Jamaica’s Best New Poet Weighs In


A review by William Logan for the New York Times.

By Ishion Hutchinson
81 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.

Ishion Hutchinson’s darkly tinged yet exuberant new poems are the strongest to come out of the Caribbean in a generation. Haunted by his country’s fractured past, by memories of an upbringing starved of books, he escaped from history through literature. If his heart still lies in Jamaica, writers have given him a landscape beyond memory. His touchstone is the magnificent passage in Xenophon where the Greek mercenaries, having fought their way across the Persian Empire, come to the Black Sea, shouting “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The sea! The sea!”). The moment would brand any poet trying to find his way home.

If this resembles Derek Walcott’s poetry, the heavy influence is lightly worn. The saturated descriptions of island flora, the pen portraits (as they once were called) of local characters, the stranger-in-a-strange-land displacement, the visceral love of Europe and the classics — all these make “House of Lords and Commons” indebted to the poet who for half a century has cast a long shadow over Caribbean literature. Hutchinson’s elegant, rough-edged poems have wrestled with influence without being overwhelmed.

The streetlights shed pearls that night,
stray dogs ran but did not bark at the strange
shadows; the Minister of All could not sleep,
mosquitoes swarmed around his net,
his portrait and his pitcher and drinking glass;
the flags stiffened on the embassy building but
did not fall when the machine guns flared.

Soaked in the intelligence of cities and towns where nature seems the dominating grace, these poems try to negotiate a treaty between Jamaica and the foreign world for which the poet abandoned it. In memories of the near riot of sugar-cane cutters stiffed of their salaries or the mysterious classroom hierarchies of primary school in St. Thomas Parish, the country Hutchinson left behind has rarely been so vividly rendered.

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After college in Jamaica, the poet flew to America. He now teaches at Cornell. His descriptions find their urgency in his unsettled place between two worlds. (Poetry, for the exile, may be a surrogate home.) The fraught self-examination of these poems defines their achievement. Where Walcott’s point of view was established in his 30s and rarely wavered, Hutchinson seems still in the midst of inventing himself. His rooted suspicion of academic views of empire is no more savagely expressed than during a lecture by a “tweeded rodent scholar”:

a bore
was harping in dead metaphor
the horror of colonial heritage.
I sank in the dark, hemorrhaged.
There I remembered the peninsula
of my sea, the breeze opening the water
to no book but dusk; no electricity,
just stars pulsing over shanties.

The poet may perhaps be forgiven the touch of sentiment at the end. (Night sky makes him mawkish.) The whole of “House of Lords and Commons” — the title an ancient term for the houses of Parliament — is a rejection of the unctuous jargon of academia, its gaseous clichés about the postcolonial Other and the anthropological gaze. Hutchinson writes poetry with an estrangement that doesn’t need the justifications of theory or its distaste for drenched metaphors that escape the political realm.

The books that infuse these poems look back to the post-Eliot generation of poets, a generation that found inspiration in literature as much as in life — that considered literature, indeed, a higher form of life. A casual allusion to Sir Thomas Browne and sidelong references to Heidegger and Lévi-Strauss set the tone; but Hutchinson can leap in a stanza from Chaucer to Frederick Douglass or, with music in mind, title a poem “Sibelius and Marley.” That shotgun wedding takes, not the sublime to the ridiculous, but one sublime to another — alas, the poet’s just as cackhanded as most poets who try to turn music into poetry. When Marley “wails and a comet impales the sky,” the reader can’t help cringing.

Hutchinson’s affectionate portraits of local characters have the finesse and generosity of Chaucer (rather than the cartoonish burlesque of Browning), and the poems in persona create their voices with an easy command that always eluded Walcott, whose attempts at island patois sound forced. Hutchinson marks the rhythms of local speech without trying to mimic the voice, say, of the record producer Lee (Scratch) Perry:

the nest of wasps in the heart of the Bush Doctor,
consider the nest of locusts in the gut of the Black Heart Man,
I put them there, and the others that vibrate at the Feast of the Passover when the collie weed
is passed over the roast fish and cornbread. I Upsetter, I Django
on the black wax.

This may be a bit arch, but the spirited aggression is preferable to the studious self-regard of third-generation confessional poetry.

Back home, Hutchinson becomes a Baudelairean flâneur, a tourist in a land more vivid for no longer being his own:

Let the cerement of light, the silent snow
covering the bells frozen in the towers, speak

a country of tired bays, where rain hesitates
to break the seamless yellow of toil; let this

coffin-shaped light balance on the negative
compass, the shock and stun, the heart’s

sudden brace for a jealous thunder.

The metaphors are elsewhere laid on with a trowel; and too many poems descend into lists that run out of steam long before they’re finished. Hutchinson arrives in Venice like a yokel with a passport: “I hop off the vaporetto mooring in / the after-storm harbour, puff-chested, shouting: / ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’ ” O.K., Othello — but the trace of self-mockery in “puff-chested” isn’t enough. Call it the preening of a gifted young artist.

This is a young man’s book, with the expected flaws of excess and overreaching — before a poet can break the wild horses of invention, he has to capture them. Hutchinson’s poems are prosy, often not quite wholes, just fragments of sensibility. Perhaps the occasional straining for intensity (“I circled half-mad a dead azalea scent that framed / my room; I licked anointed oil off a sardine tin”) will relax into the giddy accuracy of the best lines here: “the white detonating curtain, the sea, our sea,” “a rusty mule, / statue-frozen in the punishable heat,” “God grumbles in his mirrored palace.”

If the voice is sometimes monotonous, the rhetoric often inflated (“they steam chromatic, these Elijahs / in their cloud wheels, fatherless and man-killing” — the “cloud wheels” are just automobiles), Hutchinson has a mature sense of tone and a wary detachment that gives the ordinary the glossy depths of a Vermeer. In a landscape of younger American poets increasingly shy of language rich with responsibility, increasingly suspicious of literature, Hutchinson is like fresh air. “House of Lords and Commons” is his major press debut (a 2010 book was released by a small British publisher). Sometimes it takes an outsider to shake things up.

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