An appropriate title for this post might be “Momentum and Moment in the poetry of Ishion Hutchinson,” but the reason why will not be apparent till the end. Last week, Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons won the National Book Critic Circle award for poetry. I’ve written about Hutchinson before on a few occasions, admiring his work more on each. Here is another attempt at catching at it. I’ll begin with a poem:
“Singing School Valediction”
A scarlet breeze buoyed him next to us,
his white feather hair a boy’s giddy and bright
for this, what he called, “the immaculate air.”
It never crossed my mind the wind could be fostered
down to such a casual vision, a taper of crocus
spied through a bubble level. Daily I have
climbed the mound to teach my seminars, some
days I dared look back, pushing the glass door,
at what was reflected in the glass; vermillion
shock of trees, a sky that swims blue and unbroken
with clouds, merging with those brindled hills,
some a wink of gold corona through power lines.
Always I disappeared inside before an eagle fell
from the sun, or whatever was subsequent to sun,
and charged the kids: recite. I listened, distanced.
But now, tuned to his big turnip face, fringed peat
moss sprouts from his ears, blackbird black brows
perked, flicker antennas, pulling from the air
words that filled our small, nervous compass
hearts with the love-harp light he twined between
us, I became a thicket of ears, tensed to engrave
by instinct, the gradient shifts of his voice
before he scaled the promontory, a kingfisher
hushed back into the chrysalis he sang to us from.
The success for the poem, in my mind, owes to the feeling I have when reading it that, as marvelously sensual and demanding as any of the sequence of images and details might be, I must nonetheless hold them in relation against the whole, that they belong to the occasion of the figure from which they have emerged, which they threaten to overwhelm. The “he” by the end of the poem has lost, rather than gained, identity, even though he has gained significance, containing more (he is made a world, an entire landscape, as the “moss peat sprouts” from his ears); but the pressure of the “he,” his reality as the figure and life to whom the poet is responding and to which the poet is responsible, is never lost.
A poem by Hutchinson is almost always concerned with a person, event, place, and moment in time–and a chief feat of the poetry lies in establishing that particular occasion, while expressing its significance through a surge of sensual images and alienating descriptions. His poetry is ecstatically expressive so that the identifiable figure (the poem’s occasioning subject matter) is threatens to be dissolved into a hive of smaller figures and images, each aglow with its own life. It might be compared, loosely, with the best of post-war painting that is not purely figureless abstract expressivism or minimalism but that has learned the same lessons from modernism as these have, while adhering more obviously to form; think of a vibrant Leon Kossoff, think of Frank Auerbach. At times, in each of these painters, the figure nearly succumbs to thickness of paint, brushwork, component colors and forms.
Comparisons to painting can only go so far. Another useful comparison would be to the sort of prose that owes more to Woolf than to Joyce–since hers operates at a pitch of emotional elevation that is intended to do something other than register an experience of the world; it attests to how richly the world is available to the mind. The risk of Woolf’s method, and a risk that Hutchinson avoids, is that the chain of impressions and associations may come to feel arbitrary, representing an author’s habit of thought rather than adhering to a stretch of experience.
When the poems feel nearly beyond reach at times, it is because the figures and occasions are beyond reach; but that is not a haphazard consequence of style. It is a starting point of the poems: the ecstatic expressivist rendering of what the poet apprehends, the disorienting presentation of how the poet experiences the world, follows from the place of the poet in the world. In none of the poems is there any sense that Hutchinson is not of the world he writes about; he does not dissolve, or remove himself, or hang overhead, even when the poetry is subsumed, momentarily, in description. Instead, the sense of where he stands towards the occasion and figure, the placing of poet vis-a-vis the subject, is established by elegant implication and economic gesture; only occasionally does Hutchinson go further than these, as when he writes movingly of the urge to forgive his father (in the final poem, “The Small Dark Interior”), or with a potent anger cut with pity for a visiting academic lecturer (“The Orator”). At times, that is, the subject of the poetry feels beyond reach because the poem has established the poet’s alienation from the scene–as in the final part of “The Lords and Commons of Summer”:
The sky is loaded with ore, the mountains
the mountains are lingering on the threshold,
luminous with the valley’s pollution. A late transport
shimmers, and I shimmer, too: this is one of the holy cities of America;
holy banks, mortuaries, holy cafes a golden angel
descends in the middle of three javelining spires.
Then I see poised, wraithlike, in the snow,
on the sifted avenue, muscles released from chiaroscuro,
a herd of darkness gathering to passage unto Shiloh,
where the Lord of Summer lives, kindling a coal fire.
The lines do not stand alone as a poem; they cap a sequence against which their experience, looking out, looking forward, uncertain, stands as a contrast. These lines might be misunderstood as portentous; really they are about the experience of a landscape that strangely, with promise and menace, portends.
Mediating between the figure of the poems and the explosive colors and brushwork of any line in them—what demands of readers that they see the one in the terms of the other, and what brings the reader back to the poem’s occasion, as well as splintering the poem’s occasion outwards into all of the textured particularities of image–are the attitudes in which the occasion and poet stand in relation to one another.
It could be said at the same time both that it is the specific nature of those attitudes, the quality of the relationships, that allow Hutchinson to earn the expressive intensity that he earns, but also that the expressive intensity establishes the attitudes and relations on which they are said to rest: Hutchinson faces the world with resistance, defiance, with the guarded need for forgiveness, with sadness, and with awe. And this in turn because the world of the poetry is violent, wasting, corruptible, and also strangely and mysteriously beautiful.
Take, as an example of the latter, “Girl at Christmas”:
For all she’s gladdened: milk
dreaming love in one hand;
clefts of clementine stain
the other. They cannot die;
the coral joy and battering
ceramic, the peach bones
and scotch bonnet seeds;
the sorrel, and foil mask she then puts
on to belt her savage choir.
The language is exquisitely delicate (“For all she’s gladdened” carries a scent of Cavalier ornament), prone to reverie (“milk | dreaming love in one hand”), jarred by violence (“the coral joy and battering” like Ariel’s song in The Tempest), and freighted by the potential to explode into another poem entirely (“to belt her savage choir”–where “belt” is her costume, but also her singing, and possibly the abuse of a belt lashed on a back; this being the lyric account of the girl before she unleashes her melodious rage).
Even in so small a poem as this, irresistible momentum carries one line into another, one word into the next, at times with a crash of surprise; but there is also moment, the sense that the poem is not pulled irretrievably away by the attractions and repulsions of language, but that it is instead driven breathlessly by the poet’s investment in this one figure, this one glimpse, the particular moment of the poem’s inspiration.
It is everywhere in the collection: the intersection of momentum and moment yielding the shapes the poems take.