Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry collection House of Lords and Commons was released to wide acclaim. All Things Considered said it was “ragged and fiercely beautiful;” The New Yorker praised Hutchinson’s “exquisite” sounds: “clusters of consonants . . . and the vowels so open you could fall into them, the magisterial cresting syntax.” Hutchinson sat down with novelist and essayist Teju Cole at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn to discuss the inner workings of a few of the poems in House of Lords and Commons, landscape, memory, and divine inspiration.
Teju Cole: Thank you all for being here. You could probably be at a protest right now or something, but you decided to spend your time with poetry, and I’m very grateful for that.
Ishion Hutchinson: This is a protest.
TC: That’s right, yeah. The war against cliché. Well, it’s important to be in a space like this, for very evident reasons, to defend those spaces of subtlety and layering and nuances. I’m excited to be in this conversation with my friend and brother. I was hoping this would be a little bit different from, you know, person reading a bunch of poems. I wanted us to talk a little bit about what’s happening inside the poems, because I get geeky about that stuff. I’m fascinated by what happens on the second look. So, on the first go around, you get a beautiful sonic wash. You know it’s beautiful before you know what it means. And on the second go . . . Well, to begin with, maybe you just read a couple for us?
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 and reminded that stars were inside
the decrepit towns, in shanty-zinc holes,
staring at the fixed constellation; another
asthmatic whirl of pistons passed,
the chandelier fell, the carpet sparkled,
flames burst into the lantana bushes, the stone
horse whinnied by the bank’s marble entrance,
three large cranes with searchlights lit
the poincianas, a quiet flamboyance, struck
with the fever of children’s laughter;
then, all at once, the cabbage palms
and the bull-hoof trees shut their fans,
the harbour grew empty and heavy,
the sea was sick and exhausted, the royal
palms did not salute when the jeeps roamed
up the driveway and circled the fountain,
the blue mahoe did not bow and the lignum
vitae shed purple bugles but did not
surrender, the homeless did not run, but the dead
flew in a silver stream that night, their silk
hair thundered and their heels crushed
the bissy nuts and ceramic roofs;
the night had the scent of cut grass
sprayed with poison, the night smelled
of bullets, the moon did not hide,
the prisoners prayed in their bunkers,
the baby drank milk while its mother slept,
and by the window its father
could not part the curtains.
That red bicycle left in an alley near the Ponte Vecchio,
I claim; I claim its elongated shadow, ship crested on
stacked crates; I claim the sour-mouth Arno and the stone
arch bending sunlight on vanished medieval fairs;
but mostly I claim this two-wheel chariot vetching
on the wall, its sickle fenders reaping dust and pollen
off the heat-congested city coiled to a halt in traffic.
And I, without enough for the great museums,
am struck by the red on the weathered brick, new tyres
on cobble, the bronze tulip bell—smaller than Venus’s nose—
turned up agains the river, completely itself for itself.
The scar in my palm throbs, recalling a tiny stone
once stuck there after I fell off the district’s iron mule,
welded by the local artisan, Barrel Mouth—no relation
of Botticelli—the summer of my first long pants.
The doctor’s scissors probing my flesh didn’t hurt,
nor the lifeline bust open hen the stone was plucked out;
what I wailed for that afternoon was the anger inmother’s
face when she found out I had disobeyed her simple wish
to remain indoors until she returned from kneeling
in the harvested cane, tearing out the charred roots
from the earth after cane cutters had slashed the burnt field.
It was her first day, and her last, bowing so low to pull
enough for my school fee; for, again, the promised money
didn’t fall from my father’s cold heaven in England.
As we walked to the clinic on a rabble of hogplums,
her mouth trembled in her soot frock, my palm reddened
in her grip, plum scent taking us to the lane.
By the time we saw the hospital’s rusty gate, her fist
was stained to my fingers’ curl, and when I unfastened
my eyes from the ground to her face, gazing ahead, terribly calm
in the hail of sunlight, a yellow shawl around her head,
something of shame became clear, and if I had more
sense as my blood darkened to sorrel at the age
of twelve or thirteen, I would have forgotten the sting
and wreathed tighter my hold before letting her go.
And now, as I raise my camera, bells charge the pigeon
sky braced by the Duomo, a shell fallen from the sun.
I kneel, snap the cycle, rise, hurry away.
TC: So, where do your poems come from? Where do you get your ideas?
TC: That’s it? Okay, so, let me ask a question about “The Garden,” which has sort of a nocturnal and menacing vibe about it. Can you tell me a few things you would consider as sponsors of the mood and form of that poem?
IH: God influenced me.
TC: Absolutely. That is the only possible answer.
IH: And God, she doesn’t play.
TC: I’ve noticed.
IH: But to the question—and I think it offers a lot to think about—obviously, as a reader, you’re struck by certain books, and you’re also struck with envy as someone who tries to write, who wants to respond to that after being shut down divinely by that certain grace of that book. And in the case of “The Garden,” it came out after reading Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Stylistically, the propulsive motion of the sentences themselves are enough to drive you crazy, and the wildness and the ecstasy that goes into the language—you’re driven on this river. But it’s a book about decline, and yet it’s so animated and circular.
TC: I did not think of Autumn of the Patriarch, but I thought of The General in His Labyrinth. Your poem is not an imitation of Marquez, but I could pick up that vibe. Anyone else? Anything else?
IH: Well, in a sort of naturalist mood, the landscape itself; there’s lots of confounding, Latinated names of places.
TC: That’s right.
IH: Or rather, vegetation. It’s also responding to a certain political moment. Not necessarily defined in time, but if you think of the overarching colonial, political hell that many places like Jamaica fell into, in trying to get with the world of modernity and so on . . .
IH: And there’s always a violence or an upheaval that comes with that forming of a government. How does one make a government after slavery? After you create these institutions that were never in place, that were never meant to be.
TC: Right. I love the inventory of plants and things in the environment. And there’s definitely something different about having the political turmoil happening in a tropical country. Now, I want to ask you about the eclogue mode. A sort of pastoral poem built on the classical model. And the pastoral in this poem is when the poet’s mother, suddenly in the fields . . .
IH: Are you saying it’s an anti-eclogue?
TC: Well, it is certainly an eclogue, but it’s not easeful, it’s not restful. Yes, you’re out there on the landscape, but the landscape is savage. “Kneeling/ in the harvested cane,/ tearing out the charred roots/ from the earth after cane cutters had slashed the burnt field./ It was her first day, and her last, bowing so low to pull/ enough for my school fee; for, again, the promised money/ didn’t fall from my father’s cold heaven in England.”
We’ve traveled some distance from Virgil. I want to come back to this, but could you tell us a few things: Where did you grow up, and how come the poet’s mother is pulling at the caned root in a burnt field?
IH: I was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. And the landscape described in the portion you just read isn’t the landscape where I was actually born. But the parish next to where I was born was called Saint Thomas. And there you find the vestiges of the colonial plantation economy still present. And as a child, those cane cutters . . . That was the job men do . . . and sometimes you see women and children, after the burning and harvesting, getting the field ready again. And what happens is, because of how you burn the cane field, you create this bonfire, and it makes lots of black ash. The charred cane leaves, when you touch them, disappear into ash. Black ash. And so it’s emerging from these fields, covered in ash. Almost changed. A bizarre