Philip Hammial: Dervishing

Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2023, 96pp.

It’s always good to revisit the amazing world of Philip Hammial’s poetry, described with impressive accuracy by a quote on the cover as “a torrent of mischief, dark humour, idiosyncratic construction and invigorating chaos.” Dervishing is a two-part book made up of twenty-five pages of poems and nearly sixty pages of prose pieces. All but three of the poems are in one of Hammial’s familiar poetic modes, fairly extended pieces which are “surreal” in that their energy seems to derive from internal transformations as much as subject matter and which almost always create a shape by, in the last lines, returning to the opening statement or a variation thereof. And these openings are usually quite intense eruptions of a strong and slightly garbled speaking voice: “Only one Exit: climb the wolf ladder to the sheep sky & / jump”, “Work your Jesus: rob your hands of their money”, “Man must truss!”.

The prose pieces are in Hammial’s “realistic” mode whose magic derives from an interaction between the remarkably varied and often hair-raising events they narrate and the fairly denotative, off-hand prose style. The material comes in part from Hammial’s remorseless travelling but also from biographical material from his adolescent days and about his time as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital of Ohio. Twenty-odd out of the nearly fifty pieces are recycled, often with slight emendations, from the 1989 book, Travel / Writing, shared with Anna Couani, a book that deserves to be saved from “the teeth of time”. The emphasis of the prose poems in Dervishing is a little different, however: at least the aftertaste it leaves is slightly different. Travel left one with a strong autobiographical sense of Hammial’s harum-scarum youth in Detroit, shared with schoolfriends whom he references in poems written nearly three quarters of a century later (in fact one of the epigraphs to Dervishing is a statement by one of those friends, Ralph Peckham: “Fifty years from now nobody’s gonna believe that we did all this shit in the 50s and 60s”). The Dervishing selection does contains these sorts of poems. In “The Float”, set, I think, in college days, he and his friends build a ghastly wheeled float and smuggle it into an otherwise bland parade:

. . . We borrow a wagon from my landlady’s son. Search-out and bring-back missions are deployed. Inspiration is found in trash cans and in a pile of discarded timber. Soon the wagon is bristling with sticks, an eight-foot high porcupine on wheels; and on its quills we impale rotten oranges, apples, grapefruit, cucumbers, heads of lettuce and long slabs of rancid bacon . . . my art teacher, watching from a third floor window, gives me an A for the semester.

In the earlier context of Travel/Writing, one was interested, as a reader, in the outrageousness of the prank but now what seems interesting is the way it prefigures much of Hammial’s later sculptures, knocked together out of items found in trash cans, outsider-art style.

Another theme of the Travel poems, continued here, is the description of experiences as an orderly in the Athens State Hospital, Ohio. Working in psychiatric wards, a young man gets a close look at madness – a very Hammial theme, especially when the madness of the staff is investigated. Again, in Dervishing, the sense is not so much of a recounting of a young man’s extreme experiences but rather of experiences which will flower in Hammial’s art, always attuned to madness. The first poem of the Dervishing selection, “ECT”, occurs a third of the way through Travel. It is genuinely disturbing – I seem to have it stuck in my mind since its first appearance – and describes ECT treatment meted out by a “Cuban refugee with no psychiatric training” who insists on wearing “a black suit, black shirt and slim white tie”. As the piece says, in conclusion,

. . . To say nothing of a large adult male, it’s surprising how strong and ferocious a ninety pound little old lady can become when she’s confronted with this inquisitor and his machine. It takes four of us to get her up on the table.

Some of Dervishing’s prose pieces that don’t appear in Travel clearly link into Hammial’s creative life. “The Sahara”, for example, begins as an exotic travel piece in Agadez, Niger, but moves on to an attempt to find a charm against the “evil eye”:

. . . After the race I go to the outdoor market and with the help of two Nigerian merchants have a charm against the evil eye made for me by an old Tuareg medicine man. His stall is filled with bones, teeth, mummified birds, bits and pieces of wood and stone and herbs in plates and jars. I’d wanted a vulture’s skull but he doesn’t have any in stock, so I settle for a crow’s head. He cuts out a hood from a piece of leather, wets it and sews it around the skull, leaving the black beak sticking out.
Give me the evil eye at a poetry reading: bad luck, it’s back on you.

Again, it’s the world of assemblage from detritus and its magical potentialities. “Heidelberg” describes seeing some outsider art in a bookshop window, meeting the manager and her family including her partner – who survived capture by the Russians during the war and ten years working in coal mines in the Urals – and his two sons, one of whom is autistic and the other who “doesn’t spend much time in this world”. You feel that Hammial is at home here – there are hundreds of paintings of a naïve artist, Pellegrino Vignali, in the attic – as most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t be. A tip by the bookshop manager leads to another poem which recounts visiting the Prinzhorn Collection – a collection of Outsider Art made in the 1920s – and later the Wolfli Archives in Berne. Both of these visits are described as “one of my best days”. “Dr Chandra” describes three visits – one in 1964 and two in 1969 – to an amazing man who both translates and prints books with extraordinary energy:

. . . And then to the bookshelves containing all of the books that Dr Chandra has edited and in some cases translated, including a Sanskrit/Hindi/English Dictionary that runs to twenty thick volumes. How one man could find time in one lifetime (he’s now forty) to edit so many complex, thick volumes AND print them is beyond me. . . Now we’re taken into a large room where seven elderly Tibetan monks are reproducing from memory and with the help of magnifying glasses the 8000 gods in the Tibetan pantheon, a huge project which Dr Chandra hopes to finish in the near future . . . At my request, Dr Chandra explains in simple language what a mandala is and how it works. By the end of his explanation I’m in bliss . . .

