Paul Hamill

December 16, 2009

Barn Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 12:32 pm



A century and a quarter old or more,

Its steep roof hangs from one long rough-sawn beam.

Later extensions lean against the walls

Like tired foals huddling to their mother.   Inside

And out, it’s a geography of ventures

Tried and used up: abandoned nesting boxes

Line the top floor, sad curls of feather drifting.  

I saw the room in use: a kid supposed

To be learning the farm business gathered eggs. 

His dog, a shepherd, drove the flock to corners

While he collected, calmly jamming back

The furious roosters and the short-legged hens.

Two years he gathered eggs, then left the life

To join a rock band.     Horse-nicked and heifer-chewed,

On the ground floor the stalls hold piecemealed engines,

Moldy seed pots, crates for vegetables.

The metal shed next door housed a prize bull

And a prime beef herd until calamity struck:

Half-sized calves, a dwarfism gene.    The sire

Was barbecued, cows sold, a few small sons

Sent to the university.  One thinks

Of storms and fire, of hoof-and-mouth or markets

Defeating a stout barn and muscular experts—

But the quirk of a molecule!   Herds, flocks and coveys

(They once raised quails) have passed; the denizens 

Stabled here now are big machines, high-tired

And dull in faded green or gray or red:

Tractors, a grain screw, a twenty-clawed rake,

A massive harrow, and looming over all

The bull of the herd, the elephantine gleaner,

Two stories tall, its teeth laid down beside it

Like the old farmer’s false teeth by his bed.  

(The big old red barn in Lansing, New York where my family abnd I lived for some years…)

September 29, 2009

Monster-Slayer for Hire (part of an epic, of sorts)

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 12:37 pm

The world was full of monsters in those days

–when isn’t it?–but those made better tales:

dragons, giant boars, and ladies whose gaze

would turn men into statues that might be titled

I’m Just Leaving, or Sure I Like Your Hair. 


If all the local braves were gulped or glazed

like pots, testing the depth of monster sleep,

the best resort for fed-up towns, or kings

with daughters underfoot for lack of prospects                                             

–”A heap of bones for dowry!” they would wail!

–was to spread word of prizes worth a hero:

glory for sure, the throne when it came vacant,

the hand of that articulate princess. The call

would draw a crowd of thick-legged brawlers, who’d swill

on the town tab, claiming to wait for omens.

The hope was that some brand-new Hercules

would bull past lesser bullies, kill objectors,

get the princess pregnant, and fight sans contract

for love of mayhem. He’d bring a tourist trade.


But monsters build a record. Word gets round

that casualties are total, the herald’s voice

booms to fast-emptied squares.  One course is left:

to hire, cash in his agent’s purse beforehand,

a monster-slayer by trade.   His references

swear that he is proof against all wonders,

whether of malice or distracting good.

No one you’d give a crown or princess to–

more like a trapper than a demigod–

he pledges to kill the vermin or drive it off..


He rolls in like a circus, tall with plumes

and bright in cheap gilt armor, knowing that yokels

expect that for their fee.  Lagging behind,

two seamy helpers and a mule-sized hedgehog 

of poles and spears.  One sidekick, the town learns,

is crazed but has sharp ears; and one knows ropes. 

Word spreads that the hired slayer is morose

in his cups, with few words even then. He says

he’ll settle some day in a town like this;

no local seconds the thought.   He strikes the Lair

in dawn mist: youngsters who slip close report

the crack of splintering trees, billows of smoke.


When he comes back, blood-smeared and scorched, the town

goes silly with relief, until it learns

his mood is black, abusive. If what he met

was snaky, he tells the town it’s python-fouled. 

He’s drunk a bellyful of smoky venom

and spews it at the tawdriness he rescued. 

If he destroyed a gorgon, all the men

worth knowing thereabouts had turned to stone

before he came: as for the living, their gold,

soft stone, is all they have worth fighting for. 


The town officials call it shock from wrestling

such foulness at close quarters. The first day

the townsfolk whisper as if shocked themselves

but soon, their honest memories become clothed

in proper stories: his burdened ass turns horse,

sprouts wings and soars above the monster’s claws.

The people knew the story before it happened:

 for even mercenaries step onstage into

the oldest of old plays, the battle with Fate

(whose role, unwittingly, the monster played). 

The hero owns—must own!—an birth that shows

why he could act while we got used to monsters.

He is betraying victory itself who comes back

small and sour, as veterans often do,

and are resented for it by old neighbors.

 It must be true, they think, that conquering souls

see far beyond us!  How else could they dare?

