Philip Hammial: Inveigling Snafus

Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2021, 110pp.

Philip Hammial’s latest collection – his thirty-fourth – is an opportunity for readers to re-enter the strange and compelling world of his poetry – something we have been doing since the mid-seventies. The length of this career makes the energy of the poems all the more extraordinary and, as readers of the various reviews I have written of his work will know, I think energy is one of its defining characteristics. And it’s an energy that shows no signs of faltering as the poet enters old age – the “Age of Frail” as one of the poems calls it. Inveigling Snafus forms something of a pair with Detroit and Selected Poems which was published in 2018 in the US. Ideally this latter book (an update of his previous selected, Asylum Nerves, with the poems from the first ten years of his books dropped and replaced by a full-length version of his 2011 volume, Detroit) would provide a career overview against which Inveigling Snafus could be examined for developments, or at least, changes.

On a first reading of these new poems we are in a reasonably familiar world, familiar perhaps in its unfamiliarity. But for those who haven’t met Hammial’s distinctive manner before, a few lines from “Ante” in this book will help:

. . . . . 
            Shish kebab time
in Toe Hold, Colorado. Burned to a crisp: the lamb
in sister’s oven. Mom’s shoes always
two sizes too large, no wonder
she can’t run.
in the kitchen again. Go there & you’ll probably
be poached for some China job. Sorry, I misheard
the Chattanooga Cho-Cho whistle, thought it was
the Shanghai Express. When Shaoqing coughs
her wrinkles deepen.
are (pop)ular now, everywhere, but they cost
a fortune . . .

As with much poetry that we use the vague word “surrealist” for, this seems to generate energy not only through its pointed, slightly fretful style of address but also through the imaginative transformations that keep the verse moving so that the popular 1940s song “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, misheard as a faux-Chinese “Cho Cho”, transforms into the 1930s film, “Shanghai Express”. And then there are the aural and conceptual pleasures of imagining a town in Colorado called “Toe Hold” where shish kebabs are available. And not just available: the phrase “Shish kebab time” suggests mysterious routines of ingestion which are not only inexplicable but likely to be violently enforced by some Kafkaesque agency.

But to return to my initial interest in the changes that might be going on in Hammial’s poetry seen over the long stretch, it’s first of all important to stress the continuities. Many familiar motifs reappear. There is that interest in the state of being taken somewhere, involuntarily, often in mysterious vehicles with wheels that are unusual in some way. It’s a compelling image, literarily, and undoubtedly relates to the train-hopping obsession detailed throughout his poetry and especially at the end of Inveigling Snafus. “Tide” speaks of “wheels to roll little me / to a finish line that some bastard deleted seven / centuries back” and “It” speaks of “you on your wheel / & me on mine”, tapping into the pun whereby wheels can be things you are broken on as well as things you travel by. Another buried pun in these strange, enforced journeys is on the word “career” whereby the strange journey can modulate to the poet’s professional career, or just his passage through life. You can see this in the significantly titled “Steering Clear” which is, I think, about being a poet in Australia (small pond) imagined as being challenged by “some motor-revving red-light / smart guy with a master plan for malcontent up- / manship”. It turns out to be a silly competitiveness:

. . . . . 
                          Should, as consolation,
we buck in the narrows, go Gargantuan among
perceived (ill conceived) Littles, be cowboy gun-
slingers at OK Corrals, the more fool us? – a fuss
at neck & face, no matter which the point of which
is what? – to concede defeat to Fast Eddy smart guys,
Pain & Glory left in the dust?

Another Hammial motif might be called “institutions” especially of medical care. This really conflates two distinct subjects: hospitals (the frequency of visits to these inevitably increases with age) and asylums – an essentially biographical motif in Hammial who served early on as an orderly in a psychiatric facility in Ohio. They come together in “Penny Hates His Booth” a three-part prose poem in which entering an MRI machine transforms in the second stanza to entering a German bunker from the Second World War and, in the last stanza, into being prepared either for the guillotine or torture and finally executing one of his weird journeys:

. . . . .
Strapped face-down to a rough wood table you sent me at breakneck speed into the “oven” to execute a series of maneuvers: forward, back, to the left, to the right, forward, back . . . it seemed to go on forever, my brain being destroyed by radiation . . . Hours, years later I was released.

