Philip Hammial: Sugar Hits

Woodford: Island Press, 2006, 79pp.

Philip Hammial’s first collection, Foot Falls & Notes, was published in 1976 and Sugar Hits, thirty years later, is his nineteenth. He still has the capacity to polarize audiences but one senses that he has more admirers than detractors among serious readers of Australian poetry. I have always thought he was an exhilarating poet and I have no doubt that he is a very major one. He is also fantastically enjoyable to read – and I always approach each new book with an anticipatory thrill. The keynote to his work is energy. On the crudest level it takes a lot of energy to sustain a nineteen book career in a generally blase literary culture like Australia’s. But at a more significant level, energy is what animates the poems. They have a life and intensity that makes them crackle for the reader despite the inevitable frustrations of our “irritable search after meaning”.

Where this energy comes from is a matter of theory. Arguments derived from non-representational art say that once the poem is forced to sustain itself, rather than draw energy (usually considered to be inauthentic energy, or at least, non-poetic) from the event it records or the scene or experience it conveys, the standards are cranked up considerably and weaker, flabbier works are more easily seen for what they are. Related to this is the idea that language is the true source of the energy of poetry. And then there is the entire conspectus of the literary history of surrealism. Unfortunately there are so many kinds of surrealism that the category is as unhelpful, in its way, as a term like “non-surreal” or “mimetic” would be when considering other kinds of poetry.

Hammial’s career begins with a number of different kinds of poem. At one extreme is something like “A True Story”, the final poem of Foot Falls & Notes:

1. quoit, soporific: you’d rather
2. Chez Vous, hide what you want, each other
3. the you in seeming, the flat one
4. of mixed conclusion, like bibles
5. you contain, others purloin, such
6. always follows, on paper
7. good heart, bad blood, moving
8. in recognition/resignation
9. never clear: the boons, the duets
10. you’d romance, make them heady, like blue streaks

and so on, as far a line number 20. It’s hard to say much about it since it resists any teasing out of meaning and retains only the status of an experience, albeit an intriguing one, for the reader. “Oel”, from Chemical Cart (1977), is a different sort of thing, however:

you’re stuck
use the mouth.

be gentle
with the unconfessed mouth. never use
the shoulder, the knee, the
bruised limelight
of the snowballing knuckle.

the surly vaudevillian
hath no application.

nor the mute seamstress
who closes things.

any small
caterwaul, dancer’s
nibble, fairy’s foraging
is a good start.

go on
with the arabesque
of a fledgling war whoop.

This is the kind of poem that other poems by the same author teach us how to read. It’s subject is the mouth, the organ of ingestion and expression both of which play a large part in Hammial’s poems. The mood is imperative, another favourite Hammial mode of address and the poem is a set of injunctions. The fifth and six stanzas want to be read as a memo to the poet himself – find a way to begin your poem by “any small caterwaul” and let it develop into (at least) a “fledgling war whoop”. What makes a small caterwaul, of course, is a complex issue. Sometimes it is simply an odd and exciting collocation of words – the kind of thing you find in the first lines of early poems by John Forbes. “Rabid Thrashing // has its advocate & a pink / prodigious trunk . . .” or “I’m crannied, I’ve got / the sorrow . . .” or “Your itch, Adabble, / is peristaltic . . .” are examples, though it would take a lot of time to tease out whether the interest derives from the image or the sound. Most often in Hammial, however, the start is likely to be some trick played on an existing structure in the language, often a cliche. Thus “Strangle the Projectionist” from Swarm (1979) begins “if moles / are mountains; if the sun wants / a good killing; if the sentry / is opposed to the eagle . . .” so that the initial reference to mountains and molehills leads us to believe that cliches underlie the next lines. A poem from Chemical Cart, “Roses For Fourtille”, is made up of delphic utterances, one sentence per stanza (a form common in Hammial), many of which, like my favourite “Goose, but greece is grandeur”, are distortions or blending of cliches while others take a familiar syntactic shape and fill it with unexpected words.