And how else can we know that fate’s clenched fist

does hold the hopes that tease us? A cynic victor

almost makes us want our monster back.





March 25, 2009

Rural People Tell You

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 7:05 am
I refuse to say intimate              for knowing where in the barn
Shovels and burlap are piled           where snow melts first in the yard
But now and then a patch               of the familiar has an aura.  
Farmhouse outward, the embracing         widened; garden and orchard 
Dense with lives seen, scented,           inferred: mice, wasps, fruit.
Chores were wrapping arms                 around needs turned choices.

I became a miracle                of resource: light wiring,
Fencing, and vanity          at my own competence.

Rural people tell you          they like the life, always
Finding ways to keep busy              till some year they burn out
As if they were filling and trimming         an old fashioned lamp. 
In the old barn I trace           generations by dust
In adze-marks on beams,              old feathers, hoof-scarred planks. 

Cobwebs trail me out,        already my own ghost.

February 3, 2009

Drafts, “Leaving the Farm” (2 poems)

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 10:24 am

Leaving the Farm


Adam and Eve had no ambitions.  But I,

Leaving yard and garden behind for good,

Sneak out with unruly perennials in hand:

Wistful small ambitions, slow-paced

Rural visions incurable as sinning,  

Random as crocuses where the snow thins.

The soul yearns to compete with its old harvests,

Leans to fall overboard for country sirens.  


I left for threadbare reasons—money, illness—

But as even the rattle in his throat

Does not lift the miser from old envies

I yearn to work improvements, seed and space

Better than last year, stand back from bowing to dirt,

Admire the perfect plot for a perfect year.


And already I see it: asparagus

Pricks from its hairy tangle underground,

The exuberant cumulus of rhubarb unfurls

From red stubs, the snow peas send such simple flowers

I forgive the old Victorian blather about

How genteel morals blossom from garden sweat.


It seems to me the sirens of the sea

Must have sung to sailors’ different nostalgias:

Not the great loves but small things lost

To the great ocean: sunlight on a plaza,

A favorite dog, the sound of children,

Something to prune in the soft evening.




It always got ahead of me.  Summer and early Fall

expectant, then suddenly off the tree of desire 

it falls at once, harvest on harvest.  We hustle

picking stomping slicing preserving throwing out,

reality falling too fast for amateurs like us.


Surplus delights the sturdy peasant who blesses

his pile of the same staple through the months

but we, grasshoppers, summer-dainty, turn

nauseous at the pile of cabbage and squashes

multiplying like the fishes in Scripture,

until we reach our predictable autumnal

embarrassment at the undone, unsaved.  I wrote,

In Nature, when there is enough

There is too much.

But even there

the snake whispers: next time sequence better,

harrow deeper, pause to taste.  No need, really,

to limit yourself: no need to rein in

the involution that takes the whole year

for an orchard,

is greedy to boast:

our corn, our grapes, our apples.

Our garden, invisibly walled.

 Dear Eve:

the pleasures that depend on falling!





December 4, 2008

A Mid-Century Advent

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 1:30 pm

(In honor of the darkening season before Christmas: St. John the Baptist Church, Quincy, Mass., the 1950’s.)


Time in this house was thick-woven, like the wool

of the old workmen’s caps doffed in the dark

for early Mass in early winter: spare Advent,

purple over black, wax-and-wood smells, bump

of heavy doors, whisper of heavy coats.


The night watch at an ancient city’s gate

where neither kings nor foes had yet arrived

had nonetheless known wonders: darkness and dawns,

moonlight and storms, with cries for births or deaths

and rivers of torchlight at the feasts.  We, too,

in winter wool, expecting the same wonders

as last year, took the morning watch, put on

the harness of resolution.   Though were conscripts

alike to sin and grace, we knew the world

had need of prayers as we did, and slid in

to turn our rooted circumstance to gift.


Oddly, the half hour’s inwardness was a way

of being in the world, the Christian’s earth

of dappled light and shade where the poor labor,

children play, the prideful strut their follies,

a few saints keep the path, and in the pasture

crows are scavenging a fallen lamb. 


Before Mass started, the aisles filled with thunder

As the parochial kids filed into pews

And dropped the kneelers loudly as they dared.

The nuns who steered them took up posts, moving

a step or two to give some kid the eye

as seabirds pace a few steps, ruffle, then settle

back on a clutch of eggs. Something in that

repeated straggle and settling of the savage, 

some depth of patience impervious to fact,

became a sign: the ordinary anchors

the good, and duty is simple black-and-white,

though it be hard and bare as an oak pew.


