Cover of Bread
Philip Hammial

syntax almost insanely crisp
unfair to all other poets - because of its brilliance and acrobatic speed in getting its points across
Kerry Leves, Overland
these are not poems to be taken lightly


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Book Description

just to the left
of the alarm clock,
just to the right
of the abiding distractions

The poet Philip Hammial is also is also a sculptor. His poems are word constructions, installations for the imagination. They confront and tease and strangely charm with their abrasive wit.

Out of a diaspora of forms and traces of what was once functional, he creates that living object of art which dances, screams, shouts, farts, raves.
Adam Aitkens

Like all good Surrealists Hammial is at heart a serious poet, whose shimmering surfaces open out to social analysis and an engagement with culture and politics, resulting in a dazzling bravura poetry.
Hugh Tolhurst

It’s jazz on the page.
Zan Ross

Bread was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, in 2001. The judges commented:

Hammial has a strong, fascinating, individual and reliably animated style. What might be mere experimental whimsy in another writer is toughened and made memorable by his well-integrated but unyielding ethical tone: ‘His is an evacuated face. Actually, it’s an extrajudicial face permeated with suck this immunity... A scummed face. A face in the final analysis, that’s down on all fours’ (‘Howard’). This is a beautifully disciplined book, mirroring social and literary genre absurdities back and forth to achieve a stance which is extremely valuable both artistically and socially.

Cover sculpture A Postmodernist Watching The Shit Hit The Fan by Philip Hammial
ISBN 1876044357
Published 2000
56 pgs
Bread book sample

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Poetry from Black Pepper
Melbourne Elegies, Bread, Russian Ink, The Dining Car Scene
Brian Edwards
Mattoid, No. 55, 2006

Whereas K.F. Pearson (Melbourne Elegies) typically invites reader compliance by emphasising the attractions of sharing and communication, Philip Hammial’s Bread collection is confrontational. Critical, satirical, and disjunctive, his poems are mostly surreal, their combinations bizarre. When Colonels, the Junta, Heads of State (including Howard), and the army become targets for satire, the modes are curiously indirect (overtly metaphorical) but also insistent. Focussing on stupidities, dullness, self-interest, and abuses of power, he mocks simple public-private distinctions while suggesting, as it were, the advisability (even the necessity) of stringent critique.

Something of this humorous/serious play can be seen in the short prose poem ‘Howard’:

His is an evacuated face. Actually, it’s an extrajudicial face permeated with suck this immunity as a function of fraternal arcanum. In other words, it’s a face of extortion modified to suit the present political climate - slapdash. Or, to put it simply, an about face. A packed-with-lies face. A floundering in malignancy face. An orchestrated by the lowest common denominator face. A scrummed face. A face, in the final analysis, that’s down on all fours.

One can only wonder what Hammial might add following the awful opportunisms of the Tampa affair, September 11, the ‘War on Terror,’ and all the way to Iraq with George, the Younger, Bush! By contrast, ‘An Incident in Famagusta,’ ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Stations’ are constructed as disjunctive narratives, phantasmagorical journeys in which the disconcerting play of images and ideas displaces literality for the more difficult appeals of symbolic possibilities. Similar strategies of dislocation appear in ‘Procedures’ where common events (the birth of a child, a baptism, a 21st birthday, choosing a valentine...) become the labels to which are attached short paragraphs of bizarre instructions and in ‘What to Say,’ a litany that offers harsh comfort about moments of crisis.

Bread is much concerned with death. So many of the poems address horrors, from history and from nightmare; and in their witty displacements, the sounds of parodic laughter suggest, as well, tears of frustration and concern. Satire is always at least double-edged.

...These are interesting collections. Black Pepper continues to present writing that warrants attention.

