When I picked up Judson Hamilton’s The New Make-Believe, I was anticipating a poetry of action. For me, the title conjured some potential blend of childhood idealism and a philosophy of escape, perhaps something like collective hallucination harnessed for political gains, a dream engine capable of producing, well, The New. I came looking for change, process, transformation, and… that couldn’t have been further from the mark. What Hamilton has done in this book is quite the opposite. Motion is not the point of these poems. Rather, it’s as if he’s gone looking for the best side of the bad part of town, then crystallized that essence wherever he’s found it.
This is a poetry of stasis, with more kinship to photography’s frozen moment than narrative. The New Make-Believe is a world channeled through a coherent aesthetic of grit, hickeys, electrolyte lust, makeup fairy dust, get your feet off my coffee table son. It’s compelling, cool, dangerous. Sometimes these moments are fragmented like safety glass all over the interior of a car that’s about to be stolen. Different bits of reality fall next to each other, juxtaposed, disoriented, creating new meanings. There is violence in this poetry. That much I’m certain about.
Don’t go looking for someone to complain to. There isn’t a poet present, or, at least, not in a way that lets you say ‘Yeah that’s Hamilton talking right there, whew’. His voice refracts with that of his characters, multifaceted, marginalized, leaving the reader to play catch up in an effort to get their bearings. Sometimes he’s female, an ex-porn star, maybe genderqueer curious, a straight butch leather daddy. Bit pompous for a swerve, down-home Texan, bout to watch his boy get deployed. He’ll assure you he didn’t double cross your old man, and swears he was there the day the tower of Pisa finally went over. He catches those moments, those voices, in sharp-edged fragments… they glitter oh so real, but are also, of course, make-believe. Nothing less than promised.
Hamilton, as the guide to New Make-Believe, is like any spirit who offers to open the door to the Otherworld. He never promised it would be happy, safe, wholesome, polite. He never promised redemption. His characters are on display. Fundamentally this is what writers do. They voyeur, and invite friends to come have a peek. It’s just a rare quality of this work that it wants to see beauty in damage and leave it at that. There is no move towards resolution, escape. It’s why the poetry is both insightful and uncomfortable.
Still, reading is a transaction, and I’m not trapped in the land of New Make-Believe. I have context. What comes to mind most readily as a comparison are Sean Baker’s films. Both creators are invested in the same aesthetic, and one of Hamilton’s poems (Hate Crime) drops into a very similar moment as depicted in the film Tangerine (2015), with a transgender woman working as a prostitute:
“Walking the line the way Fashion TV had learned him / & some callous fuck would shout ‘Slut!’ / & pelt him with the crushed ice of a Big Gulp / Wild cherry Slurpee / Before peelin’ out down Aurora Ave. into the oncoming dusk // Candy ass / Couldn’t he see she was working here? / Those hormones weren’t going to pay for themselves / Now were they?”
In Tangerine, we’ve had the weight of the film’s entire arc to know the character who experiences an explicit hate crime version of this assault (urine thrown from a cup), and the film’s response to this moment is heartfelt and functions as a partial redemption between the movie’s protagonists. Hamilton, in contrast, is working in moments. His character thinks, briefly, of her aunt, but then she’s right back at it, someone pulls up to proposition her, and Yeah she still had it. It’s affirming, maybe defiant, but the character is a frozen surface, tranquil, the Wild cherry Slurpee ultimately consequence free.
The New Make-Believe does not worry about consequence. The point of these poems is not to fall in love or seek depth. The point is surface, glint, style, strut.