Christine Hamm's Notes on Wolves and Ruin
review by Sarah Sarai
Wolves have been tracking us through the cosmic nightmare since fear, childhood and villages appeared on riverbanks and in forests. As both living creatures and archetypes of menace, they terrify yet make accessible an animal strength. In the thirty-one prose poems of Christine Hamm’s Notes on Wolves and Ruin, wolves and their observers speak, and every poem responds. To achieve this back-and-forth, Hamm has placed an excerpt from the literature of wolves on each page along with her complementary poem which serves as gloss, next step, main course. The wolf-excerpts are drawn from a multitude of sources, John Landis, Louis Morneau, Charlotte Otten’s A Lycanthropy Reader, David Wojnarowicz, the Idaho Fish and Game department among them.
To start out, a narrator’s father is paired, as if by a sommelier of literary ordeal, with a fine and fruity quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We are introduced to the familiar threat in transition from one aspect of fury to another: “His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked; / A wolf – he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression / his countenance rabid, the picture of fury.” And what lies beneath is Hamm’s poem with a girl-child who is threatened by her father. Those books we read as children, illustrations we stared at as children, those wolves ready to thrust forward and devour—they accompany the imagination behind this pairing:
The wolves meet my eyes as I sink, scent of chlorine, coconut oil/animal urine. And here again, my dad is teaching me what happens when I try to rescue people. The wolves’ ears forward, nostrils stretched and expanded; my father with his hand on top of my head. “This is what happens if you try to save the drowning” and I,I,I,I,I am tasting the water as it burns the back of my throat. He is pushing down and I am five, in a navy and yellow striped two-piece.
The poem is visceral. The father, archetype and more than archetype, is fearsome authority up-close. Easy enough to imagine the choke, feel helpless. This poem places a reader in the known territory of bad-childhood-land where compassion in children is seen as problematic and dangerous. Sure, a wolf needs to teach its young to be careful; but this way? This ripped-from-the-headlines-of-vile-parenting opening is also an effective set-up for a narrator personifying, as as the book’s title suggests, ruined innocence.
Reader and reviewer can identify with fear and suspect—yet not worry themselves—that this is autobiography, art being the alchemist’s formula that transmutes what has been lived to what lives in imagination. Although I’d bet the poet’s “former therapist” (in a later poem) did say, “There is no room for love in the therapeutic hour.” It’s such a perfectly unforgettable, un-therapeutic bit of real-life therapy—a great catch, one might say.
From a snippet from Kiki Smith talking about the Louvre in an interview: “I just wanted to make animals…And then I made all these wolves…” From the corresponding poem from Hamm:
She wouldn’t let me see you as you were dying. She said you were tired, or you were sleeping, or you were … I talk to the wolves about you, show them your picture on my phone – the one from the party where you look so ethereal and green, the one where you’re sick but don’t know it yet.
The connection between Kiki Smith and the poet’s persona connects wolves with a primal understanding of grief. In many poems, the poet battles fear with the candy cane swords of our culture – things the color pink and cell phones, but also links with more things more universal – a spouse, womanhood, trauma. Hamm has published three other books and recently produced an anthology, Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations on Sylvia Plath and Living. The influence of Plath’s rawness echoes through Notes on Wolves, but softly, in the background—an influence which perhaps permitted Hamm egress to her protected interior. Or there is a mirror effect. Notes on Wolves and Ruin is a trapeze act sailing between writers, glowing, like wolves’ eyes, into the dark.
Sarah Sarai is the author of Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books) and The Future Is Happy (BlazeVOX). She has published over twenty short stories in fine journals including Fairy Tale Review, Cleaver, and Connotation Press. A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program, she lives in New York and works as a freelance editor.