This brief look at what generates a poem verbally is a bit of a digression. I want to contrast a poem like “Oel” with a poem like “A True Story” in terms of the ways in which one absolutely rejects any attempts to prise a conventional, paraphrasable meaning from it while the other, perhaps coyly, suggests that our instinctive efforts to make sense of it are not entirely misplaced. If we read enough of Hammial, these seem to say, we will learn how to unlock the meanings hidden inside their distinctive exteriors. Is this nothing more than the familiar heresy whereby unskilled readers of the various kinds of surreal poetry attempt to impose conventional interpretations on the uninterpretable, thus making fools of themselves and showing how little they understand of the poetics and hermeneutics of surrealism?

Well not in Hammial’s case because there are poems far more “accessible” than “Oel”. To take an extreme example: pretty much in the centre of Hammial’s career as it now stands is a book called Travel published in 1989. It is made up of prose poems which are not remotely surreal. They are stories of harum-scarum adolescent adventures (burning down deserted farmhouses seems a common experience in post-war Detroit) and of travel – Hammial is an indefatigable traveller. Though the mode of writing is simple the material is pretty outrageous. In fact one is tempted to call this (a la Marquez) the realistic description of a surreal reality. One of Hammial’s early jobs was as a warder in the Athens State Hospital and this weird environment is surely responsible for the references to asylums which form a kind of ground bass to his poems. Not many other poems in Hammial are autobiographical and denotative like these but there are autobiographical elements that poke through and Travel enables readers to identify many of these elements.

The first poem of Travel, incidentally, is as clear a statement of poetics as one could hope for. It is called “The Owl”:

Always the youthful experimenter and already convinced that true  poetry doesn’t come from the conscious mind, I’m looking for ways to  project myself into “altered states of consciousness”. I have a  brainstorm. Under a full moon I follow the railroad tracks out into the  country. When I hear the whistle of an approaching freight train, I  place my pen and notebook on the cinders and lie down on my stomach  beside a rail, about six inches from it. Moments later the huge cars are  roaring and shaking and screeching and thundering over me, around me,  through me. My experiment is more than successful. I rise shakily to my  feet and begin hooting, over and over at the top of my lungs. I’ve  discovered my totem bird, the bird that will give me my poems.

“The Owl” locates Hammial, within the many-doored mansion of surreal verse, as what I would call a “totemic surrealist”. Derangement of the logical mind allows uncensored images of a state of being which is possessed of great power. It is no accident that Hammial has long been interested in Art Brut (or Outsider Art), works produced by disturbed people with no access to artistic “training”.

Finally, in this list of Hammial modes (with digressions) are the surreal narratives. These are almost always expressed as prose poems and are reasonably denotative. Unlike the poems of Travel, however, they are not at all mimetic. The earliest is “No One Knows I Do This” in Foot Falls & Notes:

I send the string (every Thursday) to a sick girl. I coil it in  the bottom of a small box & wrap it in brown paper & mail it . .  . It’s Friday, & the now-opened box sits in the palm of her left  hand & (1) she pinches the end of the string between the fingernails  of her index & second fingers (right hand) &, while she pulls  it up slowly, she whispers hush; (2) she wets her thumb with her tongue,  places it (thumb, right hand) on the coiled string & pushes it out  through the bottom of the box while she says very matter-of-factly cup  of tea; (3) she tosses the box (the string is still inside) into the  waste-basket shouting brew; (4) a pencil is a good flute, & it  charms the white snake from its basket; but now the nurse is here &  she’s taking the pencil away; (5)

There is a strong sense here of a tremendously important ritual which is logically quite meaningless and this is both a theme of these prose poems and a mode – because the language in which the ritual is conveyed has to be as simple and unequivocal as possible. This seems dreamlike and suggests that this and others of the prose poems are based in dreams, a suspicion confirmed by two from Chemical Cart which begin, “I call the scape like I see it” and “The dream is pure kitsch”. Many of these poems involve contraptions with wheels and their interaction with humans. Vehicles (1985) is a collection of these but “Automobiles of the Asylum”, the first poem of Chemical Cart, is the best example:

I pull the huge book down from the bookcase. Rich, full-color  photographs of the cars & their drivers, page after page. But first  the text: it seems the inmates have races in these vehicles; they start  on the roof & roll down a spiraling ramp to the ground floor. No one  knows when or how these races originated.