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Solitudes that Resonate: New Poetry
Kerry Leves
, No. 166, Autumn 2002

If Lou Reed were updating his most famous song to these duty-of-care times he might add that if you are taking a walk on the wild side, you are probably moving too slowly for the good of your health. Philip Hammial’s Bread is an alert, prowling lope across the earth-clung, wormy underbelly of our culture. Hammial lifts the stone, rolls it back - shows us the efflorescence of rot underneath, decay as animal action, contempt as a three-ring circus. Hey, that stuff looks amazing - but, Jesus! it’s moving, it’s acting on us... One action is evacuation, principally of the self, which is displaced, kicked out of any certainties regularly and brutally:

the party’s
over, the last guest leaving with my children
in tow...

Hammial keeps his syntax almost insanely crisp; he’s very matter-of-fact in linking the least obvious things, the mythic ‘Fourth Reich’ and the mystical longing for a poetry that’s ‘clear and concise’; Christian hypocrisy and its dubious tradition:

Fornicators dismantle a resurrection.
Prepare a balcony for takeoff.

What’s startling - and I think original - is the way shibboleths are torn down in a terse, colourful, street-talkin’ style:

A 21st birthday - Jump on a bus & give the moon, your youth & a bar of soap to the bus driver. If successful (if all three items are accepted without question) get off at the next stop & at the no-longer-there moon set up a howl. Persist with this until you’re taken away by the police.

Hammial also serves up a lot of nasty fun at the expense of that poetic afreet, the lyrical ‘I’ - ‘an effigy of myself / to do with as you will’ - plus heads of state, (‘They are, from first / to last, pneumatics./ Anyone, even an infant, / can pump them up’), colonels, a junta, medicos, a suicide, tourists, armies and a certain ‘Howard’: ‘A face, in the final analysis, that’s down on all fours.’ Zan Ross notes on the back cover: ‘It’s jazz on the page.’ I disagree - it’s rock’n’roll, post-punk; it’s got the directness of rap along with a verbal pizzazz and intellectual fullness that rap doesn’t usually extend to, Hammial is also a kinetic artist, a portrait sculptor in scrap metal and junk oddments, an endlessly inventive materialiser of demons comical and nightmarish. One of them is on the cover. This book could be dubbed UTAOP - unfair to all other poets - because of its brilliance and acrobatic speed in getting its points across. But those are also reasons for poets and non-poets to read it.

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New Poetry - 2001
Alan Urquhart
Westerly, Vol. 46, November 2001 (pgs 109-125)

[Text not yet available]

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New Writing

Helen Horton
, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001

Philip Hammial’s poems, in Bread, have the effect of chapters of a subject or life being thrown up on the screen at the same time, to take their place in what amounts to a surreal rendition of that subject or life, in order to produce its eventual meaning, or alternatively the lack of it. The method is not always easy to follow, the conclusion not always immediately obvious, and in these cases it is better to stand back a little to gain the overall effect, in the same way as is necessary with an abstract painting. One of the more simple examples is the poem ‘Correspondence’. Not all are in this mode, however. ‘An Incident in Famgusta’ is a straight telling of an incident, in starkly real detail.

Satire is an integral part of Hammial’s poetry; these are not poems to be taken lightly, or to be read for light-hearted pleasure. Always there is the conviction of serious comment being made behind the associations that may sometimes appear incohesive, their meanings requiring effort to unravel.

More direct are the short short poems that liberally punctuate the collection. These are telling, single subject comments, as in ‘La Mort Est Sur La Table’. Their terse lines pinpoint the smallest of observations, as in ‘Concert’:

As the flautist
only has one eye the crow
as though on a branch can perch
on the flute & not be heard.

The last of these luminous comments are written in prose form in the final item ‘Things to do’, which ends, ending also the collection, with the admonition: ‘Squeeze an accordion shut. Remember the sound it made. Remember it for the rest of your life.’

Philip Hammial is also a sculptor and the cover depicts one of his sculptures. It is not hard to deduce that his art and his poetry arise from the same nucleus.

