David Brooks: Urban Elegies

Woodford: Island Press, 2007, 75pp.

On the surface (always a dangerous place to stand when facing poetry) the shape of David Brooks’s poetic career thus far looks reasonably clear. His first book, The Cold Front, was published in 1983 and felt deeply North-American. It seemed, at the time, to be a fairly straightforward example of the influence of poets like Merwin, Bly and Kinnell. There was cold everywhere as though snow was necessary to produce the near-stasis in the physical world that made meaning possible. After more that twenty years of apparent poetic silence (occupied with prose fiction with a generally Borgesian cast as well as non-fictional work) he produced, in 2005, Walking to Point Clear. The subtitle, “Poems 1983-2002″, staked a claim that the output of poetry had been continuous. Walking to Point Clear was a surprise in terms of its achievement: it is light years beyond his first book in both technique and sophistication. The settings were Australian – often the southern coasts of NSW – but it was still a book in love with cold, preferring night settings which highlight solitariness and silence.

The first of the two sections of this new book, Urban Elegies, “Living in the World”, is not so far from the poems of Walking to Point Clear though its title suggests more engagement with ordinary living and the poems have a deliberately rougher edge. The second section of Urban Elegies is, however, something else again. This is living in the world with a vengeance and replaces the poetry of stillness with white hot energy deriving from an immersion in the daytime world of work and life in the suburbs of Sydney. Here the influence is an Australian one: Bruce Beaver. The first of these elegies, “A Curse”, gets its drive from hatred and transmutes itself into a curse, drawing on one of language’s most ancient capacities:

The incomprehensible bastards next door
have sprayed poison
from one end of our garden to the other.
Apparently half a gallon of some
as-yet-to-be-identified pesticide
has been found preferable to a phone call or a five-minute visit
to ask if we might trim a vine.

It is not “God knows what was done to you” but it is still pretty impressive. The poem goes on to list the lost before mounting its curse.

The dwarf conifer, the box-bush,
the laurel, the basil and parsley,
the thyme and tarragon and oregano,
the chili plants, the galangal, the lemongrass, the six
proud native irises are all
withering before our eyes
and we can only guess as yet
about the earthworms, caterpillars, skinks,
crickets, praying mantises, slugs, slaters, snails,
or the fate of any birds that might have eaten
from this treacherous buffet.

It’s a fine passage: the list suggests naming is a way we grope for the dead using all the powers of pre-literate language. The idea of cursing, or making a spell, also taps in to this. And lists inside angry prose or poetry also have the subtle rhetorical effect of implying that the writer is so angry that he can’t produce anything structurally more sophisticated. The poem concludes by protecting itself from the charge that, compared with lost lovers, dead children, Milton’s blindness, Swift’s madness, the Fall of Troy and Hell, Heaven and Purgatory, the loss of some plants in a small suburban garden is, poetically, pretty small beer. It does this by reminding us of the symbolic significance of the garden:

Let this then be a curse upon them:
Let them continue to be
self-exiled from the earthly heaven.
Let them never find
such a garden within themselves.
Let there at least be poetic justice.
Let them never understand such
fury, such sadness as this.

The sheer sophisticated animation of this poem is what makes it magical. It seems so far from the careful lyricism of the earlier books as to almost be written by a different poet. We finish Urban Elegies hungry for more of the same in this new, open, engaged and, above all, passionate, mode.

And yet, and yet. Since the new is always related to the old, one wants to look again at the earlier two books to see how accurate one’s first responses were. And when this is done, The Cold Front turns out to be a more individual work than it seemed at first blush. Yes it is built on a style deriving from Kinnell, Bly, Merwin et al and yes it does prefer the elemental symbolism of night, cold and darkness – as though meaning in poetry occurs as the material of the poem approaches stasis – but it is a book full of poems that can now be seen as very much in line with the later work: that is, as what we will have to call “Brooksian”. Many of the poems share a sense of trauma enacted against a backdrop of a forbidding world of darkness. The trauma though seems to be not so much psychic as domestic: the title poem, for example, speaks of “the long conversations / with pain in the final sentences”.

The most Kinnell-like of them, “One of the Last Nights”, begins in the darkness

On one of the last nights
I rise
from the bed where I have waited,
from the pillow where I have fled
. . . . .

but concludes with affirmation:

I come to the river
down the precipitous bank
and I kneel
and drink deeply, lifting
the dark water from its foil of stars.
It is all there: moments
rear in an emptiness,
light is wrung from the dying.

It is all there: the river
tearing itself to whiteness
over the snags.

