It’s been twenty-three years since the publication of Mary Stewart Hammond’s first book, Out of Canaan. Hammond’s second, Entering History, is proof that the poet’s consciousness or “moral intelligence” has been at work these last two decades, and we are the richer for the wait. Entering History opens with the title poem, which announces that the reader is embarking upon a journey with the poet, who is also accompanied by her husband:
The door to the poem opens in, and a couple enter,
set down their luggage, and stand, backs to the door,
silhouetted against the light, taking in the room.
They step through French doors in the far wall and out
onto a balcony cantilevered over ramparts. The vast
impastoed Umbrian kingdom swoops away and down
The poem is both painterly and legible, and brings to mind the way aesthetics and morality were bound up with vision for the nineteenth-century critic Ruskin. From this panoramic opening, the poem moves on to Etruscan ruins, and then suddenly, skillfully, the focus shifts to a farm truck “no bigger than a pencil eraser,” the only sign of the twenty-first century, and then zooms out farther, without sacrificing linguistic precision, to zero in on the image of
…habitations for humans the size of seeds
on white-haired dandelions. She leans her head on his shoulder.
The imagery is stunning, and the vision is that of a poet well into middle age, one who, Entering History later reveals, has lost both of her parents, Hammond’s clergyman father having lived well into his nineties, her mother having succumbed to Parkinson’s several years earlier. With its Alice-in-Wonderland shifts in perspective, Hammond demonstrates that hers is a poetry of vantage points, inherently moral—and refreshingly so—without preaching or shouting.
Despite the fact that she and her husband attend galas at the Met and summer in restored 1930s boathouses on the Atlantic, Hammond’s privilege (of education, travel, experience, resources) becomes inclusive (rather than exclusive), informing and enlarging her poems, as in “Portrait of My Husband Reading Henry James” which begins:
Rather, it is in the shorter history of America,
not England, not Italy that we find ourselves
in the perfect middle of a rainy, summer afternoon…