I’ve dealt with these pieces at some length to try to see the reasons why this group has such a different aftertaste for the reader compared to the selection in Travel though, on the surface they are pretty much of a piece. Once one begins to think in terms of the processes of Hammial’s creativity, its tendency to draw inspiration from the productions of Outsider Art, its interest in assemblage and detritus, its interest in madness and confrontation, these are prose pieces that are a long way from the sense one might have had earlier of the documentation of an early delinquent life followed by a fiercely peripatetic one. They are a lot more than that, more central to reading Hammial’s poetry than an exotic adjunct.

Two final points might be made about this prose section. Firstly, I think that this is the only one of Hammial’s thirty-six books (the energy clearly doesn’t lie only in the poems!) to use a photograph of one of his sculptures on its cover. It’s an assemblage of a head mounted on a light-stand with an inverted bowl on top and is thus fittingly called, “The King”. Secondly, the book’s title comes from one of the later prose pieces describing a visit to the house of the “mad mahdi”, the slayer of General Gordon, and afterwards to a dervish “performance” at a local cemetery. Rumi’s whirling dervishes are usually seen as balancing ecstatic frenzy with some kind of control, but Hammial concludes by contrasting the dervishes of Omdurman with those of Konya in Turkey, the historical centre of the ritual:

. . . Around & around they go in a cloud of dust. It’s hot, it’s wild, the drums are hypnotic. Any resemblance between these dervishes and the carefully choreographed dancing of the dervishes in Konya, Turkey . . .

and leaves the piece on these ellipsis points. But it’s a comment not only about dervishes but about poetry too: there’s a difference between true ecstasy and controlled ecstasy and Hammial’s art, it says, reasonably politely, belongs to the former.

And so to the twenty-two poems that make up the first part of this book. As I said in the introduction to this review (and have probably said innumerable times in other reviews of Hammial’s work) my sense of these fairly extensive poems is that they belong to a distinct sub-group in Hammial’s poetry (probably the largest sub-group) and have certain ways of developing, referring and moving. There are dozens of different types of surrealism and it would be a useful, if exhausting, project to try to map out these kinds (the general mode is now a hundred years old – Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto was published in 1924) and then try to see where Hammial’s work, and Outsider Art, might be positioned. Would Breton have allowed either of these to claim the title of Surrealist, for example? At any rate, what stands out in Hammial’s poetry, apart from its energetic drive, is the way that drive shifts from one subject to another. It’s an art, that is, of transformations.

This reading, I’m interested in the material that undergoes the transformations. There is autobiographical material of different kinds. One is the issue of age. Though Hammial’s intense energy shows no signs of slackening, it’s significant that he was born in January, 1937, and the issue of age and its different perspectives on what one has done, does emerge every so often. In Dervishing, the first poem, “On a Warm Summer Night”, begins,

What have we here? – a ramble for
a somnambulist, yours truly through a life
some dreamer lived & now it’s time to say goodbye
to rock & wave & Pussycat & the goat on the hill.
So how about just one more thrill: Hannah
in a kitchen with tea to pour. Watch me
stumble & spill. . .

And the final poem of the group is significantly titled, “Last Words”. Again, there is a poke at the solemn niceties of conventional poems about death in that the poem is made up of the final words of prisoners (mainly Americans) before execution. And they are all pretty mad. The last of the last words, for example, is from Aileen Wuornos a prostitute who shot and robbed seven of her clients and was executed in Florida in 2002: “I’m sailing with rock, and I’ll be back like Independence / Day with Jesus on June 6”.

Another feature of the material that stands out in these poems is the breadth of Hammial’s cultural knowledge. While the shifts and transformations occur, it reminds me that the material being used is much more sophisticated than one might expect in more conventional surrealist poetry (if that isn’t an oxymoron). “Rauch” uses material about the German Painter, Neo Rauch, and his critics. “Silas Green”, beginning as a poem about Hammial’s early hometown, Detroit, (which, suffering worse than most from economic downturn is more full of junk and detritus than most) shifts to a description of a travelling circus of the first part of last century, listing significant names who all sound like something from an American comic strip:

. . . . .
            Her street is all avenue, mine 
is mostly alley. Though of course I’ll take you 
wherever you wish to go. So will an elephant if you ask
nicely. I might take this opportunity to pay homage
to a few of the principals of the Silas Green Show
(1904-57): Ford Wiggins, Hortense Collier, Prof.
Eph Williams, J. Homer Tutt, Salem Tutt Whitney,
Ada Brook, Nipsy Russell! Well done people!
So let’s pick one of these circus folk – Hortense
(my choice) - & put her on a trapeze that’s swinging
in slow motion towards us but, like Proust
in the Bay of Corinth in that poem 
by Baquero, almost here, almost close enough
to smell the rose in her hair – swings back, fades
into temps perdu. . .

but, as this shows, modulates comfortably into high culture with its reference to the poem “Marcel Proust Cruises the Bay of Corinth” by the Cuban poet, Gaston Baquero. If Hammial’s version of surrealism can be described as extreme experiences used in poems which push structure as well as syntax to distortion, then the material used is authentic and amazingly varied and often sophisticated in the breadth of its cultural reach.

But, as I said before, a lot of the material comes from a quite different area of scholarly speculation: the self. And a self in its mid-eighties has a lot to think about. The first poem introduced the life of an elderly self as “a ramble / for a somnambulist” and “In My Opinion” is a grotesque version of an overview of life and also a consideration of the role of material that is passed over as mere detritus, junk:

no funk has it all over defunct.
Who put the oranges in your 30s?
Who put the grapes in your 50s?
Who toys with who here?
I know where you hid the spoons.
You don’t know where I’ve hidden the forks.
. . . . . 
If what’s hidden wants to be found it will sing
in a dead language. What’s junk
for a shrink is bunkum for a ward nurse.
Who put lemons in your 80s?