Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
As the Roman dramatist Terence famously wrote, “I am a man. Therefore nothing human is foreign to me.” More than most writers, especially young ones, Matthew A. Hamilton succeeds in giving us an authentic sense of this human amplitude. The range of Lips Open and Divine, his second book of poems, is astonishing. Whether it is in “Thich Quang Duc” witnessing the flames crawling up a self-immolating Buddhist monk’s arms like “a tamed cat” or in “Chickamauga” “accepting/the dry-bone shouts/of a lost cause,” Hamilton is on the scene. His originality lies in his ability to go for the jugular in terms of shock value while remaining, essentially, within the realm of prayer.
Hamilton is a veteran as well as an RPCV, and Lips Open and Divine has much in common with books by other American Vietnam-and-beyond soldier poets such as Kerry James Evans, Brian Turner, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigler and Doug Anderson. The poet Ai — who has written dramatic monologues in the voices of Jimmy Hoffa, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, Joseph R. McCarthy, Ferdinand Marcos, Elvis Presley, J. Edgar Hoover, and James Dean, to name a few—may qualify as even more of a kindred spirit. Hamilton’s personas include the famous (Jimmy Jones, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan and Thomas Merton) as well as the anonymous (soldiers waiting to kill Bin Laden, a North Korean living under Kim Jong-Un, a girl who has been abducted and is being held hostage in a basement, a Third World man selling his kidney to a tourist, and an Afghan National Army soldier in cahoots with both the Americans and the Taliban). Although Hamilton does not push as far as Ai does into the realm of the transgressive, his gaze is similarly unflinching. As Kim Long-un’s subject says in “The Hermit Kingdom,”
We praise our great leader for all he has done for us.
He gives us cows.
The cows give us shit.
The shit gives us leftover corn.
We eat the corn with a smile.
I must confess that at times while reading Lips Open and Divine, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like a prisoner in Plato’s cave, albeit one hip to my limited circumstances. I kept struggling to get beyond apprehending the poems, if not as shadows on the wall, then as colorful but indistinct slides in a slide show. Without question, the poems proved arresting, but in some cases their realities struck me as vague. I kept wondering whether, if I could remove my chains of ignorance (for example, by boning up on the history of Armenia or the Philippines), I could behold a truer reality.
“The Secrets of the Dead,” for example, opens with the riveting scene of a girl giving birth on the side of the road. The backdrop seems to be the Armenian genocide. “The Pasha believed/the Armenians were lower than dogs,” we are told, but we don’t get any real clarification. Was the child who is already dead on the road killed by the Armenians? Is the girl giving birth the speaker’s grandmother (whom we are told was sold for forty pieces of silver)? The stanzas don’t all fuse psychologically the way they need to, and the poet gets to the culminating “resurrection of the sleeping rib” by too much of a shortcut.
The good news is that any failings in this vein result from Hamilton’s attempted push toward the visionary. The poet is struggling to use “the eye of the soul” to see. Hence the “divine” in the title seems totally warranted. We are living in dream time. We are inhabiting heaven and hell.
My favorite poems in the book tended to be the ones in which a little tenderness manifested itself. In “Xbox War Crimes,” for example, a soldier father in Afghanistan poses a series of questions via Xbox to his son 6,000 miles away. The question What do you know of hardship? backfires when the son responds, I miss my dad, and the meaning of “war crimes” in the title becomes richly layered. In “Witness,” the speaker, who attests to his working-class father’s having accused his mother of sleeping with the mailman and then having hit her with a tire iron, also testifies to his father’s having hugged him after he returned from Afghanistan. A domestic scene becomes scarily global when the son informs us that his father’s voice trails “like IED shrapnel” behind him.
There is a riskiness to Hamilton’s poems that I admire tremendously. In “Tombstone Inscription,” the speaker tells us that his last words discharged silence “like humility hemorrhaging.” You might say that in Lips Open and Divine, humility is hemorrhaging all over the place. That’s where the connection with prayer comes in. This is not a closed-off, self-important book. The radical contingency between self and world is everywhere apparent.
Reviewer Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won both the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Writers and Readers Award.
After over six years of directing the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Murray State University, she just stepped down and is looking forward to having more time to write. She is currently editing an issue of New Madrid journal on the theme of “Imaging Peace.”