Each vintage car is a true work of art: magnificent chrome-plated  radiators through which (so one of the captions says) only the rarest  blood can circulate; huge highly-polished brass head & tail lamps,  their wicks trimmed by special attendants; brass horns that curl to  animal & vegetable bulbs with the scaled reality of the mermaid;  spoked wheels with the shimmering complexity of fire-rimmed, god-filled  mandalas . . .

And the bodies of these small vehicles - no larger than go-carts -  each one is shaped like the torso of its creator-driver, a fur or  silk-lined outer skin into which the limbless inmate may be comfortably  placed for his or her one-way roll at dazzling speeds down, always down  the ever-narrowing ramp to the shock-rooms.

This is an interesting example because instead of simply describing the dream or vision (“I call the scape like I see it”) it includes the processes of transformation from picture of vintage cars to a progressively more manic metaphor for life.

And so to Sugar Hits. It is hard not to think of Hammial’s career as being in two parts and Sugar Hits is an example of the kind of poetry he has written since With One Skin Less (1994). If I had to characterize this poetry of the last fifteen years or so, I would say that although the familiar modes remain (Swan Song of 2004 is entirely prose poems, for example) the status of meaning has relaxed somewhat. We meet surreal poems but ones which clearly want to allow the world (especially that part of the world – such as injustice, cruelty and political stupidity – which arouses anger) into their text. One of the poems, “Flag”, is clearly about these new poems and how they relate to reality. It’s opening, especially, is revealing.

Significance to the fore
as we come of age: you count
to red & I’ll to blue & between us,
if it’s posterity, we’ll offer it up
to Uncle. Uncle 
of the stick that never fails 
to fiddle! Uncle 
of the seven-tiered absence! May his star 
always twinkle. May what we read 
into his book be in the style to which 
he’s accustomed. What
claptrap! Any significance here
will be beaten just the way we like it, have always
liked it, no change at this late date, thanks
all the same, & as for Uncle, what
I’ll read him back if he rings, if
he dares to, is a round of righteous belief hot enough
to confuse his death with someone else’s, Ms
Nightingale’s, say, by
natural causes, hers, & up
in smoke, his.
the flowers on the table, thanks, &
piss off - pieces of poetry gathered while we may
no longer on our agenda, the star-spangled series
an abject failure. Fatuous formalities 
foraging for a fault according to the only reviewer
who condescended to read them. So why
did we bother? Just to let the bastards know
that we’re still here, I suppose, & certainly not, as some
might suppose, for the sake of some posterity, red, blue
or white.

What seems like a furious assault on someone who (as I am about to do) has suggested that with age the more unyielding elements of surrealism have lost their charm and the author has found a pressing need to say things about the world and his experience of it is here mixed up with (in ways I don’t really understand, though the lack of understanding derives simply from ignorance of autobiographical factors) references to nationalism. The Uncle (of the “stick that never fails / to fiddle”) is Uncle Sam and the flag is the US flag.

But despite the aggression of this poem (it’s energy clearly derives from anger and frustration), I want to stick with my sense that these are more engaged, less “pure” poems. A number deal with poetry itself. “Swap”, for example, engages with comments by Martin Langford and continually revises a poem so that it submits to the idea that whatever pleasure poetry gives lies in its meaning and the way that meaning “dances”:

. . . . .
So let’s be brave
and try again: “The mace gun in her handbag for
the flag of a defeated army rescued from the mud
& given a good scrub, as good as new.” Now
we’re getting somewhere. But is Martin ready
to come to the party yet? Who would want to live 
in a country where meaning did not dance? He’s
right of course. So one last try, fingers crossed: “That
voice he found in Potsdamer Platz just after the war for
from top gun to philanthropist in less than a week, what
in Christ’s name is going on?” What in Christ’s name
is going on? Have I missed something? Is there
meaning here? And if there is is it dancing? It seems
to me (& no doubt would to Martin too) that it’s
stomping on the Queen’s toes & she, poor thing,
is too well bred to say anything to this king-pretending
stumblebum. Alas. The hands at the keyboard 
still dream of the touch they evolved for. 

This is a lot of fun especially as it metamorphoses what is probably more anger and frustration into humour. Above all we know where we, as readers, are positioned: reading a poem which is about the status of meaning in a poem. Confusing and paradoxical but full of fun and energy.

