Lessons in Ruin
by Justin Hamm
Aldrich Press, 2014
76 pages, Paper
Reviewed by: Karen J. Weyant
The exploration of place is a common journey depicted in many of today’s poetry collections. David St. John, in the foreword to Poets on Place: Interviews & Tales from the Road, explains, “Those places from which we come and those to which we’ve moved provide the ground against which the figures of our lives move, change and depart.” Indeed, sense of place is more than just a mere setting – it frames the characters and the stories found in all works that strive to capture a given location and time. It’s within the framework of the Midwestern landscape that poet Justin Hamm, in his first full-length collection, Lessons in Ruin, explores the stories and land that shape the world around him.
Hamm’s collection spans stories and reflections from childhood to adulthood, and many of the strongest narratives embrace a teenager’s frustrated perception of the Midwest. In “Illinois, My Apologies,” the narrator explains that at a young age, “I always believed that to be/heard from the Midwest/you had to scream.” And screams he does, “in lungfulls” before the poem takes a fairytale like turn where the narrator meets an Old Man who emerges from the cornfield and cautions him “to listen to the landscape itself.” It seems as if the narrator does listen, although it takes him many years to heed the advice, for he explains, “For once my first thought/was not to scream/but to turn my ear to the open/and listen.”
And indeed, in the poems that follow, readers will find a narrator who is both a careful listener and a precise recorder, always striving to recollect the stories of the Midwest without inserting sentimentality or enforcing stereotyped images. For instance, In “The Last Day of Summer” the reader will be introduced to a small group of boys who have “discovered/their own invincibility/and beer.” In another poem, “Tent Revival” the narrator finds an exasperated fondness for the “crimson-faced pastor” who “howls a river of crooked creekbable” asserting that he while he once believed that “something grand” could have taken place at tent revival events, he admits that now he is “still too much made/out of low terrestrial gravies/to sing such a celestial song.” Even the immobile get their own stories as detailed in “Last Lesson in Ruin” where the poet invokes a scarecrow to “Step/forward, scarecrow, and walk/where your knees get lost/in snakegrass and cockleburs.”
Throughout much of his work, Hamm explores the influences of the physical world on the people, creating images so that his characters and their stories draw strength and endurance from the land. This careful negotiation of language is the most exemplified by the poem “At Sixteen” where the reader sees working fathers whose physical appearances mirror the tired landscapes:
All of its fathers stretch
bleary eyed and bitter
about their swollen
and their endless
The poet moves on to compare these fathers to their “beardless sons” who are “unknowingly rolling/ into their fathers’ skins/and their fathers’ troubles.” Thus, the landscape becomes an important part of not only binding stories to characters, but also binding generations together.
In poems that span the narrator’s adult years, the reader sees the poet doing more contemplating and less storytelling. For example, in “The Flour Epiphany” after a morning of making biscuits, the speaker gazes in the mirror and he sees his father staring back at him in two versions:
One as a young man
when he wore so much drywall dust
with a vast, innocent dignity
and one as an old, old man
when the color will be nothing
more than another sign
of his accumulated age.
This sudden image makes the poet not only ponder his relationship with his father, but also to ask the question, “Is it really so wrong to want/to hold certain things/while your grip is still strong?”
Whether it’s through lyrical observations of place or narratives that recall the past, it’s obvious that the poet is embracing both the people and the landscape around him. In “First Lesson in Ruin” he tells his daughter of the Missouri landscape: “We have no pyramids here/no stirring Greek temples./But we too have our echoes.” It’s these echoes that are caught in Hamm’s collection: echoes full of stories that reflect the Midwestern landscape in all its worn, and sometimes disfigured beauty.
Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and reviews can be found in can be found in the Barn Owl Review, Caesura, Cave Wall, Cold Mountain Review, Conte, Green Mountains Review, Prick of the Spindle and River Styx. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Stealing Dust (Finishing Line Press, 2009) and Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt (Winner of Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook Contest). Her poem, “The Summer I Stopped Catching Bees” was included in Sundress Publications’ 2011 Best of the Net Anthology. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. Her website is www.karenjweyant.com