Michael Farrell Reviews Philip Hammial

30 May 2016

Hammial writes unusually smooth poems, keenly attuned to vowels and consonants. The alliteration of ‘Filthy because first, I fell from a family/of fifty’ is soft because of the fricatives, yet is further lightened by its patterning of ‘i’ sounds (‘Getting Clean’). In this passage from ‘Correspondence’ there is a shifting interplay between i, o, t, c, m, oo, l, g and p sounds:

                                                                        Could
it be cyanide? Bite at your peril. I’ve lost
my appetite. Which is just as well because the party’s
over, the last guest leaving with my children 
in tow. I’d like to go too but don’t have a ticket,
turned away by the conductor, the locomotive hissing
in the moonlight as its huge wheels slowly, reluctantly 
begin to turn, my garden
ground to a pulp, Their nourishment 
comes from elsewhere. From
Constantinople possibly …

So what? Well, the musically pleasing aspect of the poems is part of an overall effect of (ironic) mildness and subtlety, a thoroughgoing consistency which perhaps contributes to the reason Hammial’s work has not been given significant attention (admittedly relative in the poem-abnegating paradigm of public culture). Even the topical extremities of (Prime Minister) ‘Howard’ on all fours, or the sarcastic ‘Can’t/ afford to be concerned about a few reffos when / xenotransplantation risks are spreading epidemic / diseases to the whole of humanity / us included’ (‘Talking Trash’) end up being, ultimately, pleasing. This might go down well in places where pleasure has an intellectual cast. But our bourgeoisie is not good at enjoying anything that strains the brain. A ‘very major’ poet (quoting Martin Duwell on the back of the book) is a more appealing category than a plain major one, and an alternative to John Forbes’ notion of a minor major one. Yet any kind of major poet – good or bad – to be major, has to be discovered by an audience at some point.

We look overseas for international poetics but we have poets from the U. S., Asia, Africa and Europe living here. Originally from the U. S., Hammial has lived in Australia since the 1970s; his poems aren’t always indicative of place, but North American life is a distinct element in some. Perhaps Hammial is better thought of as an international poet, though there are, potentially, diasporic and postcolonial readings to be made of his work. It’s easy to imagine a version of Hammial being feted in Europe or elsewhere. Writing well is not enough, as all Australian poets realise quickly; what we do with that realisation determines whether we persist (as Hammial clearly has), and with what grace. Hammial’s career is comparable with that of π.O., in that both have published most of their work with their own presses—Island Press, in Hammial’s case. This hasn’t prevented a number of short-list appearances, but has perhaps limited his work’s distribution and critical reception. (Unfortunately, this Puncher and Wattmann selection of his work has spelled his name as Phillip rather than Philip on the cover.)

I get the impression that, in mid-career, Hammial attempts to up the ante with In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children. Poems from that book feature an anal sex exhibition with a Comtesse that gets grandmothers off (‘Grandmothers’); a vulture trainer (‘Discipline’); ‘Junkies who spank’ (‘Soft Targets’: still using that circular ending, however); and a gang-raped ‘Lucy’. The troping of narrative gets bleaker, too, as in ‘Bicycle’, where a five year-old ages sixty years while bike-riding through wars and ending at an open grave. That is the freedom of poetry: you can do anything but get attention. Doing more means more only; every prolific poet has this problem. Asylum Nerves feels like a lot of Hammial, yet as a selection from over twenty books (and seven new poems) it’s actually a fairly strict sampling. It’s still, perhaps, too generous. A few tickles, a few pokes in the eye, that’s all we need. Which is this?

Party

Bring your favourite corpse to the party.
Fun & games for everyone.

I take mother. 

Egg & spoon: mother in a swoon,
   I shuffle to the finish line.

Pin the tail: blindfolded & spun around three times,
   I pin it to mother’s stomach.

Fox & geese: foxy lady, I’m the goose again. 

Tag: levitating, she can’t be caught.

Treasure hunt: mother the treasure,
   she can’t be found.

Parcel-parcel: unwrap my prize, she’s it.

Three-legged race: legs tied together,
                                         we finish last.

Or if you like the language of cryptic crosswords and getting caught in the rain, try the beginning of ‘Cattle’: ‘Big wise cattle don’t / jell’. ‘Wig Hat On’ is a standout for reading aloud; its conclusion a chiming (with the poem’s beginning, natch) definition of a poet: ‘A big time singer / who could with a hatchet do’. Ouch, we might well say, for not only is writing well not enough, nor is assembling books of well-written poems. There doesn’t seem enough differentiation between the books excerpted in Asylum Nerves. A more severe selection – or infinite other organisations – might have been more suggestive of the energy that is in the poems. I find myself longing for metacommentary: ‘I took this poem, then I did x to it, and then I did y to it.’ Do the poems speak for themselves, or to themselves?

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About Michael Farrell


Michael Farrell's I Love Poetry and A Lyrebird: Selected Poems are both out this year (2017): from Giramondo and Blazevox, respectively. His scholarly book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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