Monday, June 25, 2012

From the Festival: William O'Daly's Tribute to Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill

William O'Daly's Tribute to Sam Hamill
Split This Rock Poetry Festival, 2012

I was an 18-year old college freshman at U.C. Santa Barbara when, in the spring of 1970, I met Sam Hamill. It wasn’t until that fall, however, that Sam and I sat over coffee in the student union and got acquainted. It took little time for me to recognize that in Sam, I was experiencing a phenomenon that was all too rare. Sam lived as a true individual, a determined and conscientious poet and activist, and a force of nature.

Today, all of this remains evident and true, defining who Sam is and has been for as long as I’ve called him my friend. In addition to his public accomplishments, of which you all are aware, Sam was a devoted husband to his late wife, Gray, and is a loving father to daughter, Eron; a darned good cook and gardener; a fan of jazz, blues, and country music; a dog lover; and when granted a little time and the company of an accomplice or three, a real player on the golf course.

Sam Hamill remains a vital spokesperson for the global community of poetry and for our inalienable right of self-determination—by what he values, by his words and his actions, and above all, by their confluence. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to stand beside that creative river for over 40 years and feel the uncommon shiver of what’s real.

Here’s to you, Sam!

A Simple Gift

Yes, dear and oldest friend, every fall 
the wounded saguaro fill with rain
from the Gulf of Mexico,
their priestly shadows suffer blizzards
that tore through the bad old days, years
the highway conjured a simpler horizon.
Do you remember how the bald tires
blew? Not in the whitest heat of Zion
summer, but in our unlikely return—
rain drumming Me and Bobby McGhee
against the windshield, singing Creeley
from the Great Salt Lake to the distant sea.
Perhaps it’s true, where coyote groans
in the poisoned canyon, a drifting road
calls our bones. Clouds tumble, a paycheck
arrives, we set out for other mountains,
under cold beasts orphaned by Orion.

Dawn rolled across the desert, over us
camped beside the unknowing flowing—
the beautiful Williams River. We boiled old
grounds over a twiggy fire, and drove all day
with the river’s breath and pulse, to reclaim
ways of seeing long since lost. Broken down,
the valves smoking miles shy of Eureka,
we waited beside the highway for help
or the law, and shared the last can
of Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee. Maybe it’s true,
we’ve had enough blistering sun,
perched in this imaginary mecca
that neither forgives nor grieves.

Friend, even in the early days
we knew the poets who blazed trails
and fought exile would be freed only by
death. McGrath has left the old high road
for the hieroglyphic fire, Kenneth’s temple bell 
no longer rings in the ears of swallows, 
Art Blakey’s metalflake snares dance 
only in the heart’s garden. The garden’s 
heart longs to break into sixteenth notes 
Mr. Coltrane used to blow to reach his heaven, 
a real gone, deep-fired perfection. 
And the day! how it frees itself 
from the light that bears us in its belly, 
in an insignificant meal of muffins 
and eggs, in the solitary life built 
of renga, thick cedar, buddha dog 
and his shameless nature. An egg 
cradled in the hand remains an egg, 
whether a dying chick or yolk 
that blooms in the pan—it’s the song heard 
by a deaf mute and the fear retold 
in ten thousand generations,
the indifference of the ocean 
that balances the inner ear.

The road rolls out before us, 
past the beet packing plant 
and the dry beds of Utah, 
to places we have never been. 
Let us go, in this single cyclic gift 
that cannot be withheld: our song.

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