Yes it is portentous and rather stagey but it embodies the essential stance of these poems: light from darkness. Sometimes the process is inverted. In “Wheatfield”, which begins “After the argument, the blood’s / blind clutch”, a bird of the night crosses the golden field:

Behind me a night-hawk
from a jack-pine, circles
and flaps westward
jagged under Orion

leaving how much
amidst the ripening,

how much
on this dry
stump, cracked to its roots, the rings
of all its years
burst open?

Again, it is a slightly creaky, staged symbolic scene but there is a lot to be said for these last lines which, instead of describing how the shadow of the Angel of Death touches odds and ends as it passes, asks ambiguously how much it leaves: that is – as I read it – how much death it leaves and how much it passes untouched.

These poems want to move towards affirmation. Affirmation only works when we feel, as readers, that it is hard won. The rest is just fakery. The Cold Front manages to convince me, at least, of its integrity though I am not sure that I can remember its having done so on first reading and I am not sure that many of the poems will appear in a Brooks Selected Poems. Affirmation here does not extend beyond the minimal opportunities offered a number of things: by poetry,

. . . . .
now by shardlight,
by rags of the song,
by spray
still clinging to the lifted thigh

by family, by recognizing mortality and by being connected. As one of the later poems says:

. . . . .
I go out
into the middle of a field
and the stars
like the old philosophers
are silent

I plunge my shovel
into the soil I stand upon
and the house of my life continues.

The final poem of the book, “The Swineflower”, offers us an interestingly grotesque image of the poet, as a pig-like devourer of experience producing out of his own mortality sufficiently fertilized ground to generate “the carnivore orchid”, the swineflower of poetry.

The best of the poems, “On Durras Beach”, contains all these features: a state of psychic disturbance, a glance at the domestic situation (which might or might not be related – the light of the lover’s eyes is, at any rate, not accessible to the speaker) and a powerful sense of mortality. Only the existence of a poem and the infinitesimally small light of the fire act as counterbalances:

Another night,
again the moon, self-hugged, self-eaten,
rolling imperceptibly deathward.

I stoke a small fire on the beach
with driftwood and the gnarled
roots of my sleeplessness

and watch the wind
weave through the flames
the dark tongues of the cosmos.

Night-long the waves
gnaw Durras sand, reaching
for the clump-grass, the lip of our yard, the house

where you lie sleeping, arms
furled in the emptiness, eyes clutching
their invisible parcels of light, and I

in vain here watching,
asking what light there is
from driftwood, knowing only

this poem, only this sound
of beachfire
as it burns on into the darkness

and that self-hugged, self-eaten,
binding what shore we can
we roll deathward, while the faint stars shine.

It is important to register that in this generally inward-turned book, there is a section – the fourth – devoted to what might be called poems of engagement. It is as though, this early, Brooks also desires an outward looking poetry. The tone of this section is established by the first poem, a translation of Milosz’s “Campo di Fiori” in which the writer thinks of the burning of Giordano Bruno in Rome (and the way the citizenry returned to the normal processes of pleasuring the flesh) on a beautiful day in Warsaw in 1943 when the sounds of the carnival drown out the shots from the ghetto.

This section contains “The Magi” a kind of inversion of, or answer to, Eliot’s poem. Here the magi return but find themselves out of sorts in a world where great changes are slowly happening. Again it is stagey, but that doesn’t reduce the sudden shock of the section where they come across a village completely frozen in mid-action (almost like Sleeping Beauty’s palace). The quality of this image, and its symbolic significance, could almost act as an introduction to Brooks’s prose fictions. Above all, what makes “The Magi” worth rereading is the certainty that, at the conclusion, the speaker is the poet himself, lamenting that, in a world which has undergone vast changes, he speaks only of himself:

It seems the air
lamenting in the empty traps.

It seems
the light
like manna on the fields.

Slowly, slowly
it is happening
the resistance
the rising
the cohesion of husks.

If only a firm, clear line
could enter from the nearest thing

or we could be
less like the cuckoo
in leafless vines
singing its own song regardless.

The final poem of this section, “The Horsemen” opens suitably apocalyptically:

From the far end of the bible
four men ride out
through the burdock
in the vacant lot off Phoebe Street.

and goes on to affirm the need for poetry to face up to its responsibilities:

we should have said
without action
there can be no true adoration

we should have explored
the full possibilities of language
which include responsibility

risking harshness
risking poetry
risking ultimate simplicity

but we had been sitting
too long by ourselves in the sunset
and a great distance was leaning from everything

as if
while we slept
the hooves could go without answer
. . . . .

Well this is harsh and simple but I resuscitate it to make the point that Brooks has these issues on his agenda as early as the poems of his first book.

