Forrest Hamer's poems are open and forthcoming, democratic and generous, inviting readers into them. They are not, however, strictly lyrical meditations. Once inside, we're transported to a realm of history and myth, identity, culture, family and religion. Written in a deceptively simple style, Hamer's verses combine the rhythms of the blues, gospel choirs and everyday speech with the lucidity of thought that arrives only after years of focused reflection. His are narrative poems, but backed by quiet lyricism and often profound insight.
A practicing psychologist, Hamer has little difficulty calling up memories and applying them to present circumstances. In his poem "Getting Happy," for example, from his award-winning first collection, Call and Response (Alice James Books, 1995), he calls up the dynamic church services of his youth in North Carolina, where "the women's trances / made them dance with moaning" in order to respond to, later in the poem, his "fear that moaning will uncover / the love for my mother that is still / so deep that I want little more." The result is an imaginative and emotional connection between the past and present; this unified impression is what lyric poetry does best.
In several poems in his latest collection, Middle Ear (Roundhouse, 2000), Hamer weaves allusions to Robert Johnson's famous deal with devil, that crossroads bargain granting the bluesman an otherworldly ability to communicate with and via his guitar. The opening stanza of the collection's first poem, "Arrival," sets the tone:
They say Robert Johnson couldn't play that guitar one lick
until he gave his soul away, and that his voice near itched.
Folks became amazed by the music he could make,
once they listened.
Hamer is wise enough to know we all bargain with our devils, and Middle Ear is rife with contemplations of those negotiations. By the end of the collection, after Hamer has reflected on just about everything under the sun and moon, but especially on achieving middle-age"But there is now less time before death / than there is from being conceived"we are indeed listening. As Hamer writes in "Taking Leave,"
Turning to go, I also know
I can hear now.
Before I knew this, I would say
And what a sorrow that seemed.
The poet will read from his work, 8 p.m. April 5 in Wilson 126 on the Vanderbilt University campus.
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