Doctor, torturer, executioner.

Finally, in this quick survey of Hammial topoi, there is poetry itself which can appear as a career or even something related to medical care. “A Baker’s Dozen” is a set of little prose pieces which are about poets and their poetry. At times these can sound quite conventional. “Establishment Poet” – “Fake tongue, real teeth, fake lips, real throat. And the poems that emerge, how can we tell which are fake, which real?” – is only, for example, a slight, surreal step away from the poems of someone like Martial. Issues of poetry and careers appear in a number of other poems – “Grass Infinity” speaks of a “muse debt” – and one of the most important later poems in Inveigling Snafus, “At Home in the Imperium”, a piece about living among the horrors of contemporary life (it finishes with a description of 168 workers on a cultural project in Manila being deliberately buried alive in cement so that the project won’t be delayed) begins with:

Out there beyond the horizon – a pincushion of voices
arguing about me – my place in the Australian 
poetry canon. Boom! If you listen carefully you’ll know

that the sewing machines are fountains, are torpedos
aimed at Liberty ships . . .

This opening starts by recalling Randolph Stow’s wonderful poem, “The Singing Bones” – surely deliberately though this kind of allusion isn’t common in Hammial’s poetry – and then uses a pun on “canon” to modulate to the kind of military hardware that the current world calls for from its poets. Finally, there is “Contriving” which I read as being about – at least in its opening – the poet’s career:

Not bad, this contriving, for a defective.
Unclean in the extreme, the sum
of a big-yield exercise in slum clearance, namely
my peekaboo-that-thought-fell-flat head
back in the game. Poetry? Let’s not
get too ambitious – Demarcation one of several
lines I’ve already wrongly crossed, stumbling, a bundle 
of fever as flamboyant as a ghost in a Noh play, ie.,
Wham! Bam! Slam! Thank You Little Miss Muse;
overlook, please, my messin’ up & get me
over your barrel (the Motown equivalent
of over a rainbow). . .

This serendipitously allows me to begin to speak about elements of Hammial’s poetry which are either new or have become more pronounced as the number of his books has increased.

The most notable of these is the growth of poems specifically relating to Detroit (Motown) Hammial’s home until adulthood. These have increased in frequency generally over the last dozen books or so, but Inveigling Snafus seems to replicate in miniature the longer development since the frequency of the Detroit poems increases rapidly in the poems of the last part of the book. It’s hard to think of poet as distinctive as Hammial going through the fairly predictable process of finding in later life that his thoughts stray more and more to the details of his early life and the place in which these events happened but it may be that, simple a process as it is, this is what is occurring. At any event, it gives us a slightly different parallax view of Hammial as, simultaneously, an Australian poet of his generation (he appears in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry) and a Detroit one.

It also raises the issue of personal elements and experiences. Often Hammial seems to be writing about a mad alternative world whose exact relation to the current one is a matter of debate – Martin Langford, in his introduction to the earlier selected, Asylum Nerves, argues that “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”. And he’s right, I think, to focus on the energies rather than, say, political and social situations. But contained in this alternative world are substantial slabs of autobiography, almost always about adolescent experiences. “At Home in the Imperium” is an assemblage of passages done in different styles and one of these, the hair-raising instructions for how to get to a party in the ghetto area of Detroit is done as straight autobiography: “Lock your doors; keep the windows rolled up; cruise / through stoplights, never stop; park in front of the house; // blow your horn; we’ll come and get you.” In a poem like “Carpet” the autobiographical conclusion forms a sudden shift which can still be seen as a surreal disjunction:

What happened to the promised miracle?
Cut short by a convulsion in which
I was in over my head? – drowning 
not waving & haggling for stones
that would print as matter & not sink, just
this once, without a trace. In situ
in other words, spraddle-legged & jumped-up
to a cat in a cage perch, that fool
with the chair & the whip dispatched like cocaine
in one of Pablo’s fly-by-night planes, straw-boss pick-ups
for divas in whose august presence I’ll never
stack up not even with a tidy-up. Go ahead, snigger
if it makes you feel good so do I It (as the proverbial last straw)
convinces me to close ranks with those heroic throwbacks
who enhance what I regard, rightly or wrongly, as
a positive downsizing, down (to a size) where “Good luck”
I can slip through unnoticed, sentries asleep on their feet,
Barbara Wysong, high school sweetheart, & I trudging
through falling snow to Paradise,
Michigan, nights of moon cake, days
of circus (too many rings to count) first it was
a house of straw, then a house of paper – the story of how
she said goodbye & married a money man, yours truly
riding the rails, hitchhiking Bombay to Delhi
with Sikh truckers, a sky burial on the outskirts
of Lhasa, wild boars on a Roman road in Iran . . .
unrolling, a Persian carpet, the promised miracle.

I’ve quoted the entire poem here because, although it demonstrates how an autobiographical inclusion can perform a striking evolution in the structure of the poem, there are also a lot of Hammial “issues” here that one could explore at far greater length than I (or my readers!) can afford. It’s really, for example, a “vehicle poem”, but here the vehicle isn’t a grotesque contraption on wheels but a magical Persian carpet (the fact that the title locks together with an item in a list in the last two lines is a reasonably common way in which Hammial gives his poems a sense of structural unity). It also contains the potent idea of “downsizing”, which occurs in a number of the poems of this book and makes one feel that there is a stronger economic/political dimension here than in other books – “Options” is a good example. But downsizing is about losing personal status and also about losing transcendental, “magic carpet” aspirations – “what happened to the promised miracle?”. The “fool / with the chair & the whip” and “days / of circus” are circus references and circuses as well as nursery rhymes and fairy stories are a rich source of material for Hammial, recalling Rimbaud’s “barbarous sideshow”. There are a lot of verbal transitions: “jumped-up” seems to suggest the later “stack up” (an odd cliché, come to think of it), “tidy-up” and “pick-up” – the emphasis being on the word “up”, part of a magic carpet ride as opposed to the “down” of downsizing. If I were forced to make a stab at summarizing the poem, I would say that at least part of it can be reduced to: Forget about easy promises of transcendence, accept a reduction of self-image from the idealised heroes of one’s youth, don’t take a short cut to a higher life by marrying or inheriting money, abandon yourself to obsessions – in Hammial’s case, serial travel.

An earlier book, Travel, contained autobiographical pieces about Hammial’s life in Detroit and these prepare us, somewhat for the same elements in Inveigling Snafus, including the book’s final “poem” which is a six page prose piece listing Hammial’s experience of giving in to the obsession with riding on freight trains, an honourable mode of travel dating back to the Great Depression in America but here a drive to both get away and expand experience. If this mode of Hammial’s work seems surprisingly straightforward, one is always reminded that it might be a case of a bizarre reality described realistically.

These comments about Detroit playing a greater role in the poems late in Hammial’s career were introduced by looking at the last lines of “Contriving”. These lines also introduce a couple of other issues. One is the reference to the sado-masochistic in “get me / over your barrel” which is an example of spanking/flogging fetishes that recur pretty often in Inveigling Snafus. In a mad world of desires, energies and compulsions-from-above this seems entirely fitting material, just as the circus world of “the / tumblers, the funambulists, the cockalorums, the Jills / and the Jacks” does. But there is also the phrase, “my messin’ up”, which introduces an element of dialect which is common in the poems of this book and which I don’t remember as being common before. There are “gonna”s, “doncha”s and even a “’sponsibility”. It seems to mark a desire in these poems to make a statement about linguistic level (avoid high style, stay low) but it is also willynilly a statement about place since these are American idioms rather than Australian ones.