Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail
BY RALPH HAMILTON
SIBLING RIVALRY PRESS, 2014
Review by Roy G. Guzmán
About Roy G. Guzmán
Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran-born American poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Notre Dame Review, The Acentos Review, Compose, and NonBinary Review. He is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Minnesota and is poetry editor of Sundog Lit.
July 23, 2015
What do we mean when we say a poet is ambitious? Is ambition ever good? Ralph Hamilton’s debut, Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail, may embody that sentiment, the kind of collection that forces us to reconsider which metaphors we have inherited and how we can help them survive. A play on the idiom “tail between your legs,” this variable of Dog/Man or Animal/Man is arrestingly captured in the book’s cover: a close-up of Lucian Freud’s Sunday Morning-Eight Legs, in which (emblematic of Freud’s work) a man lies naked in bed, his arms around a dog, a pair of strong legs protruding from beneath the bed. The room is empty, unadorned. Are these figures sleeping or are they dead? In our everyday practice of art, how do we define ourselves as the flawed and impossibly human creatures we claim to be, if not by reflecting on the shame that makes us human?
Like Lucian Freud’s paintings, which concern the naked flesh—multicolored, exposed, vulnerable, libidinal—Hamilton explores similar motifs in his poems while drawing inspiration from a long list of writers. Hamilton’s homage to the past is apparent in the 15 centos and semi-centos that inhabit this book. My favorite, and one of the most effective, is “Come Along Now,” a “semi—cento from Sylvia Plath for her son Nick, 1962-2009”: “Your savage baby mouth, Nicholas, / How you ate me alive—the one / solid thing, your junkie devotion.” It is a miracle of a poem that appears towards the end of the collection, showing us the tensions Hamilton is teasing out and responding to in Plath’s work: the juxtaposition of “savage” (animalistic, ruthless, traumatic) with “baby” (innocence, Lacanian, pre-language) and “mouth” (body, food, submission).
One way to approach Hamilton’s collection is by looking at how humans, trapped in our mortal bodies, transition from youth, sometimes experiencing trauma, to then fluctuate among various contradictory identities. It is never easy to face the past. The process may feel prescriptive, traumatic. In his poem “Grown Up,” Hamilton writes about an incident in which the speaker of the poem urinates in an “ex-partner’s toilet // at 3 a.m. while [the ex-partner] was away,” stumbling upon the following realization:
...Fact is, I sat in
the dark just to breathe his air, to be
where he’d been like a movie-dog
lying down at Boot Hill on his master’s
Even as “grown up” is a title ascribed to someone who has evidently “learned from his mistakes,” the speaker of this poem is nostalgic and regretful he could not exact his revenge. In other poems where Hamilton is examining the idea of queerness, the self is attempting to define itself through the other’s absence. The speaker of “With(out) Him,” for instance, is watching a “blue rhinoceros” outside his house. The recipient of this speaker’s gaze keeps shifting appearances, from rhinoceros to “part whale, perhaps barracuda.” As the poem proceeds, this figure becomes more menacing (“I’m afraid of the tar-eyed beast now backstroking my yard”), yet the speaker remarks, “Without him I’m lost. Like water, he’s boundless. I drink him like air.” The other is a contradiction because the I is a contradiction: vanishing but ever-present, an amusing beast but also a destructive force. We are defined through dialectics.
Two poems that poignantly focalize Hamilton’s Teaching a Man to Unstick His Tail include “Harvest” and “Obedience School.” Boys, wolves, and a mother are brought together into a narrative that feels simultaneously surreal and all too real. A row of boys is peeing when they are suddenly shot dead. This image is interrupted by a pack of wolves intending to devour their target, “circl[ing] the beast like children playing musical chairs.” Later, a mother shares the story of a harvest in which the body parts of the children grew with the vegetation and “no one went hungry,” followed by a dismembered calf, crying in pain, as its mother watches. This cruelty presages “Obedience School,” in which the speaker of the poem associates a time in which he kicked his dog with the memory of his father kicking their dog twenty years before. Both poems comment on the intersections between brutality and genealogy: When do we disinherit the violence given to us? In our desire for self-expression, when do perpetuate the crimes of our fathers? Hamilton does not go easy on the reader. His poetry means business.
By coining the term “Man of Nature,” the philosopher Rousseau argues that morality and happiness are accessible to all men once we manage to find a return to our primal state. He writes, “The more one reflects on it, the more one finds that this state was the least subject to upheavals and best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never to have happened” (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men). Whoever we think we are, we are but the result of a regrettable accident, bearers of silent shame. The dualistic metaphor of Dog/Man in Hamilton’s work is not so much a domesticated representation of ourselves but a reminder of who we are at our most essential level. By quoting John Donne at the beginning of the book (“[Our] fingers need to knit / That subtle knot which makes us man”), Hamilton may be implying the following: art is only an extension of our flimsy nature, the way knitting (man-made, cento, identity) and knots (connections, measurements, death) are interrelated. Or that by psychoanalyzing our words perhaps we could trace our idyllic, unbroken homes, wherever they may be.