Questions for Animals
In her second book, Hamilton writes of the unspeakable, both as it is at the heart of Buddhist question practice and as it occurs in the circumstances of incest: in this book, the unspeakable complicates the unspeakable. Does Buddhistic practice encourage the erasure of the self much as poetic practice encourages the erasure of a poet’s reading and narrative self from a poem, or as an act of rape teaches its child victim self-erasure? Hamilton’s exploration often takes the form of the sonnet, a word that Paul Oppenheimer has suggested has its origin in sonitus, the music of the spheres perceived as deafening; multiple meanings emerge and dissipate in the poems, giving the reader space to have a circular and visceral experience of this moving work.
“Peggy Hamilton’s Questions for Animals offers the reader no quarter—‘no layoff,’ as Niedecker once wrote, ‘from this condensery.’ Serried formations of what look like sonnets torque off of Dante, the life of the Buddha, the proverbial Chinese stages of femalenesss (‘at 10, a girl; at 20, a woman; at 30, a wolf; at 40, a tiger; 50 and beyond, a dragon’), and Sergio Leone’s cinematic extravaganzas. Leone had defamiliarized John Ford’s Wild West, making his cowboys speak American English and American violence with an accent; similarly, Hamilton’s poems speak their dramas of childhood, of family, of jammed emotional entanglement in a brogue, a lilting stammer that at once calls to mind Britain’s Celtic Fringe and impresses us with the poet’s ‘gesture’s authoring compression.’ This is a dense and uncomfortable book, brilliant and uncompromising. It will stay with you: ‘at its lees its further aye / that blue that green / out of traces / side away / seedside.’” —Mark Scroggins
Once skin teaches you body’s not to feel
with it grows to solve other problems fires
get tired of burning every bed
they’ve been in down ashes look so soft
but you would never spend the night anyhow
oh she wanted you to opening her
mouth to your leavings’ straight back girlskin
you drummed hilt tang and sheath blades would kill them
what hard enough to grind against a dream
of whetstone skin draws your eyes boy floating
molten seethe yes bag of knives pain edge hard
are grieves of manhood of cooling body’s
solution ground stays knife in whet to hold
double fire breathe liquefy him aspire
Copyright © 2013 by Peggy Hamilton
Read an interview with Peggy Hamilton at Rob McLennan's blog "12 or 20 Questions."
My first word was misheard. Well, mistranslated maybe, and then misrepresented my entire life. (No spoiler alert! Read Questions for Animals! The word and its mistranslation are there!)
It never occurred to me, ever, to correct it. I thought , since I knew when I said it that it was my first real intentional dialogic communication-- rather than pointing and naming, which somehow apparently didn't "count" as my first word, since the person just repeated the exact word you said, and that story never got retold-- I thought, well THIS is what happens when you really do this! How much fun! Especially since the word chosen by my mistranslator, my father, revealed what he had been looking at. Which was also what I had been looking at, sitting on his shoulders, facing the same wall. Which nevertheless occasioned two different words.
Before my baby brother could join us, because of the heat and dirt or not having been born, so probably any time up until I was in kindergarten, my mother and I would take the bus to downtown Miami. For years there was what we'd now call a morbidly-obese visually-challenged man on the street, next to what we would now call his service dog, a huge mostly black German Shepherd. Both sat behind a table laid out with rows of bright red papier maché poppies on behalf of Veterans of Foreign Wars. My mother, ever and still the patriot, would what looked like to me, buy one, complicated by the fact that she would not let my hand go while making the transaction. One day I reached out with my other hand to take the flower since I thought that would help. Unmoved, the bright red flower hovered there where I couldn't quite reach it. Once out of earshot, my mother said He couldn't see you.
He couldn't see me. What?! Here was further intrigue in this world of adults! Just then? I asked. No, he can never see you. Can he see the dog? No. Can the dog see me? Yes, she said. It's called a Seeing Eye dog.
A Seeing Eye dog! Well, she laughed after a few steps, while maintaining the iron grip on my hand/wrist/arm. Not just you. The dog doesn't just see you! This explains her grip, I thought, not in those words, probably. But it had always been my impression, for as long as I could remember, that I was not the only one, that the world was crowded with us. Oh what a day, and it wasn't over yet! After we got home I went out into the backyard and found myself a Seeing Eye dog which, like me, was invisible, and therefore meant I could finally have a dog. He was also a German Shepherd, well probably a mix, taller, thinner, reddish-colored mostly. Shep. I refuse to say how long I had that dog, but this hopefully explains to anyone who had seen me going through a door during those years (yes, years) why the person behind me either ran right into me, confirming to me, of course, that I was invisible, or stopped and said WHAT are you waiting for, confirming that Shep, who always had to go in or out first to check, was invisible.
The following consequences in my adult life should not seem especially surprising. One: cafeterias, or any place I have to ask for something that I must then eat that is likely to be misunderstood and then hovers there steaming and tilty, still seem mostly out of reach. Two: I'm endlessly surprised, and try not to be endlessly dismayed, that many people, writers perhaps most often, perceive writing as a solitary or lonely prospect. Whatever happens next, we come from, sit on the shoulders of, sometimes hold too tightly to, stand in the midst of, long lines of invisible readers and writers, each facing the wall, struck by the changeable thing we disrupted as it begins to move upward.