Walking to Point Clear is, as I said, light years beyond The Cold Front in terms of poetic sophistication. It, too, has five sections though I suspect the poems are generally arranged chronologically. It begins in strict lyrical mode, relying on luminous yet open conclusions. But, since the poems are written with a gorgeous responsiveness to syntax we meet the effect – familiar in good lyrics – of the shape of the sentence closing down at the very instant that the meaning opens out. “Waking, Lumeah Street” is a good example:


the sound
of traffic
on the far margins
a high, thin wind
herding the night clouds

as I move about the house
I can hear a tap dripping,
passing through a neighbour’s pipes

and if I stand
stock still
the soft sound
of my daughter’s breathing

with my eyes closed
the sound of the blood
flowing down its ancient corridors

oceans without end.

One sentence (or conceivably two: there is a syntactic break at the end of “clouds” in the second stanza), a single comma to prevent an ambiguity, and a lovely shape that descends through the pattern of its own meaning. And that meaning moves from the carefully noted particulars (in Brooks’s poetry the senses become more acute as the scene moves towards stasis) out in a double direction so that the individual’s blood is both part of the huge salt water world of all the oceans past and present and, at the same time, all the genetic history contained in any individual.

This kind of accomplished lyricism is at the heart of Walking to Point Clear (whose title nicely suggests that each poem moves in its syntax towards a point of clarity) and one could cite any number of examples. In “Possum” the creature introduced in the title is never mentioned but is a solution to a kind of riddle:

. . . . .

beating a huge
                              cyclone fence
coming closer

no such fence for miles

It’s a homely and unambitious sort of poem but then so is its subject. So, for that matter, is the subject of “Bush-Mouse”:

raider of cupboards and open drawers,
skater across polished floorboards, relentless
worrier of barricades, gnawing itself bloody
for the skerricks of humans, the bush-mouse
likes Easter eggs, pistachio nuts, tubes
of Deadant, the cardboard and plastic
of tack-packets, parcels of screws,
but, most of all - true
bastard of Irish
convict stock - potatoes, new
potatoes, small
and round
and hard enough
to hold in its determined paws
and crunch as, intently, passionately, ears
cocked wide for a movement from the bedroom,
it stares out of the window at the giant moon.

The opening at the end here is visual. One could allegorize it out as affirming that this small creature engaged in a continuous assault on the human world belongs to the class of natural phenomena – as does the moon. One could even, stretching things a bit, see the animal as the poet’s comic totemic beast (an inversion of the book’s first poem which establishes the owl as the poet’s totem), engaged in ordinary consumption but staring at the moon. But I think, without any evidence, that this is an attempt at an oriental lyric. The poem’s true tension is that between the conclusion and the finicky particularities of the mouse’s activities. These are expressed as a list (and a very homely list at that). There is also the tension of tones: something like “true / bastard of Irish / convict stock” is unlikely to turn up in a poem by Li Bei or Basho.

Walking to Point Clear is full of satisfying poems of this type. The tensions that make the poems live are rarely repeated and can be quite complex – “Mangoes” and “People Sleeping Beside Each Other in Their Beds” are good examples. And yet, running throughout the book is a note of worry about poetry itself and about what kinds of poetry should be written. In “The Sawmill” the idea is floated that poetry relates to living by being a daily activity much like cutting and stacking firewood:

. . . . .
I’ve done the same
in Vermont
twenty years ago
and here before with Bob, and Frank,
or by myself
in Westgarth or Lumeah Street
more times than I can remember
and will not say
that writing isn’t something like it
sawing each day
into different lengths
carrying them from one place to another
stacking them up
when people’s backs are turned

This might be called the Snyder-solution to the act of writing though it is significant that the poem still wants to exploit the possibilities of a surprise (and, in terms of meaning, fairly open) ending. Related to this are those poems which see words as objects – things to be handled in the normal processes of living. In “Back after Eight Months Away” two stanzas of living (moving back to a damp holiday house on the NSW southern coast) are followed by two stanzas which affirm that speaking is one of the acts of living and that the words used are objects and, like objects, have their own (albeit slightly solipsistic) sense of existence:

no point
in saying this - only
to say,
the cold syllables
as they pause at the mind’s tip

rain, silt
turning solid
as beach-pebbles, polished
and flawless,
dreaming only of themselves.

The poem most connected with these thoughts about the status of words and poetry is “The Cormorant / Elegy for R.F. Brissenden”. Elegies for poets always have an especial piquancy for writers since one of your own has gone before you into the darkness and been silenced. Brooks’s poem begins with a sly joke and an affirmation that words are objects and do not produce resurrections:

Words fail
or drown in darkness,
so much
goes without saying

here is grass
with the black showing through
here is mutton bird
with a cold wind
ruffling its wings
out of the mind’s reaches.

