The Jamaican-born poet Ishion Hutchinson’s second book, “House of Lords and Commons,” - whose title, according to New Yorker reviewer Dan Chiasson - recalls Shelley’s famous assertion that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” is described as a study of place and memory rendered in what used to be called “the grand style”: the timeless, high-literary idiom that nearly anyone who has ever learned the language would identify as “poetry,” based on its sound alone, and that nonplussed readers of contemporary poetry sometimes say they miss.
Of course, the irony is that timelessness itself can seem dated; modernism emerged in part to change the acoustics within which lines of poetry were heard. Our ears changed, and fewer and fewer poets of note wanted to make those old sounds. There are analogues in nearly every art: modes and vocabularies that we accept in the work of the past but which seem, in new work, like period reënactment or, if the seams are exposed, like postmodern bricolage. Here’s what Hutchinson’s version of timelessness, handed down, to some extent, from the great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, sounds like:
Noon ictus cooling the veranda’sfretwork, the child sits after his harpboning burlesque in the bower, his slitof gulls’ nerves silenced into hydrangea.Violet and roan, the bridal sun isopening and closing a window,filling a clay pot of coins with coins;candle jars, a crystal globe, cut milkboxes with horn petals snappingtheir iceberg-Golgotha crackle.
Hutchinson’s lines listen to themselves, finding the next phrase, and then the next, implicit in what’s already been written down. His sound effects are exquisite: the clusters of consonants (hard “c”s, then “b”s and “p”s) and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax, the brilliant coupling of unlike words (“iceberg-Golgotha”). Occasionally, a severe misstep (“boning burlesque in the bower”) undermines, by its clumsiness, the classicism that surrounds it. For better or worse, lines like these, from “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” act as though they’d never heard of prose, the flat-footed bureaucrat trying to tame their airborne acrobatics.
Hutchinson, who is thirty-three and teaches at Cornell, might be called a post-post-colonial writer: his art, suspicious of top-down institutions—including academia—finds in the impasto treatment of sensory minutiae a protest against abstract authority. These poems might be shimmed into a syllabus or buried in a casketlike journal article, if they weren’t so punk-baroque and brat-belletristic. Professional literary discourse often allegorizes human passion and conflict, in ways that make the actual human secondary. But poets don’t want to be fodder for panels and colloquia, and Hutchinson’s poems are oppositional and disruptive, sometimes tauntingly so. “The Orator,” like Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is a poem about poetry itself, its immediate purchase on the sublime, so much more powerful than classroom circumlocution. A lecture on “Caribbean Culture” is delivered by a “bore” who “was harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage.” Suddenly, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights, and the lecturer now stands helpless in the dark:
. . . in the surprised blackness,his soul exposed, the façade recessed,I saw the face that curried Pelopsin the Antilles to straddle the ivory lapsof liberal, money-giving chapswith an itch for the unscripted Folkand Oral Tradition, a hot spokein his spinning radius unveilingthe veil of the shroud of the curtain,and with spectroscopic effect, he has dazzledall and proven to be ebony solid.
In place of the orator’s “dead metaphor,” Hutchinson offers a handful of live ones: this “tweeded rodent scholar” is a meretricious pedant who “curried Pelops / in the Antilles to straddle the ivory laps” like an exotic dancer at a trustees’ meeting, as well as a kind of Messiah-Wizard of Oz, “unveiling / the veil of the shroud of the curtain,” and a sham Vegas magician dazzling the crowd with “spectroscopic effect.” The poem baits us into comparing Hutchinson’s own performance against this “wine-for-rum, / lectern-for-
veranda, brilliant scum,” who’s brought low when the technology falters.
But the orator is a pretty easy target, and Hutchinson’s vitriol (“scum,” “rodent”) is comically excessive, his rhymes approaching drawing-room
doggerel (“laps” and “chaps,” for instance). Not everything here is meant to be apt, classic, or anthology-ready. The poem is marginal doodling of a very high order, Miltonic graffiti that asserts its power by being at once polished and rash. The orator is a sycophant, a parasite; at the other end of the spectrum is the speaker of these brilliant lines from “The Ark by ‘Scratch,’ ” a reggae Noah—probably Lee (Scratch) Perry, the Jamaican performer—implored by a “genie” to “build a studio” from cultural salvage and scrap:
The genie says build a studio. I builda studio from ash. I make it out of peril and slumthings. I alone when blood and bullet and allChrist-fucking-’Merican-dollar politicians talkthe pressure down to nothing, when the equator’sconfused and coke bubbles on tinfoil to cemented wreath.
The poem describes its own construction, as one remarkable detail after another is loaded into the “studio” to be preserved for postdiluvian use. The speaker is Noah plus “Scratch” plus Hutchinson—which somehow, by the end, adds up to Whitman, whose broad-chested boasts prefigure Hutchinson’s: “I Upsetter, I Django / on the black wax, the Super Ape, E.T., I cleared the wave.”
Hutchinson’s wildness and his propriety are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of a fundamentally dynastic sense of poetic tradition that is passed down from literary father to son, and that arises partly, these poems suggest, from the void left when Hutchinson’s real father vanished. He is a poet of ambivalent homage, feinting but never feigned: this is a form of aesthetic survival in a post-colonial situation, where literary mastery and subjugation are, uncomfortably, closely aligned. You can tell how good Hutchinson is because his poems are full of misfires, phrases chosen by somebody with a hyperkinetic ear and no off switch. Various famous proverbs of Blake’s come to mind, but here the road to excess doesn’t, in every case, lead to the palace of wisdom. Randall Jarrell once said of Hutchinson’s eminent predecessor, “Only a man with the most extraordinary feel for language, or none whatsoever, could have cooked up Whitman’s worst messes.” I could make a list of Hutchinson’s messes: a funny sight “scythes your sides with laughter”; after a hurricane, “government surveyors” go from shanty to shanty, “accessing stunned fowls.” Phrases like these can be found on every page. Hutchinson swings for the seats with every line; it’s only natural that he sometimes whiffs.
But there is also a quiet, chastened strain in “Hutchinson’s language is an assembly of sorts, a parliament that distributes power among the high and the low. This conscious yoking of “lords” and “commons” (high and low subjects, high and low diction) is most impressive when the rhetorical volume is turned down, as in “Girl at Christmas,” the one flawless poem in this very promising book. Christmas is a colonial imposition, a cornerstone of the system that made slavery possible and poverty inevitable; but it is also the highlight of this little Jamaican kid’s year, and its subjugations have simultaneously been outed by and sublimated into song:
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 putson to belt her savage choir.