Ken Rumble

Middle Ear

Forrest Hamer
Roundhouse Press
$12.50 / 56 pages / ISBN 0966669169

According to the University of Washington's Department of Otolarynology website, the middle ear is the space between the eardrum and the inner ear which contains three small bones called the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. As sound strikes the eardrum, it vibrates these three bones, amplifying the sound and transmitting it to the inner ear. The subject of Forrest Hamer's most recent collection of poems, Middle Ear, is that very physical space, that mediating threshold between experience and thought, between hearing and thinking.

For Hamer, the middle ear serves as a metaphor for and gives shape to the imagination. In many of these poems, the imagination fills the gaps left in perception by faulty senses. In "Partial," a poem about being "half-deaf," he writes:

It may well be that only my mind's ear is more

tuned, what I hear there something
from without and within; sights, too; a whole world
I have been living, alongside

the one where you and I are.

The imagination stands here to serve as the organ of balance, as the "middle." As the poems move toward realization, it is this middle that allows understanding, even if it is, at times, opaque. Hamer crystallizes the idea of mediation of the inner and outer worlds in the title poem as he writes, "The inside singing and the outside ringing and the moment crossing over breathing in." Hamer eloquently captures this process of sensory translation over and over in these poems, the imagination sketched in motion.

The imaginative space between words is also explored. Hamer bends familiar language to a point where it seems both haunting and new. The collection's first poem, "The Last Leg," begins, "When I approach the horse hued the bluing moon, / It leans into the ground and will not be mounted." Making a verb of the noun "blue" suggests the way color is active, at times filling space seemingly by its own accord. Coupled with the slow assonance of the "oo" sound, the line takes on a lyrical haziness that pervades these poems. In "Hearing Loss" Hamer opens up a range of interpretations with his double use of "saving." He writes, "There is nothing here // Saving what has been heard." This ambiguity allows us to hear loss, to recognize how continuity depends on witness. In "Arrival," the lovely onomatopoeia of "When Alice and KwanLam were married, red-winged blackbirds came / from all over the grove, making the bamboo whish" suggests a redeeming, benevolent natural force. Hamer's use of language thwarts our expectations.

Another of Hamer's "middles" is middle age, the point from which we can look forward and back, attempting to find some understanding of our experience. Hamer writes in "Arrival":

I believe insight doesn't happen at once.
I believe we ready ourselves that one more time and look
                      differently, and change happens with small sights
           which accrete and feather.

By writing "we ready ourselves that one more time and look," Hamer suggests that we take an active role in the creation of our insights. We imagine meanings for the "sights which accrete and feather" after years of consideration. On the other hand, Hamer presents a more ominous vision of middle age. In "In the Middle" he writes, "I could be wrong, but I think my life is half over." The ominous qualifier, "I think," foreshadows his statement that, "There is now less time before death / than there is from being conceived." Hamer does not see middle age as the end of his life, however. The poem ends with ambiguous optimism, "The truth is I am waiting for the next dreams. / The last one has to be perfect." There is more to come for Hamer, the dreaming continues.

The landscape of these poems is made up of stories of being African-American and gay, legends from Greek and biblical mythology, memories from childhood of war, love, and community. Hamer is not afraid to find humor in his subjects, however. In "Origins," a poem about identity as well as the gap between thinking and hearing, he pokes fun at a common catch phrase. He writes, "thinking / he was asking about my sexual orientation, I told him, yes, / I am sexually oriented, especially with some men." The poem ends, however, with more serious lyricism: "hearing / him ask specifically where I was coming from, I told him then / I come from wherever it is strangers tell their lives / in ways far less specific than speaking to each other dreams." While these poems appear to be semi-autobiographical, Hamer's goal is inclusive — to examine the way identity, meaning and history are created by us all.

The exploration of space and imagination in Middle Ear is refreshing and surprising. Hamer takes us on a winding journey, akin to the path sound travels on its way to the brain. By the end of collection, we are right there with Hamer as he writes in the final poem, "Taking Leave":

                              Turning to go, I also know
                  I can hear now.

                  Before I knew this, I would say
                             I couldn't,

        And what a sorrow that seemed.



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