Acknowledgment to the not-so-invisible readers and writers: Janet The Fearless Holmes, who published my first book of poems Forbidden City after it had been accepted for publication as a contest winner elsewhere, then was declined when my race was determined. Yeah, I know, I walked right into that: "forbidden," and all, d'oh. She's the only person I had no qualms about handing Questions for Animals to with no explanation. The poems go through three sections: the worlds of cause and effect, forms, and formlessness. The early poems, then, are trying to do something much different—which could be perceived as "much less"—than the later ones. Janet, you realize you're encouraging me, don't you . . .
To my MFA thesis committee Susan Mitchell, Mark Scroggins, and Thomas Martin at FAU, who model living breathing lives "of letters." To my teaching mentors Barclay Barrios and Wenying Xu: your support of my teaching supported this manuscript.
To Rosmarie Waldrop. Your work is worlds-shattering. The title and method of Questions for Animals are meager but heartfelt homage to your translation of Edmond Jabes' The Book of Questions. To the early teachers: you'd be shocked at how present you are in my daily life: Margaret Lowry, Peter Hargitai, Lillian Schanfield, Phyllis Laszlo, Sister Dorothy Jehle, Father Thomas Clifford, Ann Swaner, Daniel Alvarez.
To my whole-life-practice Dharma teachers-through-text: Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, Karl Brunnholzl, Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni, Eido Frances Carney, Teijo Munnich, Shosan Victoria Austin, Red Pine. To my first, best book club and writers' group: Marla Sanchez Pietton, Rem Cabrera and Greta Golick.
Questions for Animals overtly engages with the fear I have as a Scots/Irish/Welsh American Buddhist . . . with 16 years of Roman Catholic education: if generation of voice, image and form is suspect at best—if not downright prohibited—how is poetry not the thinnest ice, and how am I not complicit in adding to the suffering and delusion of the world with every word I write?
Enter gong an (koan), a Buddhist language practice centered on questions. My meager question: If a thing (voice, image, form, experience) is neither good nor bad, nor any quality which immediately presents its own opposite, what is it? And what better stove to use than the sonnet, credited and blamed with the creation and immediate elevation of the interior (and hence, not or barely listening) narrative. And to those of my particular heritage, and many other heritages globally, the English sonnet and narrative stance is particularly vilified as the iron voice and prison of the Crown's syllogistic occupations.
How quickly, even here! does the language want to rush to the seemingly esoteric and cerebral.
Perhaps because I bury the lead.
"It starts stubbornly in the body," to embrace Marianne Boruch's observation of the poetic impulse or occasion, which one extends to the meditation posture, gong an, and the occasion of the reader reading any poem. Indeed in my case, and only now unflinchingly, quite literally. My father raped me before I was four. And after. As he had his sister.
If an experience is neither good nor bad, what is it. For me this has never been a rhetorical question, but one of daily living.
This was what I was taught: if you see something in the road that looks like a dead dog, but it isn't, in the instant that you let your mind think "dead dog," you've let dead-dog suffering out into the world. This was how high the stakes were, this was the degree to which minds needed policing. My dharma teacher here was my father, who also taught me that the heart of Buddhism is letting go. How convenient, ironic, dastardly. Or: he had had to teach himself those things for reasons that had nothing at all to do with me, and so he gave them to me as compassion, as a gift, as his truer legacy.
The imperative for these poems, then, is that they must remain in-the-moment and meditative, by which I mean visceral, experiences. Rhythm and syntax working with and against parts of speech and lineation push and pull to keep the reader's eye in the moment of the poem rather than encouraging a single fixed pre-determined mental image from the poem. The longer the eye remains in the small space of the poem, or what William Carlos Williams might have called the small unsentimental machine of the poem, the more likely the eye will move back up into the poem, and multiple simultaneous meanings can emerge and dissipate. Sound is deployed similarly using homophones that delay picking and choosing a single meaning or part of speech, and rhythm and rhyme encourage vowel sounds, the physical breath of the poems, to stay as open and unresolved as possible, as tonal languages and brogues do.
In the spring of 2008, Rosmarie Waldrop was the Lawrence A Sanders writer-in-residence at Florida Atlantic University where I was finishing my MFA. I had long considered her mind the diamond-tipped arrow of the West that met the arrow of Eastern Buddhist texts midair. I cannot overstate the influence her work has had on me, and her residency was a complete surprise. Each MFA student was to have a short interview with her.
"Which one are you?" she said, electric but in no hurry, peering up at me with that combination of unconcern and demandingness that I associate with all great Dharma teachers. Questions for Animals I said, and what I didn't say was that the title and the method were homages to her translation of Edmond Jabes' The Book of Questions. Her hands stop looking through the pile of papers, and one of them followed through on the upswing and freezes, stiffens. "You must know this," she said, rolling her palm upward, which now looked like it might slap me. "I absolutely hate poems about animals." After a moment of stunned silence and our four widening eyes, we both burst out laughing, renewed each time I said "I do too," or she said, "No. Really. I do," or I said "My brother and I are both named after DOGS, true story!" or she said "No. No. NO!" which is mostly what we did for our fifteen minutes. I consider that moment a real Dharma transmission, as the dead dog in the road finally and once and for all got up, and came over to see what we were laughing about.