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Launch Speech

Martin Langford
Burning Lines [Arts and sculptural] Festival, April 2001

There is a wonderfully apt epigraph to this book: ‘He gluts himself on astonishment’, and in some ways, astonishment is the bread of the title.

Bread, like, perhaps, all of Phil’s poetry, is fuelled by astonishment - at the craziness, weirdness, dumbness, marvellousness, of the life he finds himself in. And he does, in some ways, glut himself on it - in that way artists have of returning again and again to the material which both drives them crazy and delights them, the material they can never quite get out of their system through their art.

This astonishment, however, is not something which just appeared without forebears or context. Phil’s deck of literary possibilities was formed not by the Anglo-American tradition so much as by the continental modernists - the French and Spanish surrealists, the later French writers such as Michaux, Char, Jabés.

There is something syncretic about the Anglo imagination: it prefers to work in consonance with a comprehensive explanation of the world. Somewhere along the line, the French diverged from that need - that thoughtfulness, that insecurity - and let the imagination loose without, as it were, feeling that they need always be beholden to reasonableness.

As I read Phil’s work, it is written in the spirit of that tradition. The imagination is free to respond directly to the world without being mediated or restrained by the need to construct a plausible explanation of what is happening.

For a long time, this tradition has been alien to the Australian cast of mind, and sometimes Phil has struggled to find readers because of it. I would suggest that, with the greater tolerance for alternative possibilities that is around now, with the greater expectation that poetry is a mansion with many rooms, it is worth taking another look at Phil’s verse - or a first look if you haven’t already done so.

Bread seems to me to have been written out of a desire to produce something in language which was equivalent to the craziness and intensity of the world itself. And in the way that language has of being found to contain whatever it was the seeker was looking for already within it, Phil discovered a repertoire of violence and craziness already there.

Many of the poems, for instance, are built around puns. But these aren’t little wry-smile puns, they are bearers of absurd or demonic alternatives (see:’ Sound’, pg. 49).

Others are built around verbal patterns - recurring linguistic events might be a better term - which develop a momentum and charge of their own as the imagination takes hold.

‘Problems and Solutions’ is built around a sort of absurd folk-wisdom in which one might always knows what to do in every situation. The really absurd thing, of course, is the assumption that life is a perfectly ordinary thing, but Phil’s tone never moves from the rituals and conventions of that assumption. It is just that as his solutions get weirder, so, too, by implication, does that assumption become more absurd.

I don’t recommend Phil’s solutions, by the way. I don’t think people will find them helpful at all.

In some ways, Phil is a joker-poet. Reason, and reasonableness, are just the flimsiest of constructs. Having no credibility, their main attraction is as the source material for inconsistencies, puns and funny ideas. But from another angle, Phil is close to being a poet of dream. Not dreaminess: one very noticeable characteristic of this verse is its rapidity of verbal movement. But dream in the sense of being unpredictable, unsettling, vivid. There is, for instance, none of that clear distinction between ‘dream’ and ‘waking reality’ that we maintain in our everyday lives.

In Phil’s memoirs of his somewhat testosterone-fired youth, ‘Travels’, he writes of how he was continually confronting authority. He has carried something of that same attitude into his writing of verse. These poems strike one as direct imaginative confrontations rather than being, say, meditations or expressions of some feeling.

All this, however, is made accessible by his instinct for form, which seems to me to have gone on developing throughout his work. It is form - the lists and motifs and variations and recurring constructions - which provides the lens to his craziness, and, by being the expression of human effort in the face of something difficult, becomes a sort of implicit awe (‘Autumnal’ or ‘Me, Myself, No Other’).

There are no places of rest in this poetry - unless one counts the somewhat uncomfortable tightrope of humour. But then, there aren’t, really, any places of rest anywhere.

Phil Hammial is one of the distinctive voices of Australian verse, and Bread is an excellent place in which to start to explore that voice.

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