When a poet seems to matter, it often seems that his or her course matters too; they should be on a trajectory, arriving somewhere new, or returning us somewhere renewed.
The movement between Ishion Hutchinson’s first collection, Far District, and his second, recently published, House of Lords and Commons, can be felt in the third and final stanza of the first poem, “Station”:
I talk fast of her in one of my Cerberus
voices, but he laughs, shaking the scales
of froth on his coat. The station’s cold
cracks a hysterical congregation;
his eyes flash little obelisks that chase the spirits
out, and, without, them, wavering, I see
nothing like me. Stranger, father, cackling
rat, who am I transfixed at the bottom
of the station? Pure echo in the train’s
beam arriving on its old nerve of iron.
The poems in Far District, for all of their variety, found closure in a moment of vision–or else in a moment when vision might have been, or failed to be, possible: “without them, wavering, I see| nothing like me” might have been the final lines of that earlier collection. Here, it is followed by a question, set at a pitch of keenly self-scrutinizing self-dramatizing rhetoric akin to Baudelaire, Yeats, or Lowell; and that question is in turn answered by a “pure echo”–or else is answered in the echo itself, as if the poet were that “pure echo in the train’s| beam arriving on its old nerve of iron.” The echo that closes the stanza has transformed, taken over from, the voice that the poet talks in at the start. And here is one difference in the poems of this as opposed to the earlier collection: a central place given to voice, if not in place of then at least alongside, equipollent to vision.
But what poet does not give a central place to voice? And what poet does not give central place to vision? So let me put the thought another way: that whereas the poems in Far District are often driven to the instant of vision, or its failure, the poems in House of Lords and Commons feel driven to the point of silence, to the point when the poet’s voice gives out.
That perhaps is a description of a good many very good or great poets; but it might not be a description of a good many good ones.
Another way of saying it might be that silences, imposed, arrived at, or granted, shape these poems, as sight, vision, shaped the earlier ones.
Sometimes, the silence coincides with, determines, the poem’s close,as at the end of “Fitzy and the Revolution” where assent is silently granted.
Their red eyes in charcoal suits looked up at him,
and with an overseer’s scorn, he nodded them in.
Or take the winnowed ending (the poem’s earlier lines are longer, breathe out more) of the magnificent poem, “Punishment”:
I bolted down,
my legs running
by the hushed,
Or, quite differently, “A March,” which ends with a vision (“its shade grows large on the ground”) but which buckles under “divers speech”–which is a poem that can only contain its voices, or whose voice can only contain its “terms” (“they have entropy| in common”) for so long. Similarly, and quite differently, “Sprawl” stutters its final tercet, “my total reversal,” unable to progress or reverse from the line.
This is not to thematize silence: the poems do not, cannot and should not, all contain mentions of voice and silence. But even where they do not, the moments of vision–as powerful here as in the earlier collection–are shaped also by the quiet that contains them or that they contain.
In “Bicycle Eclogue”:
And now, as I raise my camera, bells charge the pigeon
sky braced by the Duomo, a shell fallen from the sun.
I kneel, snap the cycle, rise, hurry away.
That final photographic possession is nestled by the dying echo, or memory, of the bells; itself a parallel to the dying echo of the memory, abruptly contained in the poem, the voice of the poet’s past encountering the voice of the present, like the voices between two shepherds.
Reading through the poems, I suppose it would be possible to remark on the prevalence of light itself–the quality of light, its presence, its absence itself is a subject of the poems: not what is shown by the light, but the light itself. And that is true, but also true is that the light is conditioned by sound, the sounds in the poems a condition of the light; it feels not as if light is to be opposed to darkness as much as light, intangible, silent, is a transcendence of sound, and of the poet’s (or poem’s) voice.
The range of voice and sound in the poems is not felt as it would be in a dramatic monologue, or even a novel; it is not only (but it is at times) a matter of polyphony. Instead, I would say that the range of voice in the poems is a sensitivity to the range of effects, profoundly uniting and alienating, the voices and sounds of the world can have on us and the world–this apprehended in what the poems represent–and this also attested to in the work that the poet asks his voice to do.
So there is “The Ark by ‘Scratch’,” a poem celebrating and honoring the Reggae producer who built a recording studio, “The Black Ark” in his back yard in the early 70s (it was burned down, perhaps by Scratch himself, in the late 70s); there is a poem titled “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”; there is “Sibelius and Marley”; there is “The Orator”; there is “The Orator”; and there is a stunningly beautiful poem that would enact the performative utterance of “Let…”:”Second Return.”
