beatified. They’re meaty, unreliable storytellers like the rest of us, only they’ve seen more days, felt more miles, known more heartbeats.
“Sometimes in good old movies” honors a certain kind of man: the handsome down-on-his-luck, looking for something like home. “This poem is for / those men. / And it comes with / a can of Coors,” writes Hamm.
In “The Farmers in Their Morning Coffee”, he eavesdrops on “old flood stories / To rival Gilgamesh or the Bible”. His farmers tend to come to the same conclusion: “Things are always a little / a little worse than they were / this time yesterday morning.”
And “Old Men Laughing on a Park Bench in Early October” observes the quiet magic passed between old friends. “The inner wells from which they draw their / joy must be deeper than I have ever witnessed in my short / life,” Hamm’s speaker whispers to us, daring himself not to break the spell.
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Poems like these resonate with Hamm’s clear belief that we exist uniquely, as bundles of our own experience: we wouldn’t be ourselves without the people, places, clouds, conversations, and cups of coffee that make up day after day. of this unique life. lead
That’s why “Drinking Guinness With the Dead” should also end with a word of thanks, murmured by the reader in Hamm’s direction. There is something special about sitting at the feet of a poet to collect 15 years of daily wonders. Readers will notice how Hamm changes, how he becomes more himself throughout these pages. Document the momentary; we reap a greater harvest.
“Drinking Guinness With the Dead” is available through Kansas City-based Spartan Press. Learn more about Hamm’s work at https://justinhamm.net/.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731. Find him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen.