[Blackstudies-l] Jamaica’s Best New Poet Weighs In

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sat Dec 3 08:29:28 EST 2016

lisaparavisini posted: " A review by William Logan for the New York Times.
HOUSE OF LORDS AND COMMONS By Ishion Hutchinson 81 pp. Farrar, Straus &
Giroux. $23. Ishion Hutchinson’s darkly tinged yet exuberant new poems are
the strongest to come out of the Caribbean in a ge"
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New post on *Repeating Islands*
<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> Jamaica’s Best New
Poet Weighs In
<http://repeatingislands.com/2016/12/02/jamaicas-best-new-poet-weighs-in/> by
lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>

[image: 27logan-blog427]

A review by William Logan for the *New York Times*

By Ishion Hutchinson
81 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.

Ishion Hutchinson’s darkly tinged yet exuberant new poems are the strongest
to come out of the Caribbean in a generation. Haunted by his country’s
fractured past, by memories of an upbringing starved of books, he escaped
from history through literature. If his heart still lies in Jamaica,
writers have given him a landscape beyond memory. His touchstone is the
magnificent passage in Xenophon where the Greek mercenaries, having fought
their way across the Persian Empire, come to the Black Sea, shouting
“Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The sea! The sea!”). The moment would brand any
poet trying to find his way home.

If this resembles Derek Walcott’s poetry, the heavy influence is lightly
worn. The saturated descriptions of island flora, the pen portraits (as
they once were called) of local characters, the stranger-in-a-strange-land
displacement, the visceral love of Europe and the classics — all these make
“House of Lords and Commons” indebted to the poet who for half a century
has cast a long shadow over Caribbean literature. Hutchinson’s elegant,
rough-edged poems have wrestled with influence without being overwhelmed.

*The streetlights shed pearls that night,*
*stray dogs ran but did not bark at the strange*
*shadows; the Minister of All could not sleep,*
*mosquitoes swarmed around his net,*
*his portrait and his pitcher and drinking glass;*
*the flags stiffened on the embassy building but*
*did not fall when the machine guns flared.*

Soaked in the intelligence of cities and towns where nature seems the
dominating grace, these poems try to negotiate a treaty between Jamaica and
the foreign world for which the poet abandoned it. In memories of the near
riot of sugar-cane cutters stiffed of their salaries or the mysterious
classroom hierarchies of primary school in St. Thomas Parish, the country
Hutchinson left behind has rarely been so vividly rendered.

Continue reading the main story

After college in Jamaica, the poet flew to America. He now teaches at
Cornell. His descriptions find their urgency in his unsettled place between
two worlds. (Poetry, for the exile, may be a surrogate home.) The fraught
self-examination of these poems defines their achievement. Where Walcott’s
point of view was established in his 30s and rarely wavered, Hutchinson
seems still in the midst of inventing himself. His rooted suspicion of
academic views of empire is no more savagely expressed than during a
lecture by a “tweeded rodent scholar”:

*a bore*
*was harping in dead metaphor*
*the horror of colonial heritage.*
*I sank in the dark, hemorrhaged.*
*There I remembered the peninsula*
*of my sea, the breeze opening the water*
*to no book but dusk; no electricity,*
*just stars pulsing over shanties.*

The poet may perhaps be forgiven the touch of sentiment at the end. (Night
sky makes him mawkish.) The whole of “House of Lords and Commons” — the
title an ancient term for the houses of Parliament — is a rejection of the
unctuous jargon of academia, its gaseous clichés about the postcolonial
Other and the anthropological gaze. Hutchinson writes poetry with an
estrangement that doesn’t need the justifications of theory or its distaste
for drenched metaphors that escape the political realm.

The books that infuse these poems look back to the post-Eliot generation of
poets, a generation that found inspiration in literature as much as in life
— that considered literature, indeed, a higher form of life. A casual
allusion to Sir Thomas Browne and sidelong references to Heidegger and
Lévi-Strauss set the tone; but Hutchinson can leap in a stanza from Chaucer
to Frederick Douglass or, with music in mind, title a poem “Sibelius and
Marley.” That shotgun wedding takes, not the sublime to the ridiculous, but
one sublime to another — alas, the poet’s just as cackhanded as most poets
who try to turn music into poetry. When Marley “wails and a comet impales
the sky,” the reader can’t help cringing.

Hutchinson’s affectionate portraits of local characters have the finesse
and generosity of Chaucer (rather than the cartoonish burlesque of
Browning), and the poems in persona create their voices with an easy
command that always eluded Walcott, whose attempts at island patois sound
forced. Hutchinson marks the rhythms of local speech without trying to
mimic the voice, say, of the record producer Lee (Scratch) Perry:

*the nest of wasps in the heart of the Bush Doctor,*
*consider the nest of locusts in the gut of the Black Heart Man,*
*I put them there, and the others that vibrate at the Feast of the Passover
when the collie weed*
*is passed over the roast fish and cornbread. I Upsetter, I Django*
*on the black wax.*

This may be a bit arch, but the spirited aggression is preferable to the
studious self-regard of third-generation confessional poetry.

Back home, Hutchinson becomes a Baudelairean flâneur, a tourist in a land
more vivid for no longer being his own:

*Let the cerement of light, the silent snow*
*covering the bells frozen in the towers, speak*

*a country of tired bays, where rain hesitates*
*to break the seamless yellow of toil; let this*

*coffin-shaped light balance on the negative*
*compass, the shock and stun, the heart’s*

*sudden brace for a jealous thunder.*

The metaphors are elsewhere laid on with a trowel; and too many poems
descend into lists that run out of steam long before they’re finished.
Hutchinson arrives in Venice like a yokel with a passport: “I hop off the
vaporetto mooring in / the after-storm harbour, puff-chested, shouting: /
‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’ ” O.K., Othello —
but the trace of self-mockery in “puff-chested” isn’t enough. Call it the
preening of a gifted young artist.

This is a young man’s book, with the expected flaws of excess and
overreaching — before a poet can break the wild horses of invention, he has
to capture them. Hutchinson’s poems are prosy, often not quite wholes, just
fragments of sensibility. Perhaps the occasional straining for intensity
(“I circled half-mad a dead azalea scent that framed / my room; I licked
anointed oil off a sardine tin”) will relax into the giddy accuracy of the
best lines here: “the white detonating curtain, the sea, our sea,” “a rusty
mule, / statue-frozen in the punishable heat,” “God grumbles in his
mirrored palace.”

If the voice is sometimes monotonous, the rhetoric often inflated (“they
steam chromatic, these Elijahs / in their cloud wheels, fatherless and
man-killing” — the “cloud wheels” are just automobiles), Hutchinson has a
mature sense of tone and a wary detachment that gives the ordinary the
glossy depths of a Vermeer. In a landscape of younger American poets
increasingly shy of language rich with responsibility, increasingly
suspicious of literature, Hutchinson is like fresh air. “House of Lords and
Commons” is his major press debut (a 2010 book was released by a small
British publisher). Sometimes it takes an outsider to shake things up.
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
December 2, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/?cat=103> | URL: http://wp.me/psnTa-sfK

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