We prayed for all of us and the mind riffled

at random across the day or year to come.

The elders hoped for as little of grace as one day

a pension from the shipyard, not much but something. 

God’s something would be plenty, full of ease

we did not calculate. We were the sort

who always would stand loyal, for steadiness

should count in kingdom come, as in the world. 


And yet how operatic the place was!

                 As if the worst and best that souls can face

are the most precious.  The somber chasubles

were lined in gold; the pastel saints in niches

were like a chorus waiting to crowd a tenor;

fleurs-de-lis, the Virgin’s heraldry,

bulged from the ogives, and the high altar,

bared for penance, gleaming with a hundred years

of waxing.  Odors of myrrh and frankincense

lingered, the same gifts that in a month

the Magi would lay down for a doomed child.  

Along the sides, for indoor pilgrimage,

tableaus of a man tortured, the cynical state

colluding with his church as the two will.

In life-size porcelain, He was hung in front

As well.  We hardly saw, but then by counting

of wounds, we tried to.  On gates of ancient towns

when heads of traitors were impaled, by-passers

Eventually ignored them, another kind                    

of treason.   We, complicit since our seed

Was planted in our mothers, had grown dull

But came to flog our guilty minds, to take

To heart that which we’d known too long, unseal

the glazed impervious vessel, wake the watchman

past whom time flows and dissipates like night.



(Published in Winning Writers 2007, on line)

October 29, 2008

Snow Sermon

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 3:41 pm

When Shadrach left the furnace

All Babylon was ablaze,

Terrible and brilliant light

Slashing and clawing from walls

Of yellow brick, from palm fronds,

From the high sun that echoed

Jubilation.   The shafts leaped

Down like beasts exalting in

Destruction, yet also like

Desire. His wife had begged him

To bank his faith.   In her eyes, coals

Were blown white by joy.   Children

Hugged his thighs, their innocence

Like a licking, harmless fire.

He stumbled to wash soot off

At the river bank: the waves

Passed like an oven’s pulsing.

A wall of friends danced and roared,

Their faces burning with awe.

Driving uphill to work on

A morning dusted with snow,

I see I am addicted

To transience, pleasure kindled

At glistening weathered clapboards

And white on tin and asphalt

As thin and evanescent

As if a cold light shone through.

I passed the old broken tree

Whose second growth of branches

Made it seem woolly, gaily

Transformed to a nest of rays.

The blue sky was enameled

By the brightness spread beneath.

Glimpsing, I wanted to live

By the gleam of the furnace light

Behind the wakened clapboards:

The unbearable searing,

The ecstatic veiled in snow,

The world consuming itself.

October 12, 2008

Meeting the Giant

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 4:25 pm

The Cardiff Giant

And there were giants in those days

The perfect celebrity!
—first famous through his death
(which cost him nothing), then
for the mischief at his birth,
but never for an instant
troubled by inner life!
But this gets ahead of the tale…

At the Farmers’ Museum
in Cooperstown, New York,
the Cardiff Giant sleeps
in a shed of barn planks.
Hucksters, miraculously
inspired—but not by grace—
seeing how Darwin and dinosaurs
stirred the bible-faithful,
had him rough-carved in limestone,
aged with acid, and hoisted
down to the staining loam
of an upstate apple farm,
a hogshead more promising
than any cider! Raised
to headlines and hosannas,
the “Fossil from the Flood”
made his fakers a bundle.

Although the pious were loath
to call the Lord’s wrath tragic,
the sleeper moved them: choirs
on church excursions, preachers
receiving his text, families
seeking an innocent wonder
in the great world. They heard
the surf against the hills
to which his kind retreated,
the wives and children crying,
the sheep and cattle bawling.
They saw the giant’s despair,
for he drowned lying down.
Something familiar about him:
a stoniness that sailors,
farmers, herdsmen, draymen,
weary village mothers,
or almost any citizen
of that demanding region
had seen at floods, freezes,
blizzards or epidemics.
Some folks meet their losses
that way, as if enduring
a beating without crying.
Something familiar too
in his thick feet, so sure
in the mud of the world’s springtime.
He must have shuffled and squelched
like a man in galoshes, the way
that city people claim
all farmers walk. Moses
said he deserved what he got,
but he seemed like many a farmer
the somber gawkers knew,
just a shade too brutal
for land or life to yield
the good he planted: a man
as blind to his own nature
as wood, clenching tightly
a watered share of stock
in earth’s abundance; bitter
at sons that fled out West,
and debts and fruitless years
that flooded back until
his face was ravaged stone
on a stone bed each night.

