An interview with Sam Hamill

Sam's translations from Crossing the Yellow River.


Books at bn.com by Sam Hamill


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“Sisyphus” was first printed in Great River Review


In “Zuihitsu” Isa's haiku says: “As old age arrives / considering just the day's length / can move one to tears.”


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Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill

Gazing Down the Fairway, I Think of Po Chu-i

8888888888888888 to Gary Lemons

I've thought of you often enough, old friend,
on the rolling fairways of Chevy Chase
during all those long years you didn't play.
Now old and gray, unable to walk the course,
I stand behind you again, recalling
the ancient Chinese sages who checked my
swing and kept my score card the first ten years
I played. Golf is Zen. Throw the score card out
or keep it like a flower. Mulligans
are nourishment when forgiveness is required.

It's not about the score. It's not “about.”
Not any more than Zen. Living masters
teach foolish men like us what playing means.
Zen begins in sitting and the back swing
is born in the mind. The swing is yogic,
the self most difficult to overcome.
Obi-One-Kabogey says our folly
is our wisdom: thinking too much, thinking
too little. It's simply the practice--all we
can become, all we are, in this moment.

Judging the Poetry Award

Oh, how they suffer in their poetry,
all the young poets-and I mean by “young”
the fortyish, ones who've mastered the craft
enough to be interesting-they suffer
so deliberately, always asking
why the life they imagined slipped away
so easily.
8888888888888888 Here are the gloves, the shoes,
and there is a place for emptiness, too,
and their lovers without any faces.

There's never anything to go back to.
Former lovers, husbands, discarded wives,
it could all become the art of detail
if we could forgive ourselves. But there is
more to poetry than that.
888888888888888888888888888 “Neither life
nor death is the answer,” the old man wrote,
“where the dead walked / and the living were made
of cardboard.”
888888888888888888888 In the great acorn of light
an hour before sunrise, old snow melting,
falling through the trees, I quote with a laugh,
“Disney against the metaphysicals.”

Well, fuck it. Their desperation is theirs
because they want it. I'm not splitting hairs
when I say I cannot understand it
because our loneliness cannot be shared,
the self is not an isolated thing,
and from exactly such contradictions
poetry lifts one's weariest eyes to
find the rushlight that leads back to splendor.


888888888888 To H.C. and J.H.

It's strange, isn't it,
waking up to realize
one day that you've gone
over the hill, as they say,
and are facing the short side

of your string of days-
as Chuang Tzu aptly put it-
and then you begin
to face, not urgency, not
fear of death, but real comfort

in saying, “So this
is what I've become, this is
the man I am and
now I can take it easy,”
except that there ought to come

a time when the last
trace of last night's moon shining
in the water won't
move us to the edge of tears,
free of Sisyphean tasks,

when a beautiful
woman is not enough to
bring us dutifully
to our knees, or when the need
to undulate with warblers

floating on a breeze
is enough to make you scream.
Sisyphus was young.
He pushed the huge stone of self
until he became undone.

Even the stories
are sweeter for the young-who
drink too deeply
often enough and wander
in a semi-drunken state

of equal parts bliss
and all seven deadly sins.
In a warm spring rain,
the first cherry blossoms fall,
covering the path like snow.

Issa would be pleased.
I wouldn't be young again
for any damned thing.
Here's Mathios Paskalis
still among those Greek roses,

and, Seferis says,
his nose has grown wrinkled while
his pipe keeps smoking
as he descends the stone steps
that never come to an end.

I am beginning
at last to understand what
Seferis really
meant when he said, “I want
no more than to speak simply,

to be granted that
grace.” Simplicity's the end,
just a period
at the end of a compound
complex sentence, the great stone

of Sisyphus seen
from the hill's other side.
Let old men converse
across the abyss of time. We'll
watch salamanders couple

in a green pool's shade
and remember the passions
we indulged when we
were forty-five. Old age comes
more quickly than Yangtze floods.

And it's not all bad.
We can set a sturdy pace.
When there's nothing left
to prove, simplicity is
the very nature of things.

Chuang Tzu's fisherman
brought Confucius to his knees.
To follow the way,
he says with his sly grin, is
to finally reach completion.

Which is not an end,
but a means. Sisyphean
tasks, like lost causes,
are the only ones worthwhile.
And then the robin sings.


8888888888888888 for Kimiko Hahn

     Oinomi wa
     hi no nagai ni mo
     namida kana


I sat down to write
something like the zuihitsu,
the almost formless
form that may be the source of
the Japanese “pillow book,”

which is not-as some
seem to think-about erotic
life exclusively,
except inasmuch as life
itself defines erotic

reality in
the flesh that blossoms within
and grows and withers
in its seemingly endless
return to original source.

The erotic, like
the pillow book, is composed
almost at random,
its inspiration drawn from
all daily experience.

Thus zuihitsu has
no predetermined form, no
prescribed subject or
manner, only the almost
random associations

that one thing reveals
about another. So that
when my Japanese
friend remarked of a young girl
that she had daikon ashi,

I misunderstood,
thinking that what he meant was
radishes as big
as a girl's leg, where he meant
legs as white as a radish.

In his neighborhood,
all the doors to homes have signs
of one character:
enu, dog. That says it all.
The old woman arriving

for morning sutras
an hour before dawn asked me
whether I'm Buddhist.
I said, “Yes, I'm Zen.” She said,
“This isn't a Zen temple.”

“That's okay,” I said,
“I don't understand the words
anyway.” She grinned
almost toothlessly and said,
“Neither do these young monks.

They think they will live
forever.” I remember
Birkin's instructions
on the proper way to eat
a fig in Women in Love.

It's far more purely
erotic than poor Lady
Chatterly weaving
flowers into her lover's
pubic hair. Sei Shonagon

is far more discreet,
but no less revealing, each
entry in her great
pillow book composed with such
intimacy as can be

not by style or by subject,
but by quality
of attention invested
in each luminous detail.

After months of rain,
a cold clear sky and bright sun
to welcome the Year
of the Rabbit. The plump tongues
of apricot, peach and plum

are waiting to be
tasted in the mouths of those
departed lovers
of a thousand years ago.
Sei Shonagon died in rags,

in utter squalor,
unheralded and unloved,
even her own name
erased from all she'd written.
I'll go out in the garden

when it's warm enough
and sit on a stump or stone
and think of nothing.
Although we have never met,
although we are worlds apart,

you made my heart beat
just a little more clearly
today. What you gave
and all that I took away.
Across culture and gender,

across time and space,
in this old book of the heart,
one small notation
follows the next and the next.
The world of ten thousand things,

and within each, amazing grace.