Review of Bread, Philip Hammial, Black Pepper, Victoria, Australia, 2000.
Open this collection of surreal poems and witness an array of sardonic humour and a relentless assault on an objective, consumerist-driven reality. Hammial - as poet and outsider artist - takes a step away from the mainstream and follows his own path, a refreshing stance even for much contemporary surrealist poetry, which suffers from an insistence on clinging to tradition.
Hammial’s work combines a streetwise irreverence with an intellectual sharp-wittedness, yet nevertheless retains an elusive quality that is difficult to pinpoint.
Some of the poems have a collage-like character, containing dream images running into each other with narratives either being disrupted or operating on several levels simultaneously. In the opening poem ‘Autumnal’, we discover:
only crime: he refused to meet The Season
head-on, would only from the side, as do sea chariots
when they menace - bathers in flight, run straight
into the arms of a gang on the beach, bikers
kneeling on sand - Let us pray...
In ‘Correspondence’ the dream continues with a party full of complete strangers, a cyanide capsule and the recurrently haunting phrase ‘Their nourishment comes from elsewhere’. In another poem, ‘Floating’, the poet watches various corpses floating by and overcomes the temptation to become a corpse himself, ‘to go floating off, destination / unknown, without a care in the world’.
In a couple of poems, disconnected phrases are brought together to build up a logic of their own:
Wear bibs for sex.
Have gladiola manners.
Give vent to the patter of paterfamilias.
Are please when camels kneel..
From literal mud he crawled to run with literal dogs in.
The time it takes to tow a mother.
Hooded emissaries bring out their tubes for a blow.
At which point the hunting starts to complain...
In ‘Me, Myself, No Other’ various personalities burst out all at once, revealing an angry schizophrenia insisting on its singularity of identity:
& myself, no
other who, coming among strangers,
can understand their language as if
it was my own, their discourse
of dead horses, of empire, of excrement
This is the sickness of an insane society utterly convinced of its sanity. Eventually though, as the poem concludes, it is an insanity that ‘will place on the lips/of each of my comrades a kiss/of betrayal’.
The exposure of a self-deluded society and the abuse of power by governments continues in other poems, such as ‘Not me, him’, ‘Bread’, ‘Heads of State’ and ‘Law’. Christianity comes under particular attack, whether tacitly or explicitly, as in the satirical short poem ‘Last Supper’:
On twelve plates twelve pills.
Pink pills on green plates.
A thumbs up from the host means to swallow.
Eleven do, with wine to wash it down.
One refuses. Demands & gets
on a pink plate a green pill.
Hammial is not shy in his assaults, neither is he afraid to display ‘sick’ humour as in ‘Custodians’, ‘What to Say’ or in ‘Problems/Solutions’: ‘Judges eradicate damsel distress./ Grade rape from one to five.’ Hammial is always provocative, but our complacent psyches - often unable to question the flimsiest of deceptions - are in need of a good shake up.
Some of the best poems in this collection are a series of prose poems that could be categorised as scripts for surrealist happenings. ‘Problems/Solutions’ recommends: ‘Set fire to your toothpaste’ while others are more elaborate:
Call the spirits of the dead. When they arrive, complaining about the poor treatment that they had from their relatives when they were alive, put brown paper bags over their heads &, as though applauding, pop them.
Hammial is not a poet for everyone, and certainly not for those with their heads in the sand. Most of his poems demand several readings and if they are occasionally shocking, they are nevertheless always thought-provoking and enjoyable.