Sunday, June 21, 2020

Peter Hammond

I learned that one of my closest friends Peter Hammond killed himself - got word yesterday from his son, Sam. I just wrote this about him.


In Loving Homage to Peter Hammond

Guy Kettelhack, June 21, 2020


“On the Death of Dr. Robert Levit”
Samuel Johnson (final stanza)

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
    No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
    And freed his soul the nearest way.

Peter and Sam

Peter investigating what Sam described as
"a totem's open grave on the beach in San Francisco"


My friend Reed Woodhouse sent me the Samuel Johnson poem which features this final stanza when he heard from me that Peter Hammond (whom he’d met & liked enormously) had died. Reed cautioned me not to decide Dr Johnson’s outwardly cool tone had anything less in it than a whole human mind and feeling heart. But I readily felt its pulse, particularly in this final stanza.

“And freed his soul the nearest way” - why is “the nearest way” so satisfying and consoling a phrase? That in what had to have been for Peter an extremity beyond even the nth degree of death as the blunt finality we all of us will face - given his collusion in causing it (he ended his own life) - that somehow suicide opens up “the nearest way” as much as passively surrendering to the body giving out (why shouldn’t it?) - suggests to me that all final exits are blessed in their simplicity & completeness: all deliver us from evil.

The Brooklyn-born & in the last decades of his life transplanted Iowan Peter Hammond occasionally gently leaned on me in the last months of his life to keep writing to him - as I peck that out on my tiny iPhone keyboard I feel a sharply poignant ache of possibly having let him down. It was the voice of a child in anguish, seeking love from a source the child trusted. Something like a membrane of defense in me seems forever alternately to thicken toward opacity and to thin toward transparency; draws me near to, then pushes me away from outward connection — similar not seldom in Peter as well — but it never deadened me against “feeling with” him. On his brief returns to New York (always bringing his handsome smart chess-playing son Sam from toddlerhood through high school) it was such a delight always to see his face brighten to see me - shocked though I was at the idea that he saw something in me useful to help heal anything.

I spent a few hours today commencing to knit together from their hiding places in my laptop Peter’s and my correspondence over the years - mostly to give to his son Sam who I know will ‘get’ his father’s voice so very richly from it, and who has turned to me with such love - reflecting his father’s love for me. Well, it’s something, isn’t it, discovering one’s capacity to care is as vast as it can turn out to be. Ours was a vast shared caring.

Peter’s wife Brenda and Peter’s closest friends (two other men besides me) will convene with Sam in New York sometime  in July to cast Peter’s ashes into some body of water abutting or running through Brooklyn - the ocean? a canal? - presumably according to Peter’s wishes though (out of ignorance) I can’t quite imagine him expressing any of that sort. But I do immodestly & irrelevantly proclaim that the Hammond & Kettelhack backs-and-forths in our emails are marvelous. They pop with our enjoyment of one another. There were however long gaps in that correspondence - it sorrows me sharply to think that if I’d thrown a rope or flashed a light from my rowboat to him during the most recent dim-out it might have helped to keep him here.

What an astonishing sexy funny darkly deeply Irish creature he was - full of a fierce inimitable morality, a great proclivity for sudden gloom and wicked humor, and a compassion so deep and so efficaciously connected to his mission of helping the most down & out so-called Bowery “bums” - whom Peter knew to be people - that they actually WERE often lastingly helped. Peter himself had over the years become a registered nurse, a kickass guitar player, songwriter and singer in Iowan bands, a formidable poet, and an all-round ‘handyman’ during which tenure there didn’t seem to be a building or plumbing etc task to which he didn’t make himself equal. He’d taken courses in literature and writing at Hunter College finding at one point a particular devotion to Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) with whom he studied. He saved up to prod himself to travel through Europe and Latin America. He was hungry for it all. And unfailingly sensitive to every aspect of each skill he taught himself and mastered.

He was blind in one eye. Through his working eye he’d spotted me (he once reported) striding by 25 years ago on East 9th Street (from his Veselka breakfast window perch where he sat with whoever his intensely loved ladyfriend had been at the time; he’d known many) and reported that I glowed like an angel. In an email just three months ago he said one of my poems made him believe in language again. He made me believe in the miracle he was. I love him as much as I’ve loved or can imagine loving anyone in my life.


Michael said...
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Michael said...

Guy has beautifully limned the contours of Peter Hammond’s extraordinary life with grace and an unusual clarity of thought that bespeaks the power of language to forge bonds of a decades-long friendship based on mutual regard and a shared capacity for creative self-expression. Without doubt, Peter’s life was tumultuous, even quixotic; but like the poor Hidalgo of La Mancha, ultimately heroic, even transcendent. Peter battled demons, not windmills, but won through much adversity a measure of humanity and compassion that belied his rough, dysfunctional working-class origins. Never pugnacious, but always manly, he had a fierce pride that fueled his ambition to succeed and live his life as a fully autonomous, responsible, and engaged father, writer, musician, craftsman and friend. There was no guile in Peter; none of his sins were undisclosed. Badly injured, virtually maimed, in a childhood collision he nonetheless ran and completed six New York City Marathons on knees practically devoid of cartilage. Despite constant skeletal pain and a compromised gait, partial blindness and other medical issues, Peter bore his afflictions with courage and maintained sobriety for more than 40 years. Gifted with the usual third-rate education vouchsafed the marginalized by an educational establishment seemingly capable only of producing interchangeable worker units no longer needed in our post-industrial age, Peter overcame his limitations to complete three novels, several books of poetry, and many letters and posts. Peter honed a writing style that could make words flow angelically on gossamer wings, or plumb the depths to find beauty in the raunchily demotic. A signature poem, Namaste Motherfucker, captures both of these attributes. My dear loving friend is gone, and I weep for him. Respecting his choice and mindful that he left us on his own terms, we who loved him and are left to mourn him can only be grateful we had the chance to call him friend. May it be said of him, as was said of old: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” Or, as those of us who find no answer to our shout-out from a benign, but indifferent Cosmos can declare: “And this is the final consolation: that we will sleep at evening, and be free forever.”

Guy Kettelhack said...

Thank you Michael!