What Practice Will Help Prepare Me: On Saskia Hamilton’s “All Souls”

By James CianoAugust 26, 2023

What Practice Will Help Prepare Me: On Saskia Hamilton’s “All Souls”

All Souls by Saskia Hamilton

“WHAT IS the veil that writing and description put over all things? Narrative, scene, setting, persuasion,” Saskia Hamilton writes in All Souls, her fourth and final collection, to be published posthumously this September; she died earlier this year at the untimely age of 56. In this last gift, Hamilton seeks to remove that “veil,” aiming to uncover, with the time she has left, some latent truth beneath the artifice that all writing creates when translating experience into language. Completed and turned in to her publisher months before the time of her passing, All Souls speaks from the precipice of impending demise, a rare orientation from which Hamilton transfigures the knowledge of imminent death into posthumous breath on the page.

The collection begins with the poem “Faring,” which implies both the state of existence over a period of time (i.e., how someone is faring) as well as the act of journeying (i.e., seafaring and faring forth). This duality feels apt as an entryway into All Souls, preparing us for the existential dilemma afflicting the speaker, while inviting us to experience the journey with her. One meaning of “fare,” submerged beneath the gerund “faring,” is the economic one: a price or cost. This kind of multivalent language is integral to Hamilton’s elliptical poetics: What is the cost of setting forth in this collection? Are we prepared to pay it?

The poem reads as a catalog of both interior and exterior realms:

Light before you call it light graying the sky. Doves on window ledges call and answer, a low branching into seven-fold division.

‘As’ means like but also means while: As a cloud passes. As the shadow in the early morning. As the door turns on the hinge.

Who was it who said that every narrative is a soothing down.

Winter sun floods the table.

In trying to maintain a grip on her life, the poet takes stock of the everydayness around her and in it finds slippages in language, in perception, and in memory. Illness forces intimacy between the speaker and her daily life, and through that intimacy Hamilton finds meaning in what once seemed innocuous. Movement and agency are embodied in something as simple as following permutations of light. The light which is “graying the sky,” in the first section of the poem, becomes in the next section the light inside the “glow sticks” the speaker’s son wants “as protection.” The third section begins: “Six days later: as the light grows, so does my will for the weight that tethers us to the ground, shoulder blades descending and meeting.” The light comes back one section later as it “flecks the edges of buildings” and exists in the cyclist’s “flickering lamp on the avenue below.” Light for Hamilton becomes something traceable, something that connects the speaker inside the apartment to the city (and world) that lies beyond its walls.

For Hamilton, All Souls feels less like an acceptance of, or negotiation with, time’s inevitability, and more like an arrest of time’s passing. One profound way in which she accomplishes this suspension is in her choice of form. Those familiar with Hamilton’s three previous collections of subtle, incisive lyricism may be surprised to find her working in a new expansive mode. While she still works with the lyric fragment, the fragments, along with short poems and prose blocks, accumulate and cohere into four long poems. None of Hamilton’s characteristic sharpness or intelligence is lost, but the new meditative mode offers a deliberately slower and more languorous way of experiencing the signature whetted angularity, emotive compression, and deep intellect of her work.

The fragmentation and relationship between blank space and utterance on the page create room for silence, breath, and duration, as Hamilton writes in the second poem, “Exits and Entrances to the Auditorium”: “Not time and space, but time as space.” In this exploration of time’s relationship to space, Hamilton also finds the ability to again pull back the veil that language casts over experience. She writes:

That breathing continues (if we continue) is hidden in the meaning of words we have for inaudible pauses and endings—the French un temps, a time, or the English period, full stop or duration.

Silence and breaths taken punctuate our speaking. Rests indicate the pace of the movement of thought; they are instructions for listening.

When later in the same poem Hamilton writes the self-reflexive imperative “Take a deep breath. They will run out,” she signals an awareness of breath’s finitude. If breaths are finite, it is the inaudible words of punctuation (un temps, period,) our marks-of-punctuation-made-language, in which the breath of both reader and writer can be instructed, preserved, and ultimately shored against life’s pull towards breathlessness.