One sensitive clergyman
was sure his mien was compassion.
I would have liked that pastor,
who saw just what he brought;
but that’s what fame does, fix
a point above the flux,
an Ararat. Fellow-feeling
was almost a temptation
(the same that the Flood punished)
to give the average sinner
the benefit of the doubt.
Visitors would have liked
to meet him, yet the picture
of shaking his thick shovel
of a hand and sharing views
unveiled a troubling kinship:
they, too, led giant lives!

But who knew if his kind
had souls? Something about him
assured that under flood
and a grave’s depth of loam
he never dreamt and yearned,
never felt the ache
(as one who dreams may ache
for something not in the dream)
to hold his giant wife
or call out to his children,
whose names in his great voice
were surely harsh as knuckles.
He did not pine for the brightness
of mornings, nor for plowing
in springtime, nor for bread
nor beer, nor his own strength.
He laid it out as plain
as an old woman’s proverb,
death is a stone that draws
our dreams and yet is dreamless.

Few who came to Cardiff
missed his silent sermon:
ye know not the day nor the hour
now how ungainly the means:
falling under a combine,
a cow’s hoof to the temple,
childbirth hemorrhage,
pneumonia after hunting,
a plugged-up steam-cock blowing,
a shotgun caught in the fence,
train wreck, runaway horse.
Then the sleep in earth
with plows crisscrossing over
forgotten graves, or lovers
strolling Graveyard Hill
on Sunday for the breeze,
with no thought of old heat
or longer chills. What hush
and cool below the frost line!

—And then, as most believed,
the bones or dust once me
or you would somehow gather,
collected below ground
perhaps, like asparagus
or the unharvested onions
that send up ghostly flowers.
The ground would brighten, souls
erupt to something like
a universal picnic.
Friends and family
with a few sad exceptions
(scapegraces known to all)
would reunite with tears
of joy, no one mulish
or graceless as at dances
after harvest: even
the rough hands and small boys
would walk as dignified
as senators in church.
Preachers were sure there’d be
no longing to lift up
mellow soil in one’s hands
nor take the seasons into
one’s nostrils nor drive a team
with skill and curses, nor guess
what the spring wheat might sell for;
no need for sewing circles
nor to darn socks by lamplight
with children reading nearby.
There would be married sweetness,
not urgency, in bed.
That time would be as strange,
yet green with recognitions,
as the young earth of giants.

Giant, your first tourists
drove from towns burnt over
by hell-fear and revival;
they were not much taken
by the idea of fame,
which would have seemed a whimsy
on the theme of resurrection,
for fame that lives past death
is forever deaf and dumb.

I guess the grievousness
of never being born
is the same as being dead
if one is free of dreams—
(ay, there’s the rub). Sleeper,
you have shrugged off two terrors
of death: one, that it is
as if we never lived,
the world we learned to care for
swept off with us; the other,
that we will taste our losses

Angels sent to the faithful
dance on pinheads,
but messengers to such
as me, earth-minded, dense
to beams of faith, weigh tons
in rock or fathoms. Old fraud,
your sleep is enough truth.
My world flows while I grasp it:
its loss, not my own bubble
existence and rusty mailbox
where strangers can address me,
is what I find most poignant:
sunsets seen exactly
from my spot on the hillside,
casual words of friends,
silk of my lover’s thigh,
the private universes
that poets share a little.
I make my earth six days
and half of sabbath; it bears
a flood from which I save
a few dear species, brief
as light on passing waves:
light in my lover’s eyes,
light of truth in sorrow,
light behind the wind
that shifts the curtains,
brightness in the meadow
that was my fallow cornfield.

It makes me disinclined
to think of too-long vistas.
One thing that I will miss
is the woodchuck in my yard
who has despoiled my pumpkins,
and from that wealth of mine
is fat. He stands upright
and looks at me, brown eyes
aglitter with ignorance,
careless of my worries
or possible use of pumpkins.
My mother, whose taste in phrase
is Irish, calls him The Landlord.
Although he is old and fat
(my pumpkins!) he just escapes
the next-door farmer’s dogs.
With rolling waves of fur
he scuts to his burrow and sinks
with excruciating slowness
just before the teeth
of their long-legged dash
can tear him. He will pass,
god willing, before I do;
and I will enjoy pumpkins,
but there is more spice in him.
Something essential plays
within my pure frustration
and his pure shamelessness.
Pumpkins and glittering eyes,
mortal chases, greed
and wrath and laughing names:
rhythm and play of the surface
where all the living sail.

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