Mary Jean Chan reviews the latest collection by Ishion Hutchinson, published recently by Faber.
Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (Faber & Faber 2017), 80pp.
Ishion Hutchinson’s second collection House of Lords and Commons offers clear echoes of the late Derek Walcott as lyricist, internationalist and environmental activist who fought for the preservation of the Pitons in his homeland, St. Lucia, in contrast to Hutchinson’s more autobiographical debut Far District: Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2010). A poet from Port Antonio, Jamaica, Hutchinson works as an Assistant Professor in English and Creative Writing at Cornell University in the US, and has recently had his second book republished in the UK by Faber & Faber in November 2017. His links to the Caribbean, the US and the UK hint at the ways in which his second book operates on multiple scales – by bringing the global, national and local into the reader’s purview through symphonic meditations on landscape, history and memory ranging from Pompeii through New York to the islands of the Caribbean.
Hutchinson’s poems evoke at once the brutalities of the colonial plantation and the “drowned” souls of the transatlantic slave trade (“A Burnt Ship”) with an acute sensitivity towards injustices both historic and current. Through dramatic monologues containing a chorus of real and imagined personae, the reader encounters a range of characters, including Fitzy, a shopkeeper hiding from revolting cane cutters demanding their share of rum, the detested (white) academic “harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage” (“The Orator”), and a quasi-autobiographical speaker attempting to forgive a father’s “own flawed life” (“The Small Dark Interior”). One of Hutchinson’s speakers laments how Pigeon Island (a National Landmark in St. Lucia) has been marred by the insidious effects of neo-colonialism and neoliberalism:
…the piratical hoteliers’
paradise, a white army of luxury boats idled,
processional, waiting for a flare to blow
and ignite another plantation, without Bible
or chain, just the PM’s handshake and bow.
(“A Farther Shore”)
Elsewhere, another of Hutchinson’s speakers reminds us that “History is dismantled music”, or else, “Music dismantles history” (“Sibelius and Marley”). Hutchinson’s attentiveness to sound distinguishes him as a poet – lines such as “…bare-backed men, bent kissing / the earth, so to slash away the roots of the canes; / every year the same men, different cane, and when different / men, / the same cane: the cane they cannot kill…” (“Fitzy and the Revolution”) enact a brutal music – one which sings of violence through alliteration, assonance and the insistent repetition of monosyllabic words such as “men” and “cane”. Music, which the poet considers to be “a pure form” wherein “the sound alone performs its own…transformation” (Interview with the Los Angeles Times), propels meaning and sense in this collection. In the wake of Bertolt Brecht’s enduring question: “in the dark times / will there also be singing?”, Hutchinson offers a definite answer by harnessing the lyric’s interiority and intimacy to create vivid portraits of human lives shaped not by individual will, but by structural violence and systemic injustice:
the flags stiffened on the embassy building but
did not fall when the machine guns
flared and reminded that stars were inside
the decrepit towns, in shanty-zinc holes,
staring at the fixed constellation…
On a more granular level, each enjambment provides a moment ripe for propelling thought and narrative, such that Hutchinson’s rich and sensual images build upon one another the way buildings might stack up on hillsides in cities such as New York, Hong Kong and Kingston, where compression due to land shortages often result in feats of architectural beauty. Indeed, beauty is a key feature in Hutchinson’s poems, since they dwell exquisitely on that charged moment of “each undesired desired encounter”:
Stranger, father, cackling
rat, who am I transfixed at the bottom
of the station? Pure echo in the train’s
beam arriving on its cold nerve of iron.
House of Lords and Commons is the work of a seasoned poet accustomed to taking necessary risks in terms of imagery, syntax and diction. Hutchinson succeeds in reconciling beauty and joy with violence and suffering, such that the overall effect in his second collection is majestic and deeply affecting. This is poetry “bound by a pure, inexplicable love” for the lyric’s expansive ethical and aesthetical possibilities.
 Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, p.90
 Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons, p.47
Mary Jean Chan is a poet and editor from Hong Kong. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and came Second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition. Her debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English, was selected as the 2018 Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice. Mary Jean is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic and co-editor of Oxford Poetry. Her debut collection is forthcoming from Faber & Faber in 2019.