Christine Hamm, poet, visual artist, teacher, PhD candidate in English, and most recently, the author of the book Echo Park, never fails to inspire and surprise even the most seasoned writers, by her edgy, tightly constructed poems. Hamm’s lyrics are as concise as Emily Dickinson’s verse, as rich in image and voice as Sylvia Plath’s poems, but much more available and applicable to a current audience.
Reading Echo Park—and Hamm’s other works, The Transparent Dinner, Saints & Cannibals, The Salt Daughter, The Animal Husband, and Children Having Trouble With Meat—is like being caught in an ironic, surreal dream, but we are unsure if we want to wake up because the scene is so riveting. Echo Park is a place where we talk to dead people on the phone, where “the ground is full of entrances” and “a goldfish is chewing his way through my palm.” The world is turned inside out and expectations are turned on their heads, as the old familiar stories become unfamiliar, become twisted to reveal a new, darker side. In “The Mule Deer” for example, deer, creatures usually thought to be docile and harmless, “chase us down the driveway when we stare/ at their fawns, they knock down fences, dive/through windshields, shadow us on our bikes.” In “Every Child a Happy Child,” the dawn, once a benign thing, often associated with a new day and new beginnings, is “bright as a needle in the eye.”
The life of saints and icons are re-imagined to fit a modern world, a modern context. Fables and fairy-tales are retold, revitalized, are made violent and sometimes sinister. Take for example a series of three poems in which Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz “is trying to light/her cigarette, trying to fix her hair;” she finds herself stuck at the top of a tree, with no recollection of how she got there; she is “awake in a field/of poppies, her underwear missing, the lion mewling.” This woman is a far cry from the Dorothy we grew up with. Hamm continues with this strategy of retelling in “Modern Maid” where Joan of Arc now works at the Gap.“God speaks to her sideways” and “She’ll heal you if you ask nice.” Echo Park is a place where broken women who have “tried/to unravel” find their voice, speak, and though they are not healed by the telling of their stories, they are able to finally tell the truth, “eat the damage,” and take control of their chaotic mindscapes.
Even though Echo Park is comprised mostly of poems of torment and a jagged world, sometimes goodness sneaks in through the cracks, as in “Joy School” and “Evidence of the Divine.” But joy “teaches me small:/tiny and dark with delicate moving parts in the shadows.” We must seek out joy in the minute spaces, in places not everyone looks.
Sometimes sexy, as in “In the Elevator,” sometimes ridiculous, as in “The Selling of the Parts,” the poems in Echo Park always maintain their integrity, humility, and mastery of the writing craft.
***This review can also be found in Press 1