Philip Hammial: Asylum Nerves

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014, 207pp.

Philip Hammial’s amazing poetic output now runs to something like twenty-five books since his first, Foot Falls & Notes, of 1976. Let’s say about a thousand poems, probably more. As a result of this sheer volume, together with features of his method, it might be more appropriate to think of Asylum Nerves as a sampler rather than a Selected. It doesn’t, after all, confine itself to collecting acknowledged successes and making them available in one volume to impecunious readers. What it does do is give new readers some sense of what it is like to tap into the verve, intensity, profundity and humour of Hammial’s work and encourage them to seek out the individual books on online sites like Abebooks.

It also contains an excellent introductory essay by Martin Langford, indispensable for orienting people unfamiliar with the poetry that crackles away inside the rest of the book. Langford begins by locating Hammial among the European surrealists which he himself has cited: “Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Peret, Desnos, Jacob, Michaux, Lereis, Soupault, Char, Ponge; Lorca, Jiminez, Alberti; Rilke, Trakl, Benn, Celan; Seferis, Ritsos, Elytis”. These aren’t proposed as models – few of them sound like Hammial – but as authors that someone like Hammial is going to be sympathetic to. Myself, I would add early Beckett (though I don’t think he is cited anywhere) to these: reading works like Murphy and Watt and experiencing their insanely logical and remorseless worlds would not be a bad introduction to some features of Hammial’s work, especially of the “narrative” poems.

Langford’s introduction also reprints an invaluable description of Hammial’s compositional methods, taken from an interview in Cordite. I’ll reproduce it here: it, too, is an essential document for a reader approaching the poetry:

As a non-Tibetan I find many of the Tibetan visualisations too alien and complex, so I make up my own, spontaneously, as I go. I’ve been assured by people in the tradition that my home handyperson approach is acceptable. One day, several years ago, sitting down to write, I found myself playing with the drop . . . heating it up, moving it up and down the channel. Suddenly, on one of its runs down, it kept going, right down to the base of my spine which I visualised as a well, circular and lined with stones, that was miles deep. As the drop plunged into the ink-black water it turned into a bucket. In my mind’s eye I used a rope on a pulley to haul the full bucket up, rapidly, rocket fast. It went soaring up through the channel, out through the top of my skull, the Aperture of Brahma, and up into the noonday sky. When it was about a mile high I had an impulse to use the still attached rope to jerk it to a stop. Of course the black water just kept going. It spread across the sky, turning into white sky-writing-like words as it went – a sentence, a line of poetry that I was able to write down before it faded. That’s amazing, I thought, I wonder if I can do it again. Down went the empty bucket, up came the full bucket, another sentence splashed across the sky. In about five minutes I had a thirty line poem.

One’s tempted to say that they don’t teach that in Introductory Creative Writing – but then again, for all I know, perhaps they do. At heart, it isn’t an especially radical creative model: most writers, even those whose sense of their work is built on a notion of craft, know that a lot of the stuff comes, often unbidden, from “somewhere else”. Hammial’s method is just a culture-specific way of accessing it and it could be argued that various oriental traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism, tribal shamanism etc are much better at doing it than any methods of the West. After all the bases of oriental mythology encourage the practice and they have had a couple of thousand years to develop these techniques. What is probably, in the long run, more important than the notion that poetry comes from another part of the brain is the drive towards immediacy, the belief that any sort of imposition of craft in the form of revision is the triumph of the logical part of the brain, a matter of being, in Graves’s words “ruled by the god Apollo’s golden mean”.

