Death Notices, Meg Hamill

Factory School, 2007
Review by Diana Hamilton

Published in 2007 by the Heretical Texts series of Factory School, Meg Hamill’s Death Notices takes on the form of the obit in both senses of the phrase: it both constrains itself to the form and confronts it head-on; most pages of the book are poetic ‘death notices’ for the victims of the war in Iraq, named as specifically as possible given the anonymity that so marks our confrontation (and maybe, in a sense very much in line with this book, that makes that confrontation bearable) with the death of civilians. Hamill would send “truth in lieu of flowers” to the services for the victims of the war, in a phrase whose repetition is one of the strongest of the work’s effects. It is this sort of ambition, her outright declaration that she “want[s] to create a bridge between all the different kinds of humans / all the dead ones even all / the oppressed and all the caged ones” that sets the book up for the necessary failure the invitation to respond to tragedy evokes. This is not a failing diagnosed by review, but by the text itself, which must acknowledge that it “do[es]n’t know how to make bridges” despite the urgency the book takes as its starting place: after having listed the numbers of the dead in various categories as known at the time of publication, she writes, “I can’t write that many obituaries, though I’m beginning to understand why I must. The fact that there are 367,294 Iraqi civilians who we couldn’t say are alive or dead right now is indicative of both the impossibility and the urgency of the project”.

The impossibility of the project is not merely a result of that mathematical sublime, but of position, of the necessarily problematic attempt to witness what you didn’t see, to suffer what you didn’t suffer, to attempt to restore the individuality of the dead in an effort that collapses all those individuals into one perspective. Hamill would elude that last risk by inviting the voices of many other people and sources to meet within the book’s pages. At times, the narrow blocks of justified prose that characterize most of the text are left behind for a poem in italics spread out across the page, and it is in these poems that the voice is most clearly appropriated. This formal differentiation can be seen, though, as a disclaimer of sorts, reassuring the reader that this is someone else speaking, that it is not Hamill who has “a picture of the world trade center / hanging up by [her] bed”. Despite the book’s struggle to identify with the unidentifiable, certain voices can only be invited into the margins. My repetition of the author’s name is not just a tick of too much exposure to literary criticism: an author is altogether present in this text, one who types names into “[her] ibook g4 [to] find the details”, who lives in Oakland, who knows that “the examination of it is just as prone to egoic fundamentalism as the non-examination” but who examines anyway, and whose presence threatens to render all the names she would keep so very separate (casting those “that signed up for killing” out from “the mothers who are beating their chests”) just a sentimental moment in the poetry (nearing its use as a dirty word) of one person.

The Heretical Texts series takes as its project “work that breaks down (in) communication as a precedent and accompaniment to revolution”, a mission statement that may struggle to meet up with the author’s apparent faith in communication as something recuperative. Maybe this is a result of the book’s subject, which would confront a lack of communication, a namelessness that haunts the tragedy of the war in Iraq so far. Hamill’s work is strongest when it navigates the failed connections between people and events without trying to resolve them. The sometimes earnest ambition that marks a project that would offer witness to some number of the deaths that go unaccounted for all too often is countered by the impossibility of that witness, and by the fact that the author’s sources are available to all of us: they are various websites and news sources sewn together (the book offering a potential remedy to failed connectivity after all), they are the often painful, unresolved findings of a poet who is no more a witness to the tragedies she takes on as the rest of us/US, the conflagration of country and plural first person object pronoun that points to the impossibility of the dissolution of country into “us”, to the un-resolvability of so many positions. That the research materials for Hamill’s project are so readily available threatens to undermine the hope on which the project might rely: if the ‘truth’, so to speak, is already out there, delivering it (in poetry or any other format) may not offer anything previously inaccessible. It’s not like poetry, after all, has a wider readership than the book’s sources. Hamill asks:

is awareness of these bad things [. . .]

in itself curative

could it be that healing begins at the moment when
we learn to sustain our gaze
on all the bad and all the stunning things just
keep our eyes looking
past the time when we want to stop looking

The answer, in my understanding, is emphatically no: there is no cure here. There is a whole other danger: that of truth-telling and its pretense, that of guilt and its impotence, that of poetry and its ambition. If there is something to be recuperated from the experience of the last eight years, it ought to be a call to constant suspicion of ideology machines, of anyone who shows up armed and convinced.

Comments are closed.