Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Local and Universal

With One Skin Less – Philip Hammial
Hale & Iremonger, 1994.
ISBN 0 86086 517 X., 80 pp. pb.

Picture’s Edge – Mike Ladd
Wakefield Press, 1994.
ISBN 1 86254 317 8, 115 pp. pb.

Philip Hammial’s new book, ‘With One Skin Less’, is dominated by the sequence, ‘A Man Poems’, seventy prose poems that, through the depiction of the strange events that befall ‘a man’, build into a absurd tapestry of the funny and the tragic, the surreal and the magical. The poems range from two lines to a page in length and I was tempted at first to call them fragments. But they’re not. They are more like separate episodes, complete in themselves, but adding up to something more. The poems create a kind of everyman figure but with nothing of the solemnity that might imply; in fact the poems often sound as if we are about to hear a joke about some anonymous person: ‘Two men fall from the sky & land on a roof’, ‘A man who has been accumulating bait since 1972 now finds that his house is so full that he can no longer get inside.’ And they are funny at times, but they are just as likely to be sad, or puzzling or bizarre:

THE HOLD UP

A man with a gun in his briefcase goes into a bank to rob it, but when he open the briefcase a chimpanzee leaps out & tweaks his nose & hot on the chimp’s heels a cat that claws his back & hot on the cat’s a dog that nips his ankles. The gun was under the dog but it’s too late. Completely undone, the would-be robber flees in terror.

These poems are firmly in the tradition of the surreal. I was reminded of Calvino’s peasant character, ‘Marcovaldo’, struggling desperately to cope with urban life and falling, imperceptibly at times, into fantasy. Hammial’s ‘men’ fall from reality into impossibility; into outlandish, fabulous episodes that delight in the implausible, the impossible, the language trying to catch up with the escaping idea. None of them are set anywhere recognisable – instead, they happen in some twilight zone of our culture: a man contemplating suicide, a man going up in flames, a man devoured by a book, a man out of control. It is our world but it is not. Though there is always the possibility of collisions, of comical disaster, of destructions and murder, there is also a strange music: ‘A man stumbles over a body. It isn’t mine. It might be yours. / This is music.’

The ‘A Man Poems’ is a long prose poem on tiles. It is like the history of an ancient civilization found on a mosaic, with the gradual and disturbing realization that it is your own culture and self that is being revealed. The sequence is book-ended by photographs of two of Hammial’s sculptures, appropriately enough, men, but driftwood men, men of spare parts and junk, of shells and collected things, totems or voodoo creatures, or drunken men staggering. Like the poems, the sculptures are both absolutely impossible and absolutely right in the disquieting essences they reveal of our own world.

A TASK

A man is given a task & finishes it in three seconds flat. So quickly accomplished, it must have been exceptionally simple. What was it? To live and die.

The second half of the book, ‘Lollygaggery’, contains poems that look more like poems are ‘supposed’ to look, but have a similar kind of edgy unpredictability and movement. These often suggest a structure, only to throw it in your face, or they sound as if they are about to break into sense, if only we listen hard enough.

Maybe all this absurdity, this melodrama, this pettiness is simply about the hat we’re all wearing whether we admit it or know it or not; who we are in all our absurdity. ‘And there at that table, the rabbit table, if you break it down they’ll show you a hat, the one that we’re all wearing’. Despite an almost necessary sameness of texture and voice throughout, this book is never less than an energetic and confronting look at our strange and funny hats.

Mike Ladd’s poems are altogether more episodic than Hammial’s. If you like your poems to be ‘about’ something, these might be for you. As the title suggests, ‘Picture’s Edge’ is concerned with the edges and the margins of society. Ladd writes of the fencelines and the shorelines, the fringes, of ‘small town edginess’. He is aware always of the natural world, of observed details, a tiger snake, an almond tree in bloom, a pigeon, ‘even the soil / sings to us’. But his real subject is people. He writes of the drifters and the old, the street kids and the simply lonely; the woman with Alzheimers, the retarded man, the girl in the takeaway Lebanese, the inhabitants of Shackville and the suburbs. It is in a ruined whaler’s cottage or the marginal outskirts that we realise our place:

When we finally speak,
the scrap of our words in the air
tells us
we’re on the fringe of things.

These poems are often placed firmly in a named locality, Port Adelaide, Craigburn, Goulburn or, less successfully, Crete and Pompeii. I liked the poems of backyards and tips better. Ladd writes the suburban world with a clear fresh voice that is unclouded with doubt. I found myself going back to poems and lines and images that stuck somehow, like: ‘The spacing of this suburb is pure car, / the shops, an engine-warming sprint apart’ or in the ‘Pitjantjatjara Kids’ First Visit to the Sea:

You’re already friends with it,
chasing a small flock of gulls
up the length of the jetty.
Your teacher’s Instamatic
can’t hold the light –
when the film’s developed, you and the sea
are edged with exploding white.

The flip side of Ladd’s ability to supply you with the memorable line is a tendency for the poems to move to an aphoristic moment a little too consciously, so that conclusions like, ‘nothing stays still for long’ and ‘the basic hum / or reproduction’, seem inevitable at times. Nevertheless, the book provides much to be valued in its creation of a distinctive voice, aware and out in the suburbs, flexing the poetic antennae. At his best Ladd convinces us that ‘Edges become centres’, and reminds us of the poetry around which our daily lives are built:

The pale blue numbers
on the back of the sailor’s hands …

So many edges,
not quite touching.

On the way to Glenelg, an old woman weeps
when she sees me reading Mandelstam,
“We live without feeling beneath us firm ground”.
And around us, the blank historic rattle of the tram.

Copyright – Warrick Wynne

This review originally appeared in The Australian Book Review.

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:45 pm

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