The central critical issue for Hammial’s poetry is: Where exactly is this bucket going and what is the nature of this stuff that it brings up? Could it be the sub-conscious, the pan-cultural unconscious, the pan-animal reptilian unconscious, past lives, divine commandments or just odd bits of nonsense hanging around inside the neural system of an individual’s brain? Langford argues that it’s a more primal experience of the madnesses of reality: “An important aspect of his project is the desire to re-enact the crazy energies we work so hard to disarm with familiarity and inattention. In some ways, he is a romantic of such energies: as if he thought the world, for all its terrors, should not be denied”. The fact that this is such an attractive framework in which to read Hammial’s poems doesn’t mean that it is correct nor does it disguise the fact that it is a big step which casually bypasses any number of competing psychological ideologies. But I’m happy to run with it for its heuristic value. It also enables Langford to speak of the poems as works which future audiences will find increasingly relevant:

If the point of poetry is to produce as many ways-of-being-in-the-world-through-language as possible, then Hammial’s unsettling and confronting ways are nothing if not distinctive, and, on that ground alone, worthy of attention. But these days, I suspect, there are few who are not quietly bewildered by the incomprehensibility of the world’s energies, and the absurdity and inappropriateness of so many of our behaviours: as an expression of such bewilderment – such subterranean astonishment – it is hard to believe that these poems will not find the wider audience that they deserve.

It’s a discomforting proposition that, as our response to the world is to find it more and more irrational and incomprehensible, we will find Hammial’s poetry more and more central, more real! But then perhaps something similar occurred in the case of the poetries of Smart and Blake and even Pessoa: as the world seemed more mad and personality less stable, their work seemed less mad, less unstable. Some evidence for Langford’s approach might lie in the autobiographical fact that Hammial, since his youthful days in the US Navy has been an indefatigable traveller, and a genuine traveller, no mere tourist. My own sense is not that such travel broadens the mind by adding exotic experiences but that it makes one resistant to the conventional – and often outrageous – stylised simplifications of other cultures. That it is, or can be, in other words an accumulation of millions of gritty, personally experienced data, all of which are likely to be difficult to fit into simplistic programmes and thus represent the basis of an attack on them – or, at least, a lack of commitment to them.

This is a long introduction to another revisiting of Philip Hammial’s poetry. When I reviewed Sugar Hits on this site more than eight years ago I tried to describe the poetry overall, rather than concentrating on a single book. Though I’m not at all sure, in retrospect, how accurate or valuable my typologies were, I don’t intend to revisit that “seen-as-a-whole” approach, and, as readers will know, I’m not about to exhaust myself looking for new idioms of praise. What I want to do is think about some of the new issues that this latest opportunity to reread Hammial at length has provoked. There are two main ones: issues of content and (no prize for guessing) issues of form.

The world that one enters in Hammial’s poems, the world that Langford sees as a real or at least “realler” experience of reality than the one we edit to make it comprehensible or bearable, is a distinctive one. It is driven by meaningless rules and rituals (perhaps the essence of a ritual is that it is the application of meaningless rules) and its atmosphere might be described as cruel but comic. The act of living is often figured as a journey on some kind of wonderfully grotesque vehicle (dog-carts, bicycles and boats figure largely here) or as a pilgrimage hemmed about with odd rituals and equivocal destinations. “Bicycle” from In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children (2003) is a (for Hammial) very straightforward example:

It’s my fifth birthday & I’m sitting on the present that Uncle Stan has just given me, a green Schwinn bicycle. He gives me a push & down I go, down the gentle slope in his back yard in Chicago that becomes a hill, an interminably long hill that, sixty years later, I’m still going down, the bicycle having become rusty & dilapidated but still capable of moving as fast as the wind. Fortunately the doors, front and back, of the houses I’m passing through are open and the corridors unobstructed, the people, my friends & relatives, in the rooms on either side of the corridors going about their business as though I don’t exist: Aunt Mary & Uncle John sitting at opposite ends of a long table, John’s prayer of thanksgiving going on & on while the roast beef gets cold; Aunt Jane having one of her fits in the kitchen while Uncle Max looks on helplessly; cousin Dan & his new bride, Eleanor, banging away on a hideaway bed while the radio newscaster tells us that Normandy has just been invaded – D-Day. Over a hundred houses & I’m still going, Uncle Stan passing away at the age of ninety-two, the war in Vietnam grinding to a halt, the Berlin wall torn down brick by brick as I roll by on the Schwinn wondering how the hill has managed to descend through seventy-two countries on five continents – a mystery I’ll never have time to fathom because there, at what appears to be the bottom of the hill, is an open grave, half a dozen people standing around it as though waiting for a hearse to arrive.