“Muse” is about that problematic character – the surrealist muse. I think (and there is a lot of tentativeness about this reading) that two muses are contrasted. One is a kind of nature spirit embodied in Asian rain “a timely strafing / or a soothing voice, a ubiquitous crooning / that dilutes the toxins” and the other, representing, I suppose, the meaning-centred western tradition, is a widow whose “practiced smile / in the oval mirror in the vestibule” is an antidote to the poet’s “perpetual frown”. The poem concludes with the widow absconding with the kind of poet she prefers: a “conceited crooner / with a carpet bag”.

Other poems recycle autobiographical elements that we have met in Travel or in other, less surreal, poems. “Uncle Stan”, for example, describes the lawyer uncle who prescribed for the young Hammial a spell in the navy. And “Pearls” is a poem made up of memories, most of which we can trust. It is called “Pearls” because the story has no pearls of wisdom, only goatskins:

A truck full of goatskins - no
pearls here - brakes to a halt
while she hobbles across - an old woman
with a huge key. Key
to a house in Detroit . . .

and so on through memories of a long life punctuated by the refrain “no pearls here”. But despite all the lurid details it is still the life of a poet and has to end with the poetry:

pearls here: pretty books all in a row - 1, 2, 3, 4 . . .
9, 10 pins bowled over by peers with friends
in the right places. O pomp
& circumstance, this getting of wisdom
a sorry affair, poetry with its tar, feathers

Finally, there are a number of brilliant poems that seem to belong together. They are in the mode I have been speaking about, the mode more directly engaged with the world and perhaps drawing energy from anger and frustration. In a sense they seem like a cross between the earlier surreal poems and the narratives. They are marked by the sorts of unusual transitions and transformations that we expect in surreal poetry but they have a very strong sense of form in that they conclude by some kind of return – like a return to an original key. “Water” is one of the best of them and will also serve as a good example:

Die as much as you want. An inch at a time
or all at once, it doesn’t matter. Your conviction
that the new Human Tissue Bill will somehow
protect you is a delusion. Take it from me, I know. It’s
not for nothing that I’ve been an envoy to the Mahdi
for the past two years. Here to save us
from ourselves, his army’s contribution
to our once-beautiful city is, according
to a recent poll, extremely disappointing, that
contribution having been, to date, one point two
million black parasols, one
for every male citizen. If only
it would rain. What a sight for sore eyes
it would be to watch those parasols blossoming
up & down the length of the Avenue Foch. Fat
chance. The drought
is here to stay. It’s only a matter of time
before we pack our bags & head inland
to the great fresh water sea that supposedly covers
the heart of our continent. A rumour? Do you
know anyone who has actually seen it? I don’t. Harry
Kline in his seminal work, Paradise Now, describes
that sea in detail - abundant with fish, barges poled
by djinns who are delighted to attend to your every need,
etc. But is Harry to be believed? What if he’s sold out,
become another of the mahdi’s innumerable stooges?
Considering how quickly his book rose (was pushed)
to the top of the best-seller list, I’d say he probably is.
All things considered, if I were you
I’d do it all at once.

This is, of course, a meaningful poem, and one could imagine lengthy po-faced analyses of its contribution to (or dependence on) the colonial experience. The invaders always bring what they want us to want – parasols instead of water – and always impose their own visions etc etc. But the real pleasure is the way the tight (and tightly enjambed) syntactic structure holds together sudden and unexpected narrative shifts. I couldn’t think of a better example of meaning dancing than “Water”. In the same mode is “Merchandise”. Here the shifts are even more unexpected as a “waltz / of merry widows” is disturbed by a frantic search for merchandise:

Common graves pan out
in a felicitous escapade - a waltz
of merry widows, their gigolos done up
as clockwork thugs. Six bells
& all is Not well. There’s this little matter
of the merchandise. One would have thought
that at your age you’d know enough to keep
your hands to yourself, but there you go. Down
with all hands, your mates making digging motions
on the tablecloth while you, on your hands & knees
under the table, can’t
come up with the goods - the lost ring
that you found in a cereal box & had the gall to give
to your third wife . . .

And so on through transformations involving Louis Quinze , an image of a “new, safe family” and a new messiah whose ride into town on a white stallion the poet has mimicked. These and their like – “Invited”, “Air Raid”, “Books”, “Djinns”, “Protocol” etc – are exhilarating poems in a mode one looks forward to enjoying for a good time yet.