Ishion Hutchinson is a genuinely exciting poet, a true heir (because he’s so obviously a true poet) to Bishop, Lowell, Heaney, Walcott…I would like to discuss some of his outstanding and dominant qualities. I’ll consider his work generally, but will begin by quoting a poem that provides some sense of what he is about, and what he does so distinctly well. Elsewhere, I will provide a close reading of a single poem.
Here, then, is part 6 of the long series of poems, “Far Island,” which gives its name also to the collection.
vi/ Branch of Shrieking
Her hardboiled eyes followed me around
the room, specs weighing her nose bridge,
missing nothing as I walked the shelves’
dusty volumes. You’d have missed the place,
smacked between the barracks and rum bars;
burnt cane-ash and marl-dust covered any signs
the district had a library, tomb-quiet,
except for the rusty any stirring dim light
and shadow. My eyes strained to catch
what was inscribed on the books’ spines
below the film of dust. Astigmatic,
my asthma lungs lurched at a discovery;
Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Defoe’s Crusoe.
From that evening, and many evenings,
I was Jim Hawkins of the towns.
Days wore on, and a Crusoe melancholy
sunk in. I looked now upon the world
as a thing remote, which I had nothing
to do with rang my head when I returned.
Her shrivelled black hands grabbed mine.
I yelled: “I had nothing to do with it, at all.”
Then, one night, a shriek catapulted across
the sleeping district, sending the bush brigade
in a sandfly-panic to the standpipe.
When the hysteria calmed into morning,
it was discovered that it was not
Tropicana that caught fire; they sighed off.
I stood for a while as they brushed pst.
“Nothing more than that librarian did it.”
“What a pass if it was the factory, eh boy?”
I stood until day lighted, and as I turned,
walking on the rubble, I saw Bogle.
He looked around as freed slaves,
Baptist Christians from Stony Gut, gathered.
A cloudburst. They evaporated. The cane field
grew green. Rain drowned the burnt books.
Above coconut trees, lit like torches,
a single sun rotted everything below.
Potbellied, gutter-mouth pickney
attacked a wild hog, mother turned back
to her pot cooking on Bible leaves.
I watched, a sandfly of the landscape.
Tropicana whistle blew, ended daylight.
I felt myself graduating from the trees,
something thundering in my head.
Hutchinson’s poems always go somewhere; they are written with a purpose, without ever being dominated by an agenda. For this reason, perhaps, the most powerful and distinct note in many of the poems–and perhaps in the poem above–is the last one; he does not just know how to close a poem, but he always seems to be writing in order for the poem to close, to arrive at a moment of insight; that moment is rarely clear enough or celebratory enough to call an epiphany, but they strive at something like it; a final glow from the coal after the breath of the verse has been expended.
Each poem goes somewhere different, but many of the poems come from the same place: a place, the “far district” in Jamaica where the poet was born; in poem after poem, it is made to seem exhausted, neglected, gashed, abandoned. There are other places too. It is the purpose of the poems to excavate, recover, or clarify what is vital, resistant, and resilient in these places; and this means writing poems about occasions when some impression of the world breaks through its gnarled, decayed, fertile density; and this in turn means writing poems that find language that can hold forth that rupture of sight and hope for the reader, without characterizing or explicating its exact significance; the event recorded by the poem needs to be at one with the events of language that constitute the poem.
Often the source and nature of the rupture are shrouded or obscure, a presentiment rather than an imminence. In the poem I’ve quoted, it is a vague “something thundering,” where “something” cannot be better defined, making it both a success won out over the “nothing” that is a keyword not only of this section but of the entirety of “Far District,” but also a frustration, speaking with no greater clarity of articulation than the thunder does.
The richness of the poetry’s language, its muscular verbs (look at how much work they do!) and layered description and shards of dialect and accent, is both the means by which the rupture takes place, and a representation of the world’s inertia, the wastedness of fecundity. The poems contain the conditions of their own struggle: more obscurity, more reminders of attrition clog up, obstruct the movement ahead, which won’t relent until the possibility of resilience and hope has been caught in the lines. They work against themselves, because to do otherwise would be dishonest, a turning away from their essential subject matter for the convenience of a line that sings.
I had wanted to end by quoting a generous selection of closing lines from the poems, to show how they end–to show what it is like for the poems to take hold of resilience and hope, or else to consciously, conscientiously, fail to do so (as in Wordsworth’s poems). But it would be wrong to do so, implying that the prize could be snatched–and it might disappoint, since the feeling of achievement, of something won or of something that has won out, in those lines is not usually inherent to their terms, but depends on what comes before. Here then, another poem quoted in full:
She would announce from her yard
before one dropped, sending us in a flurry
through the fence under the mango tree,
heads up for the blind fruit that would come
tearing down the branches. Falling on knees,
we would go helter-skelter in the grass, until someone
lifted the yellow trophy high before running off,
teeth peeling the skin off the furry flesh.
Other times we would try to sneak past
her perennial stare on the other tree.
She would catch us, and Kumina-talk: “Oui, kinte
pan you malu and tek back a boi fi me.”
And we would bring her “boi”, the cigarette
she would light and smoke backwards,
sticking out an ash tongue before spitting
butt and phlegm at our toes. She would go on:
“Before the sea tek Gabby, I know;
I sit right here, to rass, and feel sand
in my ears. I feel my belly bottom sinking.
Then when my son Baba come tell me
him drown, I see him leaning on the nutmeg tree,
and I say, ‘Gabby, you not coming in?’
Him smile, blowing short, bubbles
just a bust in him mouth. Could the man move?
No sir, him still like stone. Him right there,”
she would then point at the spotted tree,
blighted corneas thick and white on it,
“telling me when mango going to fall.”
“Blighted corneas thick and white on it,” as if her sight of the tree, suspended “on it,” were a flowering of it; as if seeing in the right way, or wrong way, or some way, were to add to the world’s life; the syntax suggesting, mildly, that her pointing at the tree tells him, the poet, when the mango is going to fall, as if his understanding of her vision lends him a new awareness of what is being offered; her announcement an annunciation, the sort of sacred Hutchinson’s poetry seeks, of the instant where ripeness meets with decay,and the world gives itself up, reconciling him with loss that cannot be evaded.