It’s a very simple but rather wonderful poem conveying both the hunger for experience (the number of countries Hammial has travelled to is carefully documented) and the usual incomprehension as to the overall pattern and even the overall meaning of an individual’s life. If one wanted to look for hidden generative puns (Riffaterre’s hypograms) one could imagine the two meanings of the word “career”. “Lost in the Amazon” from the next book, Swan Song, replaces the image of bicycling with that of rowing, but has a similar view of life even if the tone is more sardonic and comic:

The canoe of this admiral (who by some miracle has remained unharmed) is so full of arrows (at least a thousand) that it’s bound to sink at any moment, & of course, the no-longer-paddling & now saluting admiral is honour-bound to go down with it, a fitting end to a glorious career.

The 1985 volume, Vehicles, is, in a way, a celebration of bizarre events and bizarre metaphors conceived as modes of transport – in the case of the latter the poems probably exploit the technical term, “vehicle” associated with analyses of metaphorical language. “The Vehicle of Demented Canonization”, for example,

is not, as you might expect, the cannon in the circus, nor is it the net that always catches the human ball. The Vehicle of Demented Canonization is the toothless old lion who, though he’s heard it a thousand times, is still frightened half to death by the cannon’s roar.

The generative structure of this poem lies, as I read it, with choosing “demented” for its implications while the rest of us were concentrating on the possibilities of “canonization”.

The number of Hammial poems involving movement, vehicles, rides, weird means of propulsion, pilgrimages and so on is enormous. Another good example might be “Steps” a poem from Voodoo Realities not included in this selection:

Already, at five in the morning, the beggars
are here, assembled, one on each of the one hundred
stone steps. Where have we been? Where
are we going? And, more importantly, what
do we have for their bowls? – their bowls
of ivory, of amethyst, of silver & gold, of
porcelain filled with steaming mu-mus to slurp
to the metonymic thunk of Chinese truncheons
out on the Barkor, a pilgrim from Kham caught
with a photo of the Dalai Lama – Free Tibet. Fat
chance, the warlords in Beijing testing their rhino-
horn potency on giggling concubines. Tibet’s
not a priority. Nor is the rhino rotting
on the veld, Hong Kong pharmacists rolling
in money, alchemists with gold. Know
thyself, & drink this hemlock, a perfect compliment
to the steaming mu-mus, all the rage in the 60s, worn
in defiance – up yours with your mini-skirts/thigh-
high boots made for walking all over us as hot
to trot we’re prodded like cattle, like pilgrims
up these steps on our hands and knees, beggars laughing
at our progress. Bloody-kneed oafs, at the top
there’s a cliff, eunuchs waiting to push us over.

Although this poem develops into a fairly overt attack on the mistreatment of developing cultures by the developed – the Chinese are responsible for the near extinction of the rhinoceros, the Hippie invasion of Asia responsible for untold corruptions – the framing structure is that of a bizarre pilgrimage ritual in which the beggars (“one on each of a hundred steps” in a typically numerically sensitive organisation) possessed of fabulously rich begging bowls, laugh as they watch Westerners plunge to their deaths.

And, finally, in this quick sketch, there is “A Pilgrim’s Progress” a complex two-part piece which might be about mercantile behaviour, even meditation, but which, in my reading, is about poetry which attempts to please a market, or, at least, to spruce itself up enough to be able to appear in public and, on the other hand, poetry like Hammial’s. I think this is a recurring theme in Hammial’s work (see “Bytes” and “Hit Parade” – “. . . this poem //a perfect example of my perennial inability / to articulate some universal truth, a sad fact / that’s guaranteed to keep me in the ranks // of the also-ran until the day I die . . .”). Whatever the case, my interest in it at the moment is as another example of the obsession with movement and vehicles:

Who on a path that only to the market leads is but
a frilly man who once upon he thought he heard
the tinkle of a lost drummer

is not my concern.
Am only on this cart for my health.
Am only going thus for a gourmet’s song.

For glass on this path, & in the wayside beds
a bleeding host of questing men who barefoot
in a breach had thought to run and win. But patience

is mine, as it must be – this heavy cart with its limb
from limb load of a once magnificent ox that on
spindly legs a golden calf is pulling.

