Some poets have more to say than others; some poets have better resource than others for saying what they want to say; Ishion Hutchinson is the rare poet who falls into both categories, and is even rarer for having the ambition to speak with authority. His collection Far District is as good as any contemporary poetry out there, and it’s exciting to read him as he enters the midday of his career.
The penultimate poem in the collection, “The Mirror Before Sleep,” speaks to and of his ambition, his conscious adoption and adaptation of the Romantic visionary strain; it shows him to be what Harold Bloom calls a “strong poet,” and shows him also to be comfortable varying register, dialect, writing poetry that is local and global, engaged in post-colonial politics and poetics, while also drawing on the resources that diverse traditions of metropole English poetry offer that engagement. [The full-stops between stanzas are my own, for reasons of formatting online]
The Mirror Before Sleep
The metal-rim mouth garbled
the enamel-spirit I spat out–
my old, man-child desire
to speak without grammar,
to raise the living from the districts’ cemetery.
For once I spoke the parable of stones
and words fell from the sky
like burnt leaves chased by boys,
their heads turned into dark clouds.
My voice blazed the cane field,
rows filed into girls’ heads and thighs
reaped before their season;
the sun extinguished the square,
brought drought into the old man’s throat,
croaking from his piss-parchment rags,
“They wasted me every crop.”
Tonight, his withered eyes, the whitewashed plaza
pack in the mirror before sleep
with the wasted hills and ash barracks,
the stagnant gullies’ retching dialect,
the dirt tracks’ tongues creasing
into the nightshift ledger, littered with litanies
of shanties in parish St Thomas, with names teeming
to be pronounced. But when my rinsed
mouth opens, nothing: not the moth-fall
of Golden Grove, or the wide sunset-fan
of Peacock Hill, spreading like palm fronds
far from Tropicana’s scorched estate.
I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
Paranoia of the drums and machete–
I am to die, to speak.
There is a lot here that I do not understand. But some that I do. The mirror of the title: the poem carries a burden of self-examination, what the speaker could do once and cannot do any longer, and the poem is occasioned by that self-examination. There is, in the background, the old medieval and early modern tradition of “mirror” literature, encyclopedic, devoted to taking in an entire subject matter and presenting it to the reader. And there is, possibly, also the literary tradition in which mirrors granted visionary powers.
Quite literally, it is the bathroom mirror, as he brushes his teeth: his mouth is metal-rimmed in the mirror, it garbles his toothpaste, and he spits it out into the sink, the “enamel-spirit.” Here, then, the start of his vision, before bed; he is tired and in a moment of nocturnal self-doubt and self-censure, he judges harshly his ambitions to recover from the districts he has known voices and lives and, in a very general sense that becomes apparent the more of the collection you read, resilient life and joy. It is a desire that is worn out and “old,” with that word separated from man by a comma, the desire of a “man-child” who is nearly an “old man-child”; in the latter case, the hyphen creates not just a hybrid but a monster.
“To speak without grammar” because words that would effect what he would effect must be other than the language we possess; no grammar can enact what he would have his words enact. It is, he suggests, a childhood fantasy, but also a childhood phenomenon: “For once I spoke” recalls 1 Corinthians 13:11, “when I was a child, I spake as I child,” but the words he spoke reverse the Christian affirmation and turn instead to a Romantic embrace of childhood: the words from the sky like “burnt leaves chased by boys” recalls Shelley’s leaves on the wild west wind, and the entire scene recalls, in its thrill in the potent and redemptive reach of childhood’s imagination, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns.
He does not, as we might assume, seek to “raise the dead,” but instead to “raise the living from he districts’ cemeteries,” so that “living” or “cemeteries” must be read unusually, either because the dead are not really dead but are always living with us still, or because the districts are themselves no better than cemeteries or else thought of as no better than cemeteries, repositories for discarded lives; but why not all at once? The dead are with Hutchinson through the collection (one of the highlights is the poem “Enigma of Return” about the ghost of reggae musician Peter Tosh), and yet the living are often seen, in the poems, to be living over the dead, themselves waiting for death, as if they were living in a cemetery–the ground of life and the ground of death in these poems is, at any rate, not far apart.
“The heads turned into dark clouds” is an echo of a poem by William Blake, who is an active presence also in the collection’s final poem; the line takes us to “The Little Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence: “And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face| Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.” The process is reversed: in Blake’s poem, the clouds are shed to reveal a white soul, but here the dark clouds are the words, fallen like burnt leaves (leaves burnt probably in the fields, during harvest–the area is home to a Tropicana factory and sugar production; the final poem, with Blake and historical reality co-existing, ends with a reference to the “Albion Sugar Estate”), surrounding the boys’ heads, a source of power.
Time my shift with “My voice blazed the cane field,” as if it were happening in the present, as he looked into the mirror, his voice summoning the vision before him–or it might be still the past, what his voice once could accomplish but no longer could. I prefer the latter option, his voice, as a child, summoning words from the sky, which themselves could set the cane field alight, destroying, in the fantasy of childhood, still yearned after, the site of labor.
As I’ve mentioned, the scene of blazing fields comes from the harvest of sugar cane. The fields are set alight to burn away outer leaves before harvesting time. The image of the fields that are burnt is the most perplexing of the poem: “rows filed into girls’ heads and thighs| reaped before their season.” The most immediate possibility: the rows of crops have been filed into the dead bodies beneath them, and it is those bodies, the girls’ heads and thighs that were reaped before their time (with a vicious anti-pun, the word “raped” hovering–though “rape” does not have a season). The reason the line is so difficult is that it confuses expectations: we would expect the girls to file into the rows, or to file into the field in rows; we might connect rows (as in cornrows) and heads; we do not know the subject of reaped. But the confusion is productive, apprehending the confusion of raw material and bodies.
The vision shifts to the sun blazing down, so bright that the plaza cannot be seen, and an old man there, in rags with the color and odor of urine, impoverished and bewailing the loss of his crops: “They wasted me every crop.” The suggestion is that, in burning the fields, the owners of the plantation destroyed also his crops, inadvertently or intentionally. The “they” is confusing”–but it is a “they” that returns when Hutchinson quotes, in the final full stanza, Psalm 22: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they priced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” “They” then, in the man’s drought-parched throat, would likewise be the assembly of wicked who inclose–where “inclose” could refer to an enclosure of land, and a wanton destruction of unripe crops for some purpose that suits Them rather than the old man.
The poem up until this point has suggested a narrative without defining its contours; we are given a childhood memory distorted by childhood fantasia –a fire, a loss of crops, the suffering of an old man, the child witnessing, shouting out, believing his words to have a power that they could not have. This feels right; a recollection of loss and a recollection of power the poet once felt himself to possess.
At any rate, the past, whatever it was that happened, returns now, perhaps as incomplete in the mirror before him as it is incomplete on the page before us; but some of it is present before him, and with it, as befits the mirror genre, an entire sprawl of geography and life…the land here speaks, the gullies with a “retching” dialect, and the dirt tracks’ “tongues,” for the life that was lived on them, with a burden of names to be pronounced. “Teeming” carries with it the associations of death, names like maggots, left on the corpse of death; but also the association of life and renewal; most surprising is “teeming| To be pronounced” since “to be” takes a purpose, as if, for the poet, life’s records live in order to be spoken and given voice, as if this were their fulfillment.
But no words come. His mouth is rinsed, cleaned–and cleaned it cannot speak…
“Golden Grove” is a town near the southeast coast of Jamaica, but it also recalls Hopkins’ “Margaret are you grieving, for goldengrove unleaving,” where the un-leaving of the grove, the passing of the seasons, is contrasted with the un-leaving of the fields in Hutchinson’s poem, by fire and for purposes of exploitation.
“I may tell all my bones: they all look and stare upon me” is, as I said, from Psalm 22; the bones that stare upon him are his teeth, but they are also the bones of the dead, and telling might be numbering as well as telling of. The poet repeats the line as an assertion of intention: what he will or would do. The citation of a Psalm also might explain a mystery from earlier in the poem, “The parable of stones.” Though not a full parable, Psalm 118 is referenced by Jesus in two of the Gospels: “The stone which the builders refused is becomes the head stone of the corner.” Here then is another aspect of the poet’s purpose: the take what has been discarded and refused and to redeem it.
It would have been natural, or expected perhaps, to end the poem there; but instead,he goes on, and ends with a sense of menace rather than affirmation. Seeing his bones, bringing to mind “the wicked” in the Psalm, he returns with paranoia–the drums and the machete, the labor of the harvest, and the waste of life it forebodes, or perhaps more generally, with a menace more existential than historical, the reminder of death that he associated with the sugar harvest.
The final line offers no resolution. “I am to die, to speak” can be heard several ways: as a list, “I am going to die and to speak”; as a statement of purpose, “I am going to die in order to speak”; as a statement of identity, “to die” is “to speak,” and he will do both. “Am” can be determined or resigned, an intention or a fact. All three are possible: it is true that he will die and that he will speak, and to recognize both reduces his life to a clear end and a clear purpose; it is, in a vaguely philosophical way, that the knowledge of his own mortality, the impingement of death on his consciousness, is what brings him to speak; and it might be possible to imagine ways in which for him to die would be for him to speak, either figuratively because he must reimagine the deaths written in the ledger of the nightshift and speak for them, or because he must recognize that he too is living in the cemetery, must embrace that place of being if he is to do justice to the others there with him. But whatever sense is made of it, the ending distills the poem’s two chief preoccupations.