“Not another man to outtalk Leopold Dice,” the first line in the Ishion Hutchinson poem, “The Night Autobiographies of Leopold Dice,” which is something quite other than a dramatic monologue for being a dramatic recapitulation and resume of the words Leopold Dice spoke: the poem takes it on itself to outtalk Leopold Dice, in so far as it turns his words to (and for) poetry.

It’s the most complete and achieved poem in Hutchinson’s second collection, remarkable for imagining a life-within-history and a history-within-life, but most remarkable for discerning in the spoken cadences of a patois raconteur a sublime momentum and heightened pitch of language. It has the virtues of a poem in a middle and natural style—a closed and defined occasion and audience, itself carved out from a larger world—a way of speaking that respects others—and it also has the virtues of the high style: the boasts and takes of Leopold Dice are heroically wide-ranging, brash, boastful, wily, and tender. He has endured enough and done enough to be the hero of his own life. I do not know if anyone has asked whether a poem can be heroic anymore, or whether it can be heroic nowadays in the same sense that poems could, for centuries of English lyric, be heroic, but here is an answer in the affirmative.

The poem is not a dramatic monologue, it does not claim you or I would hear in the words and rhythms that Dice speaks what Hutchinson can hear; he does justice to the inner form, as it were. But mostly, he situates the voice, with the implicit claim that it would not travel beyond its immediate circumstance of uttering, its local mooring. The poem is private and political, sensual and spiritual, restive and resigned all at once:

.

outwardly he was a lark, though the island was no longer

the green of his Party but orange of the Opposition,

and inside, where it mattered, he couldn’t stand

those new aviator-wearing politicians with their orange

badges, orange flags, orange T-shirts, orange motorcars—

orange, the colour of the damn fruits he picked

so many bushels of in Florida, only the sun

left to be pulled down in one of those wicker buckets;

even now rind scent sickens him, anything citrus

does it is not cut with rum, for rum was life

then, it covered him with a soutane, he draws

an invisible cloth down his body to show us

how it swam over him, always, this time of night,

his voice slows, from somewhere a stillness

reaches for us, catches us, and we listen for the return

his voice slower, a croak; his eyes twinkle when he says

the dice rolled his lucky number one night at a Bryans

Bay beach session where he met the local baker, may,

Selling her coconut drops, grater cakes, gizzardas…

.

Most of all, it is “simple, sensuous, and passionate”: somewhat easy though it is to quote these words on behalf of a poem, there are few that offer an illustration of what they mean.  It is also, I think, possessed of a quality essential to that rare thing, the “classical” in poetry, felt as variously as in Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Leopardi, Hardy, Montale… it has been described to me by a friend in words Walter Pater found for the works of the Renaissance sculptor and craftsman Verrocchio: “filling the common ways of life with the reflexion of some far-off brightness.” That brightness is patent:

 

how it swam over him, always, this time of night,

his voice slows, from somewhere a stillness

reaches for us, catches us, and we listen for the return

his voice slower, a croak; his eyes twinkle when he says

 

And the lines might have insisted too much on numinous difference—the temptation to do so is obvious—but instead they hold to the bodily, earthly scene: the commas bracketing “always” enforce continuity, the word “always” itself suggests that the scene is in part a performance, that the drama is summoned knowingly but also persuasively by Dice itself, and so feels earned by the fiction of the poem, rather than imposed on it; rather than demanding that readers listen for the return, the poem creates genuine suspense with the account of Dice’s auditors who listen for the return of his voice, and for something more than his voice (Ezra Pound: “See they return”); at the same time as the scene is most transcendent of the mundane, the poem returns us to its concrete occasion and human source; “twinkle” so nearly goes too far, risking preciousness, except that the precious, the childish and mischievous, is a counterpoint to the gravity of the previous lines, without ironizing them (another temptation).

“The Autobiographies of Leopold Dice” is a reminder that poems are written not necessarily because the poet has something to say, but because someone has someone to say and the poet can say it; it is also a reminder that they are written because a poet can say something, with the implication that even if resisted or fractured by a poem, cadence and pitch must be acutely imagined if a poem is to succeed.