Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lord and Commons, (Faber & Faber, £12.99).
Ishion Hutchinson’s second book, House of Lords and Commons, was published by FSG in America, and released here, in the U.K., by Faber & Faber in November. The book’s reputation precedes it: winner of a National Book Critic Circle Award and top of sever best-books-of lists, it received nearly overwhelmingly positive reviews in the New Yorker and New York Times.
Hutchinson has been praised for his poetry, which blurs historical timelines, revisits a private and communal story of Jamaica, and gives voice to the continuance of, and silences enforced, its colonial history. Part of the brilliance of this restless, sweeping collection is that it is anchored by a speaker who negotiates these histories by the pursuit of his own lineage, the absence of his own father, and reckonings with the familial dead: the collection has narrative breadth, but moves with lyric intimacy. House of Lords and Commons is an exciting, challenging collection from Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson.
‘I have been crisscrossing centuries, different existences, the rhythm and mode of places and now it has woven a basket in my head. I am pulling straws from that’, said Hutchinson of the new collection. But he’s also pulled them from his first collection, The Far District, published by British press, Peepal Tree, in 2010. The opening poem of House of Lords and Commons, ‘Station’, is nearly identical in terms of situation and scene to the his poem ‘Terminus’ from The Far District. Terminus’ ends:
to my life’s dilemma,
mistaking every stranger for him at every port
of entry and exit, wild-eyed
at the scattering of arrivals, searching out
his face at the edge of the terminal
Whereas ‘Station’ finishes with:
rat, who am I transfixed at the bottom
of the station? Pure echo in the train’s
beam arriving on its cold nerve of iron.
But ‘Station’ typifies the finest poems in the collection: where each line is treated as a poem in miniature, and where images can bear a poem’s worth of weight. If quality tends to progress in steps, with House of Lords and Commons, Hutchinson has vaulted. Hutchinson returns to the site of some of his earlier material, but with a concentrated, evocative style – as if pulling apart longer narratives and hanging portraits in their place:
flew in a silver stream that night, their silk
hair thundered and their heels crushed
the bissy nuts and ceramic roofs;
the night had the scent of cut grass
sprayed with poison, the night smelled
of bullets, the moon did not hide,
the prisoners prayed in their bunkers,
the baby drank milk while its mother slept,
and by the window its father
could not part the curtains.
Reviewers of House of Lords and Commons have worked to place just how his poems strike the ear, coining phrases that stretch from: ‘post-postcolonial poet’, ‘Miltonic graffiti’, ‘punk-baroque’ and ‘brat-belletristic’. His lines might bend toward Milton (not sure about the graffiti), but you can just as easily hear Baudelaire in his cities, or Thomas in his breathless lines. What his blend of the contemporary and classical, past and present, does do is give his poems a peculiar sense of timelessness – a space where ghosts, and the living, seem both lost and alive.
A spell that is, in this collection, only occasionally broken.
Hutchinson is far better at evoking emotion than he is at naming them. Where ‘cold nerve of iron’ carries a real charge, marrying jealousy with ‘thunder’, or wish with ‘simple’, fall flat.
Dan Chiasson, of the New Yorker, was right to wince at alliterative runs like ‘boning burlesque in the bower’. A poem like ‘Marking in Venice’ is more of a misstep, where Hutchinson is Midas with his own mythic and thematic concerns, where the speaker sees Desdemonas / everywhere, clutching skirts wilding in the wind’ and ‘a waiter crashes / his shield tray in the horde and is swallowed / by the hydra’. Occasionally, a poem, like ‘Moved by the Beauty of Trees’, just sounds like a Stevens’ cover:
she is stillness staring at the leaves,
still and green and keeping up the sky;
their beauty stills her and he is quiet
in her stare, her eyes’ long lashes curve
and keep, her little mouth opens
and keeps still with its quiet for the beauty
of the trees, their leaves, the sky
‘I heard them cry—the peacocks.’ This is hardly an indictment, only one indication that Hutchinson is an overtly literary poet with a ‘go big or go home’ sensibility. Hutchinson’s style, for the most part, seems every bit his own, and if the leap in quality between collections is testament to anything, it’s that he’s a poet still engaged in perfecting his craft. In the unpublished book of poet’s favourite written things, we would find under Hutchinson: clementine, tangerine, sea, stars, and night. His collection dwells on things lit from the inside, and much of it reads as if it, too, is inwardly lit – ‘the furnace in (his) father’s voice’, or amazed skull of the dead poet in ‘Phaeton’:
have stopped him before the sun burst
from his fingers, scattering glass beads.
They found him with an empty third eye
the bullet drilled into his forehead, a deaf
hole, knowing only its darkness there
in the parched-grass field; flies whirred
a sun-chariot’s axle-songs; heat rose a mirror
before his skull, and his mouth opened,
amazed to this mask, its bleached stillness,
like a stone lit from the inside, faded,
a moon marked in the dust—at this face,
his mouth opened, amazed, stayed open.
The House of Lord and Commons, like many first and second collections, is a reckoning on two levels: one, with the landscapes of childhood and adolescence in poems that attempt to speak with, and put the dead to rest, in the pursuit of a life and identity the speaker can call their own; the second, a reckoning with language – mining influence, as they did with memory, for what will become their own voice: a place, as Heaney said, ‘where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew’. What distinguishes Hutchinson is the skill with which he widens the circumference of those concerns to include a wider, communal colonial history, and to undertake that reckoning with a tongue both mother and colonial. Hutchinson gives voice to the landscapes, histories, and figures of his home – claiming, from the ‘dismantled music’ of history, a powerful poetry of his own.