The Hartford Book
by Samuel Amadon
Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2012
Reviewed by Andy Axel
“but I’m not sure how to remember/ what was where when/ landmarks keep disappearing”
In his Coldfront review of Samuel Amadon’s 2010 debut Like A Sea, PJ Gallo writes, “In avoiding making perfect sense in perfect syntactic units, the big emotions, the ones that make us cry or punch people in bars, have been set aside.” There are at least three bar fights in 2012’s The Hartford Book (if you count a drunk diabetic punching the EMT who brought him back to life, which I do), an unverified number of emotions, and enough death and crackheads to keep you out of Hartford for a while. As for the syntax, it’s a heck of a lot less broken than Like A Sea’s stuttering, recursive loops—grammatical clauses reasonably follow one another and add up to coherent narratives of a decaying Hartford and its captives.
The idea is, with respect to Like A Sea, The Hartford Book isn’t a horse of a different color—it’s not even a horse. It’s a book, and, as the title tells it like it is, it’s unambiguously about Hartford. People who didn’t read Like A Sea won’t be surprised there, but after the earlier work’s splintered mysteries and incessant introspection, the forthcomingness of this one’s an initial shocker. People who did read Like A Sea, and were fans of its unapologetic experimentation, abrupt mid-sentence shifts in subject, and frenetic take on making meaning might be jarred by the apparent gearshift the plainspoken monologues here suggest. But whether this is your first encounter with Amadon or you’ve been around the block, whether you’re coming to the poems for dizzying linguistics or vicarious ruin porn, The Hartford Book will draw you in like the hometown you just can’t leave behind, the scene of the crime you keep returning to.
Comparisons with Like A Sea aside (for now), The Hartford Book on its own terms is a collection of narrative monologues from a speaker looking back on (or looking out of) the fucked-up landscape he for too long called home, where each street connects to some personal or secondhand history of a Hartford that keeps caving in on itself, populated by a recurring cast of his associates and accomplices: the one who may or may not be faking cancer, the one who met the speaker at a funeral then killed himself, the one who shoots up absinthe and water while detoxing, “just going / through the motions.” These are characters doomed to stasis, dominated by “a logic they couldn’t understand/ but gave in to anyway,” and either enable or are enabled by the speaker in a host of crimes and iniquities, chief among them not getting out of Hartford. And they keep cropping up (by the end, I felt like they owed me money), along with the same subjects and specific events: the speaker’s grandfather’s deathbed confusion, the apartment formerly inhabited by crackheads both alive and dead, and even visits from the ghost of Eugene O’Neill, who whispers “all kinds of shit” that is “a lot more/ fucked up than anything/ those dead crackheads ever/ would’ve said.”
In addition to personal geography and history, these historical figures who in one way or another cast their shadow on Hartford —“dead long enough” that they’ll “never have to answer for/ it”—recur too: Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Colt, and disputed medical pioneer Horace Wells dutifully haunt the collection (Wallace Stevens is notably absent, but he was invoked enough in Like A Sea, a book that, in Stevens’s rubric, resists the intelligence much more successfully—these poems are more the realm of the Hemingway who knocked Stevens on his ass that time in Key West). The poem about Horace Wells (“Wells”) and the other historical interludes are some of the book’s high points, weaving so-strange-it-must-be-true episodes of Hartford’s past together with the deteriorating landmarks they leant their names to and the inescapable present or near-past events that the speaker’s associative memory lumps them in with:
& I didn’t
think anyone in Hartford
had ever discovered anything except
for guns & drugs & when I looked
him up I found out I was
right because the thing Horace Wells
discovered was anesthesia
A layered, tricky syntax to each simple sentence keeps the poems moving, and what might be rambling if these wide-ranging poems were less tightly controlled sustains itself in the extended twists and turns they drag us along on, stitched together by spelled-out acts of mind: x “which makes me think of” y. Clause builds on clause with each line break like an on-ramp pile up, aided and abetted by the indents on every other line in the otherwise unbroken chains that make up most of the poems, providing a visual drift that leads us on and digs us deeper into the speaker’s extensive catalogue of urban decay. Elsewhere, three line stanzas keep thoughts together for about as long as the speaker’s focus can hold on any one event or subject, which also propel the not-quite-rambling narratives forward, egging the reader on to wonder with the speaker “& what the hell is/ the next thing I’ll have to say.” In one poem, an encounter with someone from the Colt gun factory—where “No one makes guns” anymore, “they make art”—links to anecdotal vignettes of a bad date, intoxication (“At least drugs/never make me buy them dinner”), a kindergarten first kiss under false pretenses, and fuck-up tough-guy friends, coming back around to the looming threat of violence at the core of these poems. Point is, it’s the movement connecting these events in the speaker’s mind that makes them inevitable as poems containing these kinds of drunken narratives instead of just drunken narratives themselves.
