The Land of the Four Rivers:
My Experience as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia (2006-2008)
by Matthew A. Hamilton (Armenia 2006-08; Philippines 2008-10)
Červená Barva Press (http://www.cervenabarvapress.com/)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
As Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, we all, I feel confident saying, have at least a couple of photographs documenting our service. (Some of us doubtless have crates-or iPhones-full of them.) Because we were there, because we know the people and the settings in the photographs, we have a particular attachment to them. They call up full and rich and even complicated memories and associations. To us, each photograph is worth more than a thousand words. Each is a mini-novella, a long poem.
But anyone who didn’t have the experiences we had and is seeing the photographs cold knows only what is in front of their eyes. A photo of the family we lived next door to in the mountains of Bolivia or on the plains of Kenya might evoke in us an epic saga of love and hardship, of courage and defeat and hope. The person to whom we show the photo might simply remark, “Wow, it must have been a hot day if that’s all those people were wearing!”
Most of the poems in Matthew Hamilton’s chapbook The Land of the Four Rivers have the look of three-by-five photographs, with a dozen or more lines of more or less equal length. And like good photographs, they are colorful evocations, careful snapshots of what he saw and experienced in Armenia. But unlike with Peace Corps photographs, no one is likely to find anything tangential and inessential to comment on in Hamilton’s poems. This is a testament to his poems’ clarity and accessibility. (They do what a surprising number of modern poems are too cowardly to do: They risk being understood.) If his poems were photographs, we would not only see them, we would step into them.
Take, for example, the opening of “Expedition into Mystery”:
I walk over to a woman selling apricots
and buy a half kilo. Her gold teeth thank me.
Then I walk to Gorki Park, pluck one
of my treats out of the bag and take a bite.
Some of the juice falls on the sidewalk.
A dog walks over and licks it up.
The storytelling is straightforward, the images (apricots, gold teeth) concrete. Encounters with voracious, half-starved but somehow gentle street dogs are as common in Volunteers’ experiences as episodes of homesickness, and the apricot-juice-devouring dog of the poem will therefore resonate with former Volunteers. But the dog is equally likely to resonate with non-Volunteers. Although the poet doesn’t specify that the animal is a street dog, context suggests it. Here’s a dog desperate enough to drink fruit juice off of concrete. The connotation is negative: the country doesn’t care for its animals. But there’s a positive implication as well: not much is wasted here. (One of the consolations of serving in a poor part of the world is how little is thrown away.)
The poem goes on to amplify its description of the park: old men playing backgammon, lovers sneaking off behind a hedge, a group of teenagers smoking. As in a number of Hamilton’s poems, the focus moves from the concrete to the abstract, in this case language (a waitress explains the dual meaning of “oven” as the poem’s speaker blushes) and, ultimately, love.
The blurb from poet Ravi Shankar on the back of The Land of the Four Rivers describes Hamilton’s poems as “ardent” and “earnest.” I think he’s right. There is no cynicism here. Hamilton’s poems are honest portraits of the world he came to know as a Volunteer and are untainted by sarcastic asides or winking irony. His conclusions are hopeful:
I did not come here to arrogantly yield to bucket baths
and icicle bedrooms. I hope the Armenians see me as a friend,
a border guard of charity.
We speak a different language, but speak to the same God.
Several of Hamilton’s poems evoke God, all without post-modern slight of hand. Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest on the top of Armenia’s Mount Ararat, thus in ”Solitude”: “I walk with the children of Noah./They dance white foam and blue reflection.” A former Benedictine Monk, Hamilton doesn’t always come to praise God. “Winds of May” features a man “searching for his dead son” and the poem’s speaker who is looking for a father. The poem’s conclusion: “The two of us are alone and angry with God.”
The thirty poems in The Land of the Four Rivers give us a vivid and rich portrait of Armenia. Envy Matthew Hamilton: When he’s asked about his Peace Corps experience, he can skip the photos and instead hand over his lovely book.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Award from the University of Notre Dame Press, and four other books. His novel Julia & Rodrigo is forthcoming from Gival Press in 2013. He is a professor of English and directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.