The inverted syntax here is more common in Hammial’s poetry than the comparatively straightforward poems I have quoted so far. And there is obviously a lot here which is drawn from the Buddhist image of ox-herding used as a meditation model intriguingly combined with the biblical image of the golden calf, a symbol of both greed and apostacy.

If mad journeys on impossible machines is one central image in Hammial’s work, the other is that of the asylum. They are related, of course, because the inmates of an asylum are bound to the obscure medical procedures which they do not understand and thus are in the same situation as those on the mysterious vehicles or mysterious pilgrimages. What is interesting is that the asylum images have an autobiographical base. You don’t have to have read widely in Hammial’s work to know that he worked as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Ohio. His first book, Foot Falls & Notes, was, he tells us, prompted by the sudden desire to give each of the inmates he knew a voice and a poem:


are a few poems
in a few voices learned
while cooking in Athens
State Hospital, Athens, 
Ohio, built in
1868, with turrets
& gables &
doctors & 
nurses of that period.

And a number of the autobiographical (and very straightforward) prose poems of Travel describe experiences in this hospital, including one, “The Examination”, in which, temporarily in the violent ward, Hammial is examined by a man with all the outward appearances of a competent psychiatrist. Of course he is an inmate but one of his comments is that two of the actual doctors are “mad as March hares”. Hammial says, “And having dealt with these individuals, I agree wholeheartedly”. Although it is a cliché to speak of psychiatric inmates as doctors and vice versa, the pressure of an actual experience of an uncomfortable reality means that when such things appear in Hammial’s poetry they are intensely felt. “Marlene” from Wig Hat On (not included in Asylum Nerves) describes a willed erotic, communal fantasy:

. . . . . 
I’ve just described is Ward 12 (the dirty ward)
& its fire-escape in ASH, Athens State Hospital,
where I worked for a year as an orderly in charge
of forty men who weren’t overly concerned
about their personal hygiene, the wonder-working
cabaret dancer from Berlin a figment of our collective
hallucination. As punctual as a Swiss watch, she
would suddenly appear in our midst every afternoon
at three when the last soap ended and the first
children’s program was about to begin, blow us
a sultry kiss & slink away, disappearing behind
a gossamer curtain that covered the scar
of a bricked-over door.
Harold would try to follow her, managing
three or four awkward steps before his chemical
straitjacket checked his progress like a pendulum
at the end of its stroke . . .

The hospital appears, transformed into an image of existential existence in poems like the significantly named “Saint Philip’s Infirmary”, in which everyone is the victim of ungraspable – but generally cruel – procedures of exploitation:

Are we here to save our lives? Big
should we beg? If we pay enough
can we crawl under? Do our keepers know what it’s like
to burn bare naked? With our persons
should they have their fun free? Are they & they
our destiny . . .
 . . . . .
          On hands & knees
do Arch of Submission. Or suffer
spurs, some egg on
a face you thought was yours.
. . . . . 
                                    Told, again,
what we already know: In us is folly
fully engaged for which, if we’re smart
& know the rules, we’ll kneel & do the praise
we’ve been trained to do by betters. And told,
again, lest we forget, how among the dead
of all the dead we are, by a mile, the most dead.
Flung like stones, all of us.

And “Asylum Nerves” from Sugar Hits, which give this volume its title, exploits a double image of life as an asylum which is, more or less, a torture chamber run by casual psychopaths:

Pretend more than ever
that you’re being nursed 
by a motorcycle mama
with a six-day beard and plenty of time
for a bad case of asylum nerves . . .
. . . . .
                                             How long 
can you last? – these incursions into the stuff
that makes you you; it’s surely
women’s business this, & it’s done
by men to music while ex-Ranger
Daniel Devine demonstrates his ”˜Nam pig-sticker
to the girls next door.
exciting, already bored with you,
your tormentors wander off to have a play
with that giggling entourage.
                                                  Your you,
it seems you can keep it, a mother’s milk
to soothe your nerves.

