John Hawke launched Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial, Island Press 2015, at Collected Works Bookstore on Friday 27 March 2015.
Ticket to Ride is the latest in a remarkable series of volumes Philip Hammial has published over the past fifteen years or so, which have been building in energy and intensity. This week I’ve been working with classes on stylistic elements in the poetry of Rimbaud, and a student pointed out that the most important technical feature of Rimbaud’s work was the complexity of his syntax – the very loose addition of accreting clauses that allows him to add image to image in a kind of perpetual accumulating slide-show, so that the poem becomes a densely-packed auto-generating machine that creates its own second nature: a kind of supernature, in fact, which is the pure product of his ‘alchemy of the word’. I’ll come back to that term ‘supernature’ in a minute. But this led me to reach into my bag and read them the following sentence from Philip Hammial, which is in fact the second sentence in the book:
As in (therein) their
not inconsiderable swoons they seem to take &,
occasionally, give delight, by which I mean (& mean
I must) a cautionary cradling for these fornicators who,
unchecked, would intimidate with rocking annoyance
their otherwise unwilling partners in, if not a serious crime,
a trundling misdemeanour, so that, now, by this (& that)
I’m inclined to say, & kindly so, as gall upon a manner
fixed is mixed and matched as only matter can, an
expression of felicity not
to be fobbed off, no, nor held up
as some so positioned darling pretending ignorance of
a fact basic to yours truly – that aversion
in my hospice although (& nonetheless) if that
is possible (& probably isn’t) I must insist
on something that I’ve somehow, in
the unravelling of this sentence, forgotten.
That sentence, which runs over sixteen lines, is framed by two shorter sentences, and if you want to contextualise it you’ll have to buy the book and read it for yourself. This extraordinary circumambulatory syntax, with its short clauses linked by informal connections, resistant to any symmetry or Ciceronian ideal of ‘clarity’, is the form of ‘loose’ style that you find in Baroque prose writers – in English, in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, or in Sir Thomas Browne. In the twentieth century, the deliberate obscurities of High Modernism have sometimes been viewed as a return to the Baroque: Joyce can virtuosically replicate this style in the Library chapter of Ulysses, for example; and Proust’s style, with his time-travelling sentences which start here and end somewhere over there, until the reader is lost in a juxtaposition of temporalities and geographies that reveal the present moment from all of the perspectives of consciousness, presents an object lesson in Bergsonism in itself. Philip’s syntax does a similar thing: it allows him to explore a temporal moment, or a slice of reality, from every possible angle of experience; and, as in Rimbaud, this process is simultaneously subjective and objective – ‘I becomes another’, the speaker of the poems becomes a ‘fabulous opera’. This multiplicity of perspective of course applies just as weirdly to individual words as well, as they are providentially marred and improved by puns and slippages: ‘A hearing force’, ‘What’s the hush?’
This cubistic approach results in a kind of fractured Alice in Wonderland effect of interlocking planes, and the speaker of these poems, like Alice, is constantly posing inscrutable questions of ontology: ‘Get real! Get real? That time I crossed a hare with Dale Evans, a fox with Roy Rogers, was that real?’ The key thing about Philip’s poetry, I now understand, is that however bizarre or deliberately obscured the events described in his work might seem, everything he’s writing about is perfectly real: there’s none of the decapitated mysticism of Surrealism in his work, and his juxtapositions aren’t randomly generated by automatist procedures. The techniques he’s employing are actually a form of spatializing realism, creating a geography of the moment flattened within the complex of a sentence. I’ve been partially led to that realisation after reading Philip’s extraordinary unpublished autobiography, a tale as baroque and fantastic as anything in his work, and the lineaments of that story are evident throughout his poems. They’re contained within a kind of Immortal Story – if you remember the Orson Welles film – of a sailor’s journey to knowledge, as a kind of pure desiring machine for the accumulation of affects; these experiences are then documented, reassembled, and alchemised within the machine of the poem. Philip’s favourite author, the Cuban neo-Baroque poet and novelist José Lezama Lima, has a wonderful term which he takes from Vico: ‘the impossible credible’. That’s the version of super-reality that I find expressed in Philip’s work, and I’d like to pay tribute by reading a paragraph from Lezama Lima that defines this precisely: he writes, ‘In the mastabas of ancient Egypt, a door was always left open to receive the magnetic winds of the desert. Great winds that the dead continue to receive. The penetration of the pyramids northward in the parched lands caused the queen’s chamber to be constructed with the most favourable orientation possible for receiving the magnetic winds of the genesial desert. Hence my belief that the construction of the pyramids was meant to create not only a lasting space for the dead but also a genesial chamber for the kings to procreate with the concurrence of the magnetic winds of the desert…For the Egyptians, the only talking animal was the cat, who could speak the word ‘like’ that could join together the two magnetic ends of its whiskers. These two magnetic points, infinitely relatable to one another, lie at the basis of all metaphoric analogies. It is a genesial, copulative relatedness. Join together the magnetic points of a hedgehog with those of a shepherd’s pouch, an example we are fond of, and a chestnut is engendered. The magnetic ‘like’ also awakens new species and the realm of supernature.’ (José Lezama Lima, “Confluences (1968)”, Selections ed. Ernesto Livon-Grosman (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005) pp.105-106.) Philip Hammial’s Ticket to Ride, along with the stream of exceptionally creative volumes that precede it, is a direct invocation of precisely that supernature which Lezama Lima describes.
– John Hawke
—————————————————————————————————John Hawke is a Senior Lecturer in literary studies at Monash University, and recently coedited (with Ann Vickery) the anthology of critical essays, Poetry and the Trace. A selection of his poetry will appear with Cordite Press in 2015 http://corditebooks.org.au/collections/frontpage/products/aurelia.
Ticket to Ride is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm