Review of American Ephemeral by Justin Hamm
American Ephemeral by Justin Hamm
Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2017
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
American Ephemeral, by Justin Hamm, is a perfect book to read in the month of June. It contains strong father poems, great baseball poems, and it gets us ready for the 4th of July. Fireworks are ephemeral, but often we keep seeing them, after they’re gone, written on the dark sky.
I keep seeing farmers and fathers in this book, a dead mother, rusty old cars, poverty, and grit; I keep hearing music. The poem “Oklahoma” grabbed me, partly because I was born in Oklahoma, partly because of all the “red dirt” in this poem. Though I was still a baby when I left, I keep a jar of red dirt from my home state. Oklahoma is “[w]here grown-old pickups go / to live out their remaining days,” where a “grizzled old cowboy / …leans smoking against [a] tailgate” and “scans the red dirt horizon” for something he might not find. On the facing page is a photo of the Green Acres Motel, taken by the poet. Writing about the making of this book as a guest blogger for Escape Into Life, Hamm says he “sequenced the photos [into the book] as if they were poems.” He chose them for how they conversed with the other poems, even if some are “blurred with motion, obscured with fog or water…” or because they are.
I was struck by two powerful father/baseball poems in American Ephemeral, and baseball is, after all, our national pastime in America. “In Little League Once” tells the story of a father grabbing the collar of a coach who grabbed the collar of his son. We have collar-grabbing stories in our family, too. There’s no condoning of violence here. It’s just this:
I guess part
of me just wishes
every little boy
had one chance
to see his old man
Yes! To see his dad as a hero who would protect and defend him. It might indeed be just the “one chance.” In “If Only Ken Burns,” a title that makes us think this might be a baseball documentary, we instead move back in time and into myth, to watch the hero Odysseus and his son Telemachus play a neighborhood pickup game. Telemachus has the chance to catch a “towering popup to left” but his father “snares it barehanded / just inches from the boy’s outstretched glove.” This moment pinched my heart with its truth; I felt the boy’s pain, the father’s possible pain… In stanza two, the son, older now, “holds two weather-beaten / lumps of broken cowleather” out to his father, “not quite in offering.” Will there be a game of catch? A repetition of mistrust? Or a chance for reconciliation?
In “Late August,” I could feel the heat, taste the orange soda, smell the meat cooking over charcoal, hear the crunch of dry grass underfoot, and still I was surprised by the inevitability of storm and of violence. American Ephemeral surprised me with ghosts and fallen heroes, fedoras and fabulous last lines. (I’ll let you find all of these! But two favorite last lines end “Museum Guard’s Blues” and “Three Days Driving Through Scrubby Desert…”.) This book has humor, like the eerie humor of “Marriage (Detail),” which you can find here at EIL, alongside the sadness and silence in the same marriage in the wonderfully titled prose poem, “Children in the Middle Ages.”
What a wonderful book of poems. Read it this summer. How can you resist a book with a poem called “Pay Phones in the Underworld”?