Which brings me back to Like A Sea, since I find my reading experience as haunted by it as The Hartford Book is haunted by all of Hartford’s ghosts and the idea of leaving it—why narratives at all when disjunction worked so well for the earlier work? An answer might lurk in the most direct link between the two, a Like A Sea poem titled “Quotes from the Hartford Poems,” a sort of remix sampling lines from The Hartford Book (though published prior: things are made all the more complex by the reverse chronology of the books’ publications, with Like a Sea arriving over a year in advance of the presumably previously written—or at least, started—Hartford Book). In “Quotes,” each line alternates beginning with either “That was” or “This is,” followed by a line said by someone else in the narratives of The Hartford Book (such as the aforementioned one about drugs and dinner, which comes from the speaker’s roommate). But hitherto The Hartford Book’s later publication, they couldn’t be contextualized—their origin came after. The effect in Like A Sea is of a sort of language game mining possible origins in the spoken environment, with quotes as funny yet mysterious stand-ins for some kind of abstract, before-after dichotomy, while in The Hartford Book, they come naturalized in fully-formed, clearly-labeled speech acts: less evasive but no less meaningful—just meaning in an almost entirely different way.
And maybe the switch-up has something to do with the population this collection’s leveled at: a sub-working class who have “a hard time// imagining anywhere else since/ none of us read very much,” demanding a different register than Like A Sea’s (at least superficially) high-minded impenetrability in order to confront—while simultaneously partially inhabiting, as in the ‘us’ above—that kind of fucked-over, dead end logic. In their deadpan delivery and tragicomic circumstances, many of these poems read like fake jokes, with the only punchline being Hartford itself, that it doesn’t get better—a shaggy dog story of poverty and intoxication, devoid of either knowing irony or earnestness. A kind of weary lack of wonder inhabits these poems, and this desperate resignation keeps the collection from pushing the reader too hard to come to some conclusion or react one way or another, casting the speaker instead as witness and accomplice. Anyhow, at its heart, it’s still poetry about saying, just less about the possibility of saying and more about the situations in which things are said. As Amadon insists, it’s the same voice, doing different things (just unstuttered, on medication—that he definitely wasn’t prescribed). And what I’m suggesting is that the things they’re doing aren’t that totally different after all. A less radically tangled language, sure, but with the same backward-looking, ‘weirdly talky’ impulse to write poems that describe remembering thinking (“which reminds me how I used to/think”), from a speaker for whom:
& so if Twain’s
right & the unspoken word is
capital then I’m going to stay one broke
motherfucker since I can’t stop talking
& even worse repeating
this stupid history
The Hartford Book is an unbleeped theme song for (or against) the city—a throwback anthem to Like A Sea’s deep album cut, sung by the Amadon that got away; but like the Mafia or something, Hartford keeps pulling him back in, which I guess is what this book is: it enacts that inescapable returning to the rundown, dead-end hometown you always talk about leaving, even after you actually already left it. Or maybe, depending on how you slice the timeline, Like A Sea is the incoherent hangover of The Hartford Book’s drunk confessional—straightforward, simple, too far gone for cleverness. Or else Like A Sea is the raving, blackout drunkenness and The Hartford Book is remembering what you did last night. Either way, Like A Sea’s a tough act to follow, and I admit at first I missed its wordy weirdness, but these poems do a lot with language subtly and are plenty messed up themselves: they perform in their own right, on their own terms. And it’s a testament to Amadon’s talent that his first two books can provide such divergent surfaces: this is a poet who can play the field, and who can’t stop talking (to our benefit). Ultimately, the two collections go oddly hand in hand, each enriching what the other offers, and their unlikely union puts to the test and proves that against all odds, for Amadon, Like A Sea’s opening axiom holds true: “I could not sound like anyone but me.”