Journeys and asylums are, of course, only part of the repertoire of motifs that these poems are built on. A number of others could be included: family members, especially the mother figure; selves which shift personality, age and gender in the way they do in dreams; engines; Chinese boxes, eating and so on. But the sense remains that these are autobiographically related even though they are distorted and twisted. Martin Langford’s introduction quotes Hammial’s comment that “all of his poems are derived from some actual event” but leaves its implications unexplored.

An important poem for any reader trying to explore this autobiographical base and the way it relates to the striking poems it eventually contributes towards is “The Ritual of the Stick” from Just Desserts. It contains a footnote, “On January 2, 1991, in Radigon, Bihar State, India, Philip Hammial & his wife were viciously assaulted by seventeen members of the CPM”. The poem is made up of fifty-one discrete sentences though this reduced to fifty in the Asylum Nerves version by combining two (“viciously assaulted” in the footnote is also emended – to “savagely beaten”) and in the central part of the poem each of these contains the word “stick”, which, crudely mimetic as this analysis might seem, suggests a state in the middle of a beating in which the mind dully repeats something. It’s too complex a poem to look at in detail here but much about it is suggestive. For example Father and Mother recur as invoked characters: the poem begins “Tell us, Mother, for how much longer must we continue to hold ourselves up standing” and a later section includes both Father and an imaginary institution:

Stripped down, Father, to a bare essential.

Your pound, gentlemen, of flesh.

But, gentlemen, our generosity does have a limit.

Too long, Father, in Your Church of the Interminable Flagellation.

Is there in this, somewhere, a hallelujah?

Obviously, a passage to something, but to what?

Whether, Mother, to come or go? In one direction only; there’s no turning back . . .

The second issue is, as I foreshadowed, a matter of form. Hammial’s poems are, whatever their relationship to reality, the unconscious, or whatever, invariably shapely utterances as poems. Sometimes this is no more than the sardonic twist given to a narrative by a good raconteur as in the case of the admiral who went down with the ship of himself. We can see this in two prose poems from With One Skin Less. In “Wheels”, surely an allegory of Hammial’s approach to poetry, a man on wheels performs dazzling manoeuvres that disturb onlookers – some positively, some negatively. He is returned to his asylum and scheduled to have his wheels surgically removed. When this is done the result is a “man who stands on his own two feet”. In “A Drive with Dr. Plotz” an internee is taken in the psychiatrist’s specially designed machine into the woods so that his demons can be released. But when they arrive the internee is reluctant to abandon his tamed demons to the wild demons of the woods and the pair return having accumulated some of these new, wild demons, much to the distress of Dr Plotz: “Hopelessly snarled with the paraphernalia of madness – bits of glass & bottle caps & silver spoons – what will her colleagues say when they see it?”

Among more specifically poetic structures, the most common is circularity. Innumerable examples could be given but a representative one is “Books”, from Sugar Hits. Essentially “about” a culture’s treatment of outsiders, its central term is pharmakos – scapegoat:

As the only naked white man in our village
who could cook a book with a single match
it’s up to me (my lot in life)
to get the word out where it can be seen
for what it is – pharmakoi . . .

The central section of the poem is, as often in Hammial, an extended, highly energetic diversion into another sphere:

if you took all of the men by the hand
who have taken you by the leg & led them
up George Street to the intersection where
Rachael’s grandmother has set up her treadle-
driven Singer sewing machine, the train
of Rachael’s wedding dress hopelessly snarled 
in rush-hour traffic . . .

then, the poem says, you would have enough men to invade “six or seven of those no-name places” from where the refugees arrive, the

                             scapegoats who,
dressed to kill in St. Vini hand-me-downs,
in addition to seducing our wives & daughters
have taken our jobs as well, such as they were,
in my case a cooker of books.

Obviously other things are happening in this poem, apart from its shape: it begins with a series of slightly distorted metaphors, for example and concludes by making fun of the clichéd rhetoric of those opposed to migration, and we might ask whether it’s poets or demagogues who cook the books. But the circular shape is entirely typical. Occasionally the circularity can be self-referential. “Of Tubs, Sailors & Inflation”, which begins, “Tub prices up. Rub / down. Which combination, up & down, makes it easy / for a body, any body, to get a proper break . . .”, concludes:

those sailors from the boat in your tub they can’t
be had for just a song such as this one that manages,
but just barely, to get back, the proverbial
tail-swallowing serpent, to its opening
statement – the rising price of tubs.

