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Illinois, My Apologies

August 9, 2011

Justin Hamm sent me his 2011 volume entitled Illinois, My Apologies because I asked to read and review it, as part of my effort to cast my nets wide in reading recently published poetry in preparation for the Indie Lit poetry awards coming up in September.

I first heard of this volume from Amateur Reader, who is also, in this case, something of a regional reader. Probably Mr. Hamm didn’t suspect that I also have some regional interest, as it’s no longer obvious from my accent or my mailing address that I grew up in Southeast Missouri, across the river from the part of Illinois that is the subject of these poems. In fact he mentions Cape Girardeau, the town where I grew up, in my favorite of the poems (he calls it “Cape,” which is how you refer to it if you’re from around there). You can see Cape on the map of the US—it’s the part of Missouri right above the “boot heel” that sticks out—the town is built out from a cape in the Mississippi river.

My favorite of the poems is entitled “Goodbye, Sancho Panza,” and I think it captures something about what it’s like to feel yourself stuck in the Illinois river delta, with a college town (Cape) as the closest destination that doesn’t involve the danger of crossing too many of Missouri’s “deep winding caverns.”

I meet
a Slim Jim munching
Sancho Panza
goateed now
all leathered out
and in close contact
with his inner beast

Five hundred years
after the death
of his beloved mule
he rides a Kawasaki
wants to know if I will
sally forth with him
through Missouri
as his loyal
dimwit squire

There’s this broad
he’s s’pposed to meet
near the riverside in Cape
he explains

So I pull out my blues harp
and toot a few notes
while I think of the baby
my sweet scented daughter
whose pudgy upturned nose
matches my own

A newborn’s a fragile thing
a soft cooing heap
of possibly maybe
long before it hardens
into something permanent
like a soul
and for the first three weeks
I refused to use her name

Earlier tonight I drank
to overcoming these fears
to Jesus and Science
and green bean casserole
but Sancho is as sober
as an ice cube
as serious as any
grain of sand
and despite the longing
I’m forced to decline

Missouri is veined with
deep winding caverns
so many of her secrets
tightly concealed
and anyway I’m
too old and civilized
for the sort of digging
it would take
to learn anything good

Reading the interviews available at Justin Hamm’s website reassures me that although he might have felt a bit stuck in southern Illinois when he was younger, he means the title of this volume; there is no irony in his apology to Illinois, or in his regret that he didn’t go “digging” for Missouri’s secrets when he was young and unfettered enough to try. And even though I can’t share much of his regret, being a person who still feels a certain degree of “oh-no-I’ll-be-trapped-again” panic whenever I cross the Mississippi River bridge to drive into Cape, the affection of the poem’s speaker for the kind of person who would try to “sally forth” on a motorcycle to get to a college bar in the hopes of finding his Dulcinea is, well, sweet.

This is Hamm’s first volume, and all the poems in it describe a young man growing up in southern Illinois; they tell a coming-of-age story about a speaker who is conscious of his own “teenboy angst” but also capable of turning a corner suddenly to reveal that “I may even have been pulling out/my own eyelashes” as a result of that angst.

The corners are the best parts of these poems.  Another example is when after more conventional images, you read that “need always/scalds like Tuesday’s mist.” Mist that scalds? Yes, because the next line is “but autumn will water again” and the corner is turned; the mist scalds because it is burned off too quickly by the kind of strong sunlight you can get pretty early in the morning near “the river churning.”

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2011 8:04 am

    Wow, this sounds like a great collection…I’ll have to check that I’ve added it to the list. LOL I may have forgotten with all the hubbub. I hope you got my invite for the poetry group discussions of the nominees — its on goodreads… We need a place to discuss the final nominees and where we can select the winner.

  2. August 9, 2011 8:49 am

    I have always wanted to visit Cape. I enjoyed living in and exploring Missouri but the closest I got to that corner was Poplar Bluff. Spent more than a few days in PB but had no time to wander further.

    • August 9, 2011 10:05 pm

      I’m not sure why Cape would be a tourist destination, aside from the fact that in the new musical The Book of Mormon one character sings that “the garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri,” and so is Cape!

      • August 11, 2011 7:59 am

        golly, aint that the place with them throwed rolls?!

      • August 11, 2011 10:39 pm

        and I was confused about Jackson County, Missouri–the Mormon “Eden” is in Independence, where there’s a temple with a roof ready to open when Jesus arrives.

        • September 6, 2011 10:07 am

          I’ve been to that temple. They have a spiral tower that supposedly will give Jesus a gently fall / slide to earth. Not sure where I heard that…

          • September 6, 2011 10:12 am

            Interesting that they think he needs the help…

  3. August 9, 2011 10:35 am

    Great poem.

  4. August 9, 2011 3:30 pm

    This collection would be a swing and a miss for me. Four years was long enough in Cape, and I sure don’t want to read poetry about any part of it!

    • August 9, 2011 10:07 pm

      Really it’s about southern Illinois. You know, the part you have to drive through to get to SIU Carbondale. Thickest fog in the country. Where the Purple Crackle used to be.

  5. August 9, 2011 11:44 pm

    Wonderful to read about your personal angle towards this book. Wonderful to read more about the book!

  6. August 10, 2011 8:37 am

    Like you, I had trouble writing a more typical review. I kind of wanted to just chortle over lines like “as sober/ as an ice cube.”

  7. hotshot bald cop permalink
    September 2, 2011 1:17 am

    Thank you for a great post.

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