If life inevitably moves toward death, All Souls embraces an “unraveling of thought,” a “destructuring of mind,” that seeks to halt or temporarily pause that certain forward movement, creating the feeling of “the duration of a day of illness in the space of half an hour.” As Hamilton writes later in the same poem, “The Dutch word for pause or suspension is onderbreking, a disturbance within the order of moments.” This fragment reads as a kind of poetic dictum. Indeed, the poems in All Souls create a disturbance within the order of moments, puzzling if not briefly pausing the speaker’s life’s forward progress towards death. Reading these poems after the poet’s death proves that while poetry cannot stop the journey or change the destination, it does have the power to preserve the mind at its most alive.

The 36-page title poem acts as the book’s central pillar. The short poems and fragments thread together disparate moments and temporalities to produce a sweeping meditation on personal and cultural histories. Evoking her concerns with time passing, it feels only right that “All Souls” should open with “a pocket watch in its case”:

Its spade and whip hands would snap off with pressure
From the smallest finger. And yet
The escapement enforces its circle
Of unbreakable numbers. Someone
Has let it run down. Don’t turn back,
It’s the wrong way, is the relation of
Chronology to history at all valuable here.

The watch that ushers us into the poem has “run down,” yet the nature of its numbers are “unbreakable.” With the watch, Hamilton sets up a relationship to time in the poem that is both arrested and progressive. This dialectic tension creates a liminality that brings the present moment together with various pasts. To demarcate her movement, Hamilton places headings at the top of the different short poems: sometimes a year like “1586” or “1947” or “1977,” or a place such as “Arnhem,” “Thaon,” “Amsterdam -> Zutphen.” As we move back and forth in time, these headings ground the reader both temporally and geographically. As we learn in the book’s final poem, “Museum Going,” Hamilton is herself of Dutch descent and often visited her mother’s family still living in Holland. With that context, the shadow cast by the various headers points to a history that has personal significance: the Netherlands during and after the Second World War, which presumably Hamilton’s mother and maternal relatives lived through.

In “All Souls,” as we move back into the speaker’s present, Hamilton’s young son emerges to be the most important soul in the collection. As the speaker, faced with anticipatory grief and anxiety, seeks solace in language, “The boy” or “The child” finds comfort in alternate worlds: “There are five mobs chasing the PPK Gamer, /the boy has a bow and spins in the air.” Earlier in the collection, “[t]he boy darts through the room rustling and clicking, his YouTubers screaming distortions into the microphone and shouting at the zombies killing their avatars.” The violent nature of the boy’s games, their weaponry and combat, echoes the familial histories of the Second World War. But perhaps more importantly, much like the speaker, “the boy” in the alternate realities provided by computer or video games has found, in his own way, an arrestation of the inevitable. The fictitious worlds created by his games offer the same respite that the speaker’s “disturbance within the order of moments” offers: a brief escape from reality.

At the end of All Souls, it is worth lingering on the book’s “Notes” section. Over the course of the collection, Hamilton has sought the help of interlocutors to emancipate herself from the bounds of time. They are many: among them are literary figures, film directors, and musical composers. To name but a few, she has engaged directly with quotes from William Cowper, William Wordsworth, Philip Sidney, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Marcel Proust, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Hamilton’s beloved Elizabeth Hardwick. Each of the book’s four poems depends on an engagement with this choir of beloved souls. Now that Saskia Hamilton has joined their ranks, I would like to think that she, too, will begin to sing back to the living, and in that singing her voice will continue to live.


James Ciano is currently a provost fellow at the University of Southern California, pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing.

LARB Contributor

James Ciano is currently a provost fellow at the University of Southern California, pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Literary Review, Poetry Northwest, and Bennington Review, among others. 


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