And it ends, five sections later, with the idea that the use of words is not so much a part of the dailiness of living with objects, but rather a defensive song in the dark as we hug ourselves to ourselves:

. . . . .
As if there were anything other
than being what we are

other than uttering
over and over
the sounds we make out of love for our being

saying bird, grass, night
as if they could actually be those things

saying here, saying now, saying this
in its thousand forms,
its hundred thousand forms,

“The Cormorant” is not an easy poem to get to grips with but, at least in my tentative reading, it connects the twentieth century’s old obsession of the gap between signifier and signified with death and with a depressed sense of the self as alone, as “singing the one-sided song”. But if words are not conduits to transcendence, this throws a lot of doubt over the status of those luminous endings of the conventional lyric model. Walking to Point Clear, in other words, worries about its own methods and the question of whether poetry points us down to our irreducible, inner selves or up towards the stars.

One solution is that of this new book, Urban Elegies. And that is to embrace the public sphere of poetry and leave the sensitive inner world (and its tendency towards a static solipsism) to shift for itself. It is worth noting that the first elegy occurs not in Urban Elegies but in Walking to Point Clear. “Depot Elegy” has all the features of the poems of the second half of Urban Elegies, including an opening line that infringes notions of linguistic decorum:

The retired sawmiller, great arsehole,
has ploughed a road through the cycads
and that is the beginning of an end to it.
His three-story brick-and-tile monstrosity
cranes out of the hillside
and the whine of his chainsaw or grind
of his four-wheel-drive as he hauls
his fourteen-footer from the boat ramp
can be heard any day of the year.

The poem goes on to become a meditation on extinction “devoured by such sudden parasites / (and I am one”). As with “A Curse” the energizing force is fury and just as in that poem fury produced a spat-out list, so in this poem it fractures style. In the first sentence the final word, “it” can only refer to a non-existent word “forest” – it should have been replaced by “them”. Deliberate or otherwise, it’s a good technique because it signals the anger of someone whose poetry is always shapely and whose prose is “lucid and elaborate”.

The first section of Urban Elegies is very much about visitations. Visitations play their part in the poems of Walking to Point Clear but they are often subsumed there into the canny structure of the lyric. Here the visitations are framed in rougher poems and there is no doubt that Brooks is experimenting with the idea of opening the poems to the force of the world rather than reducing the world to the point where it can provide a shapely conclusion for a poem. Does this strategy work? Generally yes. Although, in a sense, all of these poems (all poems) are about poetry, there are three here which are quite overt about it. One of them, “Golden Tongues”, deals with visitation in the form of poetry:

come and go like a once-
or twice-a-year season

four or five
in a rush
and then nothing

you think
they’re easy
and get careless

but then
you turn around
and the words aren’t there

as if you’ve had your chance at Pentecost
and blown it
and the golden tongues are gone

out of the blue
it happens again

rising out of nowhere
needing you for something - an errand - urgently

The second of these poems, “Ars Poetica”, opens the book and is a much more slippery affair. The visitants are birds, initially exuberantly misidentified by the poet:

When I woke first I imagined it was starlings
mid-demonstration on the galvanised roof,
a thick forest of chirpings,
claws like the scratching
of a thousand sharp pencils

then, waking again, thought
. . . . .

eventually they are fixed as rainbow lorikeets, significantly from Beaver’s suburb of Manly “covering the gum with raucous blossom / like a sudden daylight phosphorous, / turning the morning to a drunken boat”. The poem concludes with a student asking “What is poetry?” and the poet’s response is “I think of all the old things”. There are many ways of reading this conclusion: the old things might be anything from old theories rehashed for students to old poems by the same poet. Conceivably they are the old techniques of intense metaphor – something the poem is full of. I like to think, admittedly because it suits my argument, that the poem wants to distinguish between a scholar’s mechanical discussing of the nature of poetry with the violent, raucous visitation that represents poetry itself. In other words this is a poem that wants to experience visitation without thinking too much about it.

