to the left
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.
of a diaspora of forms and traces of what was once functional, he
creates that living object of art which dances, screams, shouts, farts,
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.
jazz on the page.
short-listed for the
New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Kenneth Slessor
Poetry, in 2001. The judges commented:
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
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
Cover sculpture A
Watching The Shit Hit The Fan
by Philip Hammial
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ME, MYSELF, NO OTHER
NOT ME, HIM
LA MORT EST SUR LA TABLE
AN INCIDENT IN FAMAGUSTA
HEADS OF STATE
A MATTER OF SPECULATION
IVAN & ALEXANDRIA
AT A TABLE
WHAT TO SAY
IN SHINING ARMOUR
DISCUSSING THE ARMY
THINGS TO DO
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Poetry from Black Pepper
Elegies, Bread, Russian Ink, The Dining
Whereas K.F. Pearson (Melbourne Elegies
typically invites reader
compliance by emphasising the attractions of sharing and communication,
collection is confrontational. Critical,
satirical, and disjunctive, his poems are mostly surreal,
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
Something of this humorous/serious play can be seen in the short prose
His is an evacuated face. Actually, it’s an extrajudicial
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,
By contrast, ‘An Incident in Famagusta,’
Bound’ and ‘Stations’ are constructed as
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
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
moments of crisis.
is much concerned with death. So many of the poems
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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that Resonate: New Poetry
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
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
acting on us... One action is evacuation, principally of the self,
which is displaced, kicked out of any certainties regularly and
over, the last guest
leaving with my
Hammial keeps his syntax almost insanely crisp; he’s very
matter-of-fact in linking the least obvious things, the mythic
Reich’ and the mystical longing for a poetry that’s
concise’; Christian hypocrisy and its dubious tradition:
dismantle a resurrection.
Prepare a balcony for
startling - and I think original - is the way shibboleths are torn down
in a terse, colourful, street-talkin’ style:
21st birthday - Jump on a bus
& give the moon, your youth & a bar of soap to the bus
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
Persist with this until you’re taken away by the police.
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,
even an infant, / can pump them up’), colonels, a junta,
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;
got the directness of rap along with a verbal pizzazz and intellectual
fullness that rap doesn’t usually extend to, Hammial is also
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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Poetry - 2001
Vol. 46, November
2001 (pgs 109-125)
[Text not yet available]
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, 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
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
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
Est Sur La Table’. Their terse lines pinpoint the smallest of
observations, as in ‘Concert’:
only has one eye the crow
as though on a branch
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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Burning Lines [Arts and sculptural] Festival, April 2001
There is a wonderfully apt epigraph to this book: ‘He gluts
astonishment’, and in some ways, astonishment is the bread of
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
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
As I read Phil’s work, it is written in the spirit of that
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
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
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
and conventions of that assumption. It is just that as his solutions
get weirder, so, too, by implication, does that assumption become more
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,
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,
There are no places of rest in this poetry - unless one counts the
somewhat uncomfortable tightrope of humour. But then, there
really, any places of rest anywhere.
Phil Hammial is one of the distinctive voices of Australian verse, and Bread
excellent place in
which to start to explore that voice.
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