Review: Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail by Ralph Hamilton

TAIL_FRONTTeaching a Man to Unstick His Tail
(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015)
by Ralph Hamilton

Reviewer: Kristina Marie Darling

Ralph Hamilton’s debut poetry collection, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail, shows us that the task at hand is not finding new ways to experiment. Rather, the truly compelling work is that which exists at the interstices of tradition and innovation, allowing them to illuminate and complicate one another. With that in mind, Hamilton’s book reads as both poetry and an experiment in literary criticism, an insightful commentary on the contemporary literary landscape. Hamilton cautions us away from creating a new avant-garde, instructing us instead to explore the possibility of dialogue, exchange, conversation between literary and aesthetic traditions. This desire to wed tradition and experimentation, form and formlessness, and freedom and constraint is enacted in the book’s most subtle stylistic choices. Here, readers will encounter centos of found text and deconstructions of poems by Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarell, and John Berryman alongside pristine tercets, quatrains and couplets.

Throughout this carefully structured collection, Hamilton often creates startling and provocative juxtapositions. Midway through the collection, for example, the lyric fragments of “Varietal Attachment” (“Some spread out wide near the surface   Some sink/a taproot down deep   Some like oak to seek brothers and/cousins with which to entwine…”) give rise to a poem sequence inspired by the assemblages of Joseph Cornell (“We live in a box/built for birds…”). In many ways, it is the pairing of these two pieces that instructs the reader as to the poems’ terms. The first poem, then, becomes an assemblage, a collage of carefully chosen fragments of experience, literary styles, and artistic traditions.

Within individual poems as well, Hamilton allows received forms and experimentation to coexist in the same rhetorical space. Throughout the book, this tension between tradition and innovation is enacted on the level of the individual poem as lyric fragments are made to inhabit tercets and quatrians, and the work of canonical literary figures is appropriated, reconfigured. Consider “Idyll,”

a cloudless night like this

how still it is         dark green

upon the distant heights
appearing unannounced

the moon       now, as desire

and the thing desired…

Described in an epigraph as an “Auden Cento,” Hamilton’s dismantling and resurrection of the cannon he has inherited is indeed provocative, as it takes place within the parameters of a received form. Here, tradition contains within it the beginnings of its own demise. Yet Hamilton shows us that even this destruction of canonical works takes place within the vast terrain of our literary inheritance. What is perhaps most thought-provoking about poems like this one is the fact that Hamilton shows us, through form and technique, that contemporary practices in conceptual poetry (appropriation, oulipo writing, the use of found text, and erasure) are not so far from constraint and the vast repertoire of received forms that we have inherited, the cento being merely one example. With that in mind, Hamilton’s book is an impressive debut, as carefully rendered as it is incisive in its analysis of the contemporary literary landscape.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund.  Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.    

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