Voodoo Realities by Philip Hammial
(Island Press C-Operative, Woodford, NSW, Australia, 2005)
Philip Hammial is one of the more interesting personalities of the last thirty years in Australian poetry. Apart from writing poetry Phil has been generous to other poets in operating his independent imprint Island Press and he has also made and exhibited sculptural art and has fostered the work of other visual artists, curating survey shows of Art Brut for some years now.
Most poets seem to jump at the chance to be institutionalised -- to be acclaimed by society’s committees, happy to forfeit poetry’s adversarial alienation (which is the source of its critical autonomy) to pitch themselves at winning the applause of posterity. Philip Hammial’s poetry, I think, resists this -- he seems not to want to leap and he certainly can’t be pushed. Phil’s social identity as a poet is not ingrained, although his commitment to making ‘ART’ probably is. And he can’t be pinned down -- his work is mutable.
Philip Hammial projects, in his poetry, a free, un-selfconscious imagination. The poems are vital, fast, celebratory. The reader feels she’s in the presence of originality.
His poems give you a delicious, if brief, feeling of being intensely alive. Allowing a kind of transcendence of conformity, it’s poetry that transforms alienation into freedom.
Phil’s poetry teems with images -- often seemingly freely associated, hallucinatory, and leaping from location to location. You can imagine watching the impossibly distant Cancri star system from the balcony of a hotel called the ‘Ucuncu’, you can end up in prison in Mexico or in court in Marshal, Michigan or be startled by an unidentifiable noise that’s ‘…Not/ the yes of Argentina overriding the no of Burundi/ at Egypt’s Easter Festival.’ You think you’re in Los Angeles, then -- ‘click’ -- you’re in France -- he covers the waterfront -- Africa, Nicaragua, the Middle East, Bedlam, Rome, the Bronx, China, even Sydney -- you get the idea -- ‘Enjoy your stay in Tokyo./Or is this Berlin’ -- it’s dizzying. Readers might wonder what drug he’s on as they reach for the atlas.
In their sweeping range of imagery these poems remind me, somewhat, of the two Johns, Ashbery and Tranter. Although, in comparison Phil’s poems are unrestrained. His poetry is intense. Innocence, naivety and spontaneity are seen as disadvantages in the adult world, where it is wiser to be cautious than spontaneous, clever than naïve and normal to feel guilty rather than innocent. In Voodoo Realities the reverse is the case. The sexual images can be grotty and sad -- ‘a jaundiced girl dancing in your lap’, or ironic and mocking as in ‘The Visit’ -- the poet follows a sex worker up some steps in lascivious anticipation and she turns and kicks him, jamming her foot in his mouth, so that he wonders if he has come for ‘the slightly rancid taste of her exquisite toes’. In one poem’s bondage scene, the poet resembles a warped Stelarc ‘…some of whom/if I ask politely, will suspend lead weights/from my testicles, adding more & more until/I’m forced to beg for mercy, having become/in the process a veritable Foucault’s pendulum ‘. And, whatever you do, don’t ask Phil to explain a ‘spunk cortege’.
Phil demonstrates a stylistic variousness here too. There’s the stark straightforward minimalism of a short poem like ‘A Gun’ --‘that is all gun, no/ aim, sets free/ its captive, a bullet/ that is all bullet, no/target, that enters its victim…’ and so on, and the contrast of dreamy optimism in another short poem -- ‘Unknown’
how these systems accumulate with
portholes in the mountain through which
the unfortunate who are trapped therein
can see & wonder at the beehive
from which the blessed will disembark
with the candles that they’ll carefully place
on the bonnets of majestic automobiles
that will move in slow procession to a better world
(hmmm a ‘spunk cortege’ perhaps? ha ha)
‘Home Sweet Home’ is a longer funny, absurdist poem comprised of short stanzas ‘Duffers in line/ for a chemical spank’, ‘It’s such that/the same number/is the sane number.’ ‘Be advised/that the la la/& the ba ba/are one & the same’.
Another long poem in four-line stanzas works as a lynchpin or key to Phil Hammial’s modus operandi in this collection -- ‘Days In Jesus, A Chronicle’. It’s a hyperreal memoir -- of childhood escapism, teen rebellion, of hotheaded young adulthood on an experiential journey into a troubled world. It’s a kind of totally beat ballad -- ‘on the road to Damascus, or was it Lhasa…’
There’s not much point in my making further descriptions of these diverse and inimitable poems. Phil is an incredibly prolific poet and this collection is as energised as his previous work. Read it to discover more.
Pam Brown has published many books including Text thing (Little Esther Books, 2002) and Dear Deliria (Salt Publishing, 2003) which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2004. In September 2007, Tinfish Press published farout-library-software, a collection of collaborative poems written with the Seattle-based Egyptian poet Maged Zaher. Her next collection of poems, True thoughts, is forthcoming in 2008. Pam Brown is the associate editor of Jacket magazine and a contributing editor for Fulcrum and How2. She keeps a blog -- http://thedeletions.blogspot.com