And “Invocation”, a poem from Drink From the Animal which is not included in this Selected, begins: “Invoke something, anything! – floating teacups / as at sea we take our tea . . .” and then goes on to recount an experience at the Iran/Afghanistan border and an imaginary stroll with Leon-Paul Fargue down a Parisian boulevard in 1928 before concluding:

                                Dressed to kill,
where are we going or, more to the point, where
is this poem going? Your guess 
as good as mine. Should we just give in,
call it a day? Or one last try – some transition
that will slip us back to the floating teacup image
& here we are (easy as pie), Leon-Paul & I at sea
as we take our tea, his new tome, Banalité,
the talk of the Dôme.

And then there is what I call serial form. Here the poem is structured essentially as a list but its dynamic shape is likely to derive from the way the list is ordered. “Houses”, from Voodoo Realities is made up of seven imaginary alliterative houses – Gurdjieff’s Guthouse, Blavatsky’s Bughouse, Huxley’s Hexhouse etc – each of which has a colour, a rate per minute, an individual monk proprietor – “a monk / in combination”, “a monk / ticking”, “a monk / as string, thrummed” etc – what will be found there, and an exit to the next house. The poem’s dramatic shape is derived from the fact that the rent gets cheaper so that by the time we arrive at Reich’s Ribhouse its twenty-nine cents per minute:

                               Exit to:
Ribhouse. White. Twenty-
nine. The proprietor: a monk
cancelled. Paper & pen, ready
to have the last say, the pen ever
so gently removed from your fingers
by a smiling nurse. It’s time
for bed. Sweet dreams.

In “Bridal Suite” a series of different occupations – bakers, circus hands, butchers, astronauts – carry the groom to the bride’s bed in neat, separate two-line stanzas: in each case the occupation affects the way the bridegroom is presented. Finally he is carried by poets, “THE WORD MADE FLESH tattooed on my chest”.

There are other shaping devices used in these poems that could be analysed. Especially important would be the usual surrealist one whereby puns (hidden or overt) generate meanings which take the poem into new direction. But the issue that matters here is the very fact of the poetic shape of Hammial’s writing. His description of the way in which the poems are made out of material dredged up in a bucket during a trance, splayed across the sky and then transcribed, would suggest that the results would be fragments, bleeding chunks, rather than the very well-made things they actually are. The only conclusion is that these often autobiographically-based works are fabricated, complete, in the unconscious and brought up, section by section, in the bucket.

Ultimately, whatever they are, however they are made, they live or die by their ability to engage and fascinate. There are few poets in Australia whose work is so consistently energised, challenging and enjoyable. Clearly the autobiographical element is part of this and it is worth pointing out that the prose poems of Travel are examples of non-surreal poetic methods, clinging closely to facts perhaps because some of those facts, especially those detailing a delinquent childhood in Detroit are so weird that no additional strangeness is needed. The last part of Wig Hat On contains half a dozen poems that are similarly openly autobiographical without the surreal expressive techniques. Some of these have very interesting and valuable information about Hammial’s sense of himself and his poetry:

A black & white photograph from 1949: yours truly
stripped to the waist, shoveling coal
into the boiler of the Tennessee, a steam tug
working the Sandusky, Ohio harbour. It immediately
brings to mind Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”
though any resemblance between the scrawny
twelve year old & a real stoker in the stokehole
of a tramp freighter is laughable, as is the one
between the twelve year old & the old man
writing this poem, licking his wounds
from yet another weekly brawl with his wife
of fifteen years . . .

It recalls Bruce Beaver’s As It Was a documenting, autobiographical volume that tries to get factual details down for the record without processing them through the usual channels of his poetry. There is a lot of information about Hammial in these poems but the self-description I like most is the one that comes at the end of “Mentors” from Wig Hat On:

I’ll have dinner with someone
who understands me, a no longer young man
who took to poetry
like a puppet to wood.