Cover 17The Stranger / The Wayfarer

Poems by Ralph C. Hamm III

(Paperback, 6 x 9, $12.95, 88 pages, 9 color images)

Reprinted and fully revised edition




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Somebody once said that the more things change the more they stay the same; thus, it is in the reading of Dear Stranger/The Wayfarer. Although written in the nineteen-seventies, when I was in my twenties and fighting for my very survival in the then touted most dangerous prison (per capita) in America—Walpole State Prison in South Walpole, Massachusetts—the reflections and socio-political/economic realities of that bygone era depicted within my poetry linger on today at the reprinting (new edition) of this collection in 2014.

No longer twenty years old, in many instances the circumstances expressed within the 1979 edition as foreboding have exacerbated, and are more vivid than ever today at the age of sixty-two.

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I n t r o d u c t i o n

[reprinted from the 1979 edition]

It may be that for many people who have not yet met him, Ralph Hamm is a figment of their imagination. He acknowledges that possibility in the first poem of this his first collection of poems. Yet, for those of us who have met and come to know this extra-ordinary young man, the authenticity of his existence can never be denied―nor can the conditions of prison, a major theme in this book.

It is not just that he writes about prison—where he has spent last ten years of his life—but that he does it well. His style is sometimes forceful and impolite, crashing its way into our collective consciousness; but we will be all the better for that. More often his style is descriptive. He tells us that a sunrise in prison is a condition where:

“Remnants of a dream
or the eve’s nightmare,
linger in stale, grey cigarette smoke
and rank, starchy pubic hair…”

It is exactly so that prisons are stale, grey places; we know that much. What Mr. Hamm does in his metaphor is to remind us that the physical conditions of prisons often produce a corresponding spiritual condition in the “inmates” held in them. This then is the responsibility of the prison poet, and poets in general, to resist such a “descent into hell” and to urge his comrades to do the same. Poets in prison, we think, may know that more than other poets. There are times when the poet in prison, because he is where he is, feels alone and forgotten. Indeed, the imprisoned poet may have to ask his fellows, from whom he has been removed: 

“Remember me?
The boy who tried to reach
but my hand was slapped
tried to strike back
but my arm was trapped.”

And finally, because we on the outside have been quiet for so long, and perhaps for no other confirmation but his own, the poet cries out,  “I am alive.” From time to time such exclamations are necessary, not only because it may help the imprisoned maintain their sanity, but because they may help the rest of us to regain ours.

There are times, revealed here in this book, when a kind of loneliness we may never know grips Mr. Hamm. Yet he does not beg our sympathy, he doesn’t really want us to feel sorry for him; what he wants us to do is hear him. He wants us to allow ourselves to become his Dear Stranger.

Oh, there is anger here and there is this book. But we can allow for that, can’t we, given the circumstances of Mr. Hamm’s life? He was, after all, locked in solitary confinement when he became 21 ― that important transitional period in a young man’s life, usually accompanied by celebration. But for Ralph Hamm there was no particular celebration, except: 

“….the cries of misery…
the cries of frustrated anger…
and the ever present sound
of countless cell doors
clanging
echoing.”

Perhaps the most admirable quality of Mr. Hamm’s work is that it finally transcends the immediate experience of prison life. It is difficult to transcend his immediate circumstances. We can only imagine what energy must be put into the effort it takes for an imprisoned poet to move, as it were, outside of the walls. Mr Hamm does that and many of his poems reflect his concern and awareness of world conditions that directly affect black people and indirectly everyone.

Read this book. It is about a man who has come to terms with himself in a hostile environment. It is about coming of age and growth and development. It is about hope and love and strength. It is about a man his life and his vision. Do it. Read this book. Begin by saying, Ralph Hamm, III wants to talk with me, then allow yourself to hear him say, “Dear Stranger…”

Ted Thomas, Jr.
Margaret Anne Strodder
Boston,
May, 1979