Like a Sea by Samuel Amadon
(University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, 2010)
The title of Samuel Amadon’s book refers, presumably, to the condition of the speaker, and his integration -- I might say dissolution -- into his surroundings. Amadon recognizes the uniqueness, the strangeness, in the everyday. In terms of the lexicon, this observational skill is most effective; in terms of form (can we speak of poetic lexicon separate from form? the question is rhetorical), Amadon’s rhythmic invention moves this perception of strangeness away from things and toward perception of things as a kind of “thing” itself. That is, the great subject of the book is perception, which we read as language derived from the observation of things but later operates as a force to make things (and language) manifest.
Amadon’s sense of rhythm and repetition is startling; the poems are nearly lyrical (at least sonically; they must be read aloud), and I have the sense of the cold salt air blowing through the lines -- the writing is that powerfully imagistic. But this is not an easy book to navigate. Some poems, such as “Like an Evening” which opens section two, challenge the reader to work out the line breaks and punctuation (or lack thereof):
Comfort is not what keeps me here
deciding I cannot like my seat as much
as what it means to topple
out and onto where it would be difficult
to separate me from the airport
when it is instead the plane
taking off; I could go several ways
with how best to put everything
should come together is no longer available
now that I am aware I govern
what makes what I govern
differ not from how it must seem
staying where you wish to be.
The choice of “topple” is pitch-perfect, as is the decision to separate the verb from the particle (maintaining the “out and onto” combination); that is poetic gift. Read the poem aloud: the rhythm of “out and onto”; the syncopation in the relative clause in the first line; the slurring of the concept “govern” in lines 10 and 11. Also, pair line 1 with line 14; line 2 with line 13; and so on, and you’ll tease out further repetitions of theme and image. I can’t speak to the poet’s intention, but I can recognize the gift of structural sense that generates these kinds of connections. Challenging, but greatly rewarding.
But, consider this excerpt from “Each H (XI),” the poem that opens section four:
Humming it human condition was how
Here there on the coast by the sea
Heat is piano to the automobile to
Me to move with interest in thought
Is how everything is a surface passing
Me to overcrowded platform human
Kindness in the grooves of where I am well-
Formed like children in the gallery
One has a place to know they are quietly amassing
Like you what pushed me
Off the mat past the porch supports
There there many in their weak passes . . .
By the time we reach this section of the book the poems have for the most part broken into stanzas (the term “broken” is most appropriate), with the exception of the stream of consciousness prose-poems “A Mountain Is” and “Foghorns”; no doubt this is intentional, as the persona of the speaker has itself fragmented (as is evidenced if by nothing else than the challenge to keep the pronouns straight). The language is disordered; sonic repetitions are present, but the ligature of the language is gone - - or at least, misappropriated. Again, I’m sure this is intentional, but the challenge of book after section one is that it positions the reader in opposition to the syntactical imperative: the (innate) desire, an impellation, to derive meaning from language ordered into a system. This has to do, on some level, with the human necessity, hardwired, for pattern recognition and sense-making.
But must poetry conform to this imperative? Obviously not. Connection occurs (if I may speak of “purpose”) not only in linear but also in vertical (and vertiginous) modes (just as the film critic Maya Deren speaks of linear “narrative” structure vs vertical “poetic” structure in experimental film discourse). If discourse is not syntactical, it is left to the reader (in the absence of internal instruction) to determine the order, or at least a purpose for the disorder (assuming the poem is not simply a mass of verbiage; a poet writes with the intention to communicate something, either through language or form). Poetic discourse creates its own form (as Emerson tells us, “Ask the fact for the form”); a poem is the form it generates because it can not be anything else.
So the most interesting question to me regarding Amadon’s book involves relation to the reader. The excellence of the writing is beyond doubt; the challenge lies in the navigation of Amadon’s “sea” of rhythmic swells.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). His book Conversing in Figures: Emerson, Poetry, Cinema is forthcoming. Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.