The final of this group of poems is the comic “Barnyard Revelation Poem”. The poet meets another poet (significantly described as “an academic poetician”) who objects to poems of revelation with a rural setting – “barnyard revelation poems”. The poem then launches into a pretty accomplished parody of the post-modern before asserting the essential basis of human experience:

I suppose, instead, I should be producing
postmodern supermarket odes, or linguo-spatiological
poematographs of the
secret life of words - the kinds of things
a close analysis of “intimate” might intimate, or the way
“impact” can become “impacted” - as if
the post-modern supermarket were anything much other than
sawn-up, mashed, sliced, bottled or deep-
frozen barnyard
or the forms and paraforms, the traces and
fathomless abysses of words were any more
than the cum- and pain- and joy-cries
of farmers and their
wives and children, buried under
layer upon layer of the tangled Western Mind.

Sometimes the visitations are unwanted or at least unpleasant. In a fine poem, “Head Lice”, the poet searches his school-age daughter’s scalp for lice when, with some very complex syntactic shifts, memories of the past intrude as well as an understanding of the central tragedy of parenthood that lurks as though in ambush:

. . . . .
     I run my fingers
through her fine, soft hair, searching it
strand by strand
to find nothing
but the occasional abandoned egg-case
clinging to the root,
or freckle
on the snow-white scalp
amongst my own sudden memories
of childhood on the Cotter River
or birch-trees in a Cleveland winter,
or, waiting in ambush, the fought-
back, un-
thinkable certainty
that such moments must end
all too soon now
and will never come again.

Sometimes the visitations are ecstatic and in “Continuance” they are recalled as arguments in defence of the world against the charge that the stretch of living ahead of us will be just as dreary and uncomfortable as the traversed plain of already-lived life behind us:

wasn’t it in February
that a great moon filled the garden half the night
with light so strong you could read by it?
wasn’t it September when the honeyeater
built in the vine outside the window
and the strange birds came
singing all day in the fig trees
and all the night also?
wasn’t it only a week ago, for reasons
you could not explain at the time
or even remember,
you turned, and smiled a particular
smile as you entered, and your face
and your hair smelt of rain?

There are plenty of visitations, too, in the “Urban Elegies” section of the book. “No Angel” deals with the doubled nature of visitations. An “I do this I do that” poem, it details the events of 11 September, 2003 – exactly two years after the best-known visitation from the air in modern times and eleven days into a new spring. In the central section the poet returns to his office

to face the usual menagerie
of thoughts and emails, visits
to my door: a few
gnats, some
beasts of burden, one
storm-damaged petrel,
no angel, no
panther yet.

This stresses the absence of Rilkean incursions but the poem concludes at night

A glass of wine, a meal, some
conversation - all in all
a good day, quiet enough: no
accident or injury, no
illness, no
phone-call in the heart of night, no
flood or
fire this time,
no death.

This is a reminder that the angel of inspiration, the angel that carries the message of the world and the angel of death all share the same celestial apartment.

The final elegy of Urban Elegies is also a visitation poem concerning itself with accidentally touching a live powerline. When a poet does it it might feel as though he had

     grasped a tendril of his Al-
mighty God
or at the very least connected, as
a television connects to the evening news,
to the entire seven-suburb grid of
sub-station 40C . . . . .

But when a flying fox does the same thing, the poem asks what kind of transcendent reality it connects with momentarily, what

grids and
networkings of night, what
chittering labyrinths of
tree and
air, what
soundless shrieks of
pain or
joy or
prophecy are

It is not an empty question because it asks whether this sort of transcendental visitation is a uniquely human experience. Flying foxes, as part of the natural world, are usually, in Brooks’s poems, visitors themselves disturbing humans in the case of the possums and bush-mice of earlier poems. In “Rat Theses” and “A Dog at Fifty” from this section of Urban Elegies, rats and dogs create a kind of modus vivendi with humans when we see parallels between them and us. But this poem, in asking about the consciousness of animals, does move away from the slight tendency to see the world as a grand abstraction whose function, from our point of view, is to inspire or crush us with its vast otherness. You get the feeling that this book may lead to a perspective whereby we are seen as animals among other animals.

Urban Elegies is a terrific book but it does need to be seen in the context of Brooks’s other work rather than as a breakthrough volume that renders the earlier poetry irrelevant. The question of the nature of poetry, its relation to our humanness and to speech, whether its correct stance towards the world should be passive or active, are issues that go back to Brooks’s earliest poems. I would rather see these new poems as exciting experiments in a productive mode rather than as a finally achieved style. They certainly experiment within the mode: “America: A Cigarette Ode” is in the style of comic exaltation just as “Andre Agassi Bows Out of the French open, 4th June, 2003″ is in the tone of comic despair. But, most of all, they manage to harness anger to make poetry while remaining receptive. It is no coincidence that the author’s portraits on the covers of the three books – an intelligent student, a thoughtful and sensitive scholar and a shaven-headed, angry man – while radically different are still recognizably the same person.

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.