Ishion Hutchinson, Seafarer

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Earlier this month, the acclaimed Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson visited the UK to mark the publication of House of Lords and Commons, his first collection to be published by Faber. Here, Matthew Hollis, Faber’s Poetry Editor, reflects on getting to know Ishion, the poet and the person. Here are excerpts; please read the full review and listen to the poet read “After the Hurricane” and “The Lords and Commons of Summer” at Faber & Faber.

[. . .] Here were poems of dignity and grace, with a musical ear, and far-seeing eyes that twinkled with intelligence and with kindness, and which fixed you with a steely impatience of discrimination and injustice. Many of the pieces I read that first evening had their feet in Ishion’s Jamaica, and often also their heart, but they reached open-armed far beyond those shores to embrace European literatures, classical inspirations, international concerns. However global their vision, they continued to see the world in the particular: be it in a wind that swayed the sugar cane, or in Blake’s grain of sand.

An astute and subtle critic of subjugation and slavery

To spend a moment with a poem like ‘After the Hurricane’, with its white-hatted governmental surveyors peering into the wreckage of roofless shacks, is to realise why Ishion is regarded as an astute and subtle critic of subjugation and slavery, as well as a poet of rebuilding and of hope. It takes a moment longer to fully understand the depth of subtlety and sophistication with which he illuminates the racial and cultural disturbance behind that force: that nature itself, he persuades us, will be experienced differently depending upon your ethnic, social or economic background. It’s simply not true that a rising tide raises all boats: some can never be made seaworthy, others are roped and bound so tightly that the high water will drag them down. In a line from his oceanic poem, ‘The Mariner’s Progress’: ‘Geography is not fate but fatal.’

A tale of two seas

Journeying with Ishion to Aldeburgh this month, on our own island’s edge, to the heart of the old Anglo-Saxon wordhord, was a rare experience that I will not soon forget, and not only for his gentle and eloquent company. Where I grew up, only a few miles from there, the North Sea could be a cruel sea, of arctic winds and rampaging waters capable of devouring the very coastline itself. But my sea was different to Ishion’s, not only because his corner of the ocean lay squarely in the hurricane path, but because the difference was not solely elemental. As a stage for colonial slavery, his sea hid a history of manacled chains and submerged graves – ‘that gray vault’ that Derek Walcott once described, in which the common memory was entombed. With our heritage of slave ports and shackled seas, crossing the water to England may never be uncomplicated for Ishion, to this Old English place of ‘The Seafarer’ with its caldum clommum (cold chains) and iscealdne sæ(in Ezra Pound’s famed translation: ‘Chill its chains are . . . on ice-cold sea’). But cross it this seafarer has. [. . .]

See full review at https://www.faber.co.uk/blog/ishion-hutchinson-matthew-hollis/

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