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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"I am Immune."

I don't know what got into me on the 23rd of November, 2001, but this is a third little ditty I wrote about a poet on that day.  Maybe it was just to lead me, ten years after the fact, to find out that "squib" doesn't mean exactly what I thought it did....

from a photo by Simpson Kalisher
 -- back cover of
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton
Alfred Starr Hamilton is an enigma. His name is dropped at Exquisite Corpse a few times; the front page as of 11/22/01 accuses house poet Mike Topp of ripping Hamilton off. Somewhere else he is referred to as a "folk treasure." That seems a bit condescending but Hewitt substantiates. He seems uncomfortable but says Hamilton is "eccentric." Hamilton lived with his mother until she died in 1964 and left him seven grand. He then moved into a linoleum-floored room in a boarding house at 41 S. Willow St. NJ. As of 1970 he'd been living on 1000 dollars a year (much is made of his penury), visiting the local library and Salvation Army, copping butts. His photograph shows a well-dressed and sane-looking older gentleman. But those could be Army clothes and his nails are peculiarly long.

Speaking of the Army, the US Army, Hamilton was drafted and went AWOL after less than a year. "I got a discharge somehow," he writes in the blurb for his poems appearing in the APR in 1976. This was during the War. Something of this cantankerous spirit survived until 1961. He refused to participate in a civil air raid drill and was fined and briefly jailed. Other than that he can drive, has a sister, drinks Four Roses and once serviced candy machines (after the war; it disgusted him). Biographical information is scant, but he claims to have hitchhiked through forty-three states. If so, Montclair has always always remained his home port: The 2000 Directory of America Poets and Fiction Writers says he's still at 41 S. Willow. That would make him 87.

His first appearance in print, Sphinx (1969), was published out of Montclair by Geof Hewitt aka Kumquat Press. In his review of Sphinx (New, No. 9), Eric Torgersen mentions that these pamphlets were free for the asking. (Online it currently lists for 25 dollars). Torgersen praises Hamilton; he says he's often inaccessible, but when he isn't, he's dead-on. Torgersen also says there are longer poems in Sphinx, which is not the case for what I've seen in print. The poems in APR and Poetry Now are short. These poems published in the mid-seventies have a tendency to catalogue, taking a phrase and repeating it, often asking a question. The tone is bemused and iconoclastic but never mean-spirited. The meanings are enigmatic. It's as if there is a code to be broken. The object of the poems is often the natural world, but rarely the world of man-made things. In the world but not of it, so to speak. Break the code and enter the Hamilton cosmos. One slightly demonic-looking man secretly manipulating the world from the center of the universe.

Needless to say, I like Hamilton. I stumbled across the Jargon book by accident at Cornell's Olin library and was immediately struck by the simplicity and strangeness of the poems. The book itself is a handsome volume and the introductory remarks by Hewitt interesting. Wanting to learn more about this character, I turned to the internet, came up with a few references. It didn't occur to me until some time later to get the articles and poems themselves. I am still waiting for a few things, which I will review here. I'm hoping to reproduce the articles online, but an annotated bibliography will do just as well, for now.

[Scrappy little website can be found here]

4 comments:

  1. it's strange how a poet like ASH manages to hang on, through chance discovery. Didn't we 'discover' him separately, working in the same library? I remember thinking, 'no one knows this guy!'. but he kept, and keeps, coming up. Seems everyone knows him.

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  2. Yeah, I remember being almost in awe of finding that book, such a well-made thing with such odd poems from someone I'd never heard of. And that it was in Olin library!

    Seems like a good opportunity to link to your post For the Storm of our Lives is Never Over With: Alfred Starr Hamilton which I've always liked.

    As you know, he was a minor obsession for a while, but I think our friend Lisa took that a little bit further! As much as I admire what she's done and come up with, I must admit to being a little saddened by the book she put out. Not that it demystifies the man, but it somehow removes some mystery. The letters are opaque but this personal glimpse is more than the impenetrable nature of the poems....

    Not to dis at all. She really kicks ass as a researcher and is pretty cool to boot.

    I think when I went to you with my "discovery" you said you'd already stumbled across that book. Which is not surprising given your voracious literary appetite. I say that with a wink, btw.

    Odd though that you should write this today. I was just telling my wife last night about the Ithaca days and the time I met you ex-wife in front of a bakery and she recognized who I was immediately, maybe from your description (ahh the novelist's powers!) or maybe just because of that special kind of radar (etc).

    Maybe it's due to some psychic link. You've written at least twice about things happening in Ithaca which reminded you of me and just the day before I'd told the story to my wife about the event you'd recalled, having thought of it for the first time in years. Like the time I thought I'd emailed the listserv about being so drunk the night before. I told my wife that tale then the next day you write because some guy actually did something similar and you were reminded of that very tale I'd told.

    There was another fortuitous incident like that but I don't recall it. Maybe you'd run into someone who'd known me and I'd been telling a story about that guy the night before? Something like that. I can't recall....

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