But all to what end?
In two words that recall and modify Geoffrey Hill (whose words find new home, new orientation, in several poems): menace and promise.
“Menace” is Hill’s word; “promise” is a substitute, though not an equivalent, for his “atonement.”
In the silence of Hutchinson’s poems, the silence around and within them, we find both menace and promise; they are poems that lead to the point where speech might do something more perfectly than the words of a poem (or any language in the world, maybe) can: forgive, reconcile, mourn, honor, remember—or else might fail entirely.
So that the end of the closing poem, “The Small Dark Interior,” takes up where the opening poem left off, the prospect of reconciliation with the poet’s father:
I am ready to forgive
my father his own flawed life.
But that readiness does not in itself bring forgiveness; the words remain unspoken, promised, but also sadly incomplete, perhaps always incomplete, with the sad prospect that forgiveness cannot be given, not because of what the poet would do or say, but because of the absence of other, necessary conditions.
The menace and promise of what is said and unsaid, of the receding of sound and its imminence, is nowhere more beautiful, more poignant, and more subtly realized than what I’d pick out as one of the collection’s masterpieces, “October’s Levant,” an elegy for someone (a friend of the poet’s?) whose life was lost, with many others, in the Tivoli invasion (or massacre).
Like any elegy, then, the poem must comprehend silence: the voice that was and that cannot be called back, even if it can be somehow recalled.
The first poem in the five-part sequence ends with an absence…
… now a log,
brown and dry, suggesting a boy where
there is none; he stands, unrevealed, the slate
voice of return bobbing an urn in his gullet.
The second-part ends with the sound of a wristwatch that “ticks the sun | to inch a digit,” the light and silence converging to threaten the pain of memory but also to hold hope for change (the clocks beat out the little lives of men in this elegy too).
At the end of the third part, the stars glow with a story aside from the one visible in the charred and scarred remains of buildings where the army had been: ” ‘him still here,’ you know,’ the stars winked, | meaning, he will always be here, weighing our lives.” That beautiful ambiguity of “weighing” insisting both that he will remain with them, a memory with gravity and force, but also that he will weigh them and judge them in the scales; the silent light of stars flickering with both movements.
In the fourth poem, the fourth part of the sequence, Hutchinson revives the voice of Edward Thomas, his play on “rain” and “reins” and “the sight of rain” in a single period extending twelve lines; the silence is the distance between Thomas and Hutchinson even in the meeting of their words, and those words in the wake of one who has moved “always ahead, so far ahead”: so far ahead that he has arrived at death (“the way to die” in the last line is the path that the boy tread, “die” his destination): “a cloud has eaten your voice and I your dust,” the poet writes.
But the greatest shock, of recognition, of alienation comes at the end of the final poem in the sequence:
…and I sit on a log, facing it,
the white detonating curtain, the sea, our sea,
“where I left you thinking I would return,” I weep.
Those are and are not Hutchinson’s words; it is and is not his voice that speaks. The quotation marks grant that the poet speaks, but acknowledge also that they are words from elsewhere: the opening poem in Geoffrey Hill’s The Orchards of Syon:
….tell me, is this the way
to the Orchards of Syon
where I left you thinking I would return?
When the speaker in “October’s Levant” utters those words, he may be speaking for himself, weeping over not his inability to return to that place, but his now being unable to return to that “you” (a promise to return cannot be fulfilled if the person to whom the promise was made has died); on such a view, the alignment with Hill’s words, though intended by the poet, is not to be seen as an intention of the speaker as he weeps; but it may also be that, in weeping, the speaker knowingly quotes Hill, turning to the words of Hill’s poetry, and Hill’s voice, in the absence of his own; weeping, his words cannot cohere as the words of another can; and in that turn to Orchards of Syon there is hope that Hill’s vision in that poem, of redeemed loss, of reconciliation and reunion, of atonement and at-one-ment, might be made the speaker’s own, while there is also the felt distance between the speaker’s situation and that poem’s promise, the dread that it cannot be realized.
The urge is to go on writing about poem after poem. Marina Tsvetaeva writes that “reading is complicity in the creative process.” Criticism is, at root, a record of the experience of reading. No contemporary collection of poetry has made me as eager as this one to record my complicity, or to take such pleasure in the attempts I make at understanding words on a page—attempts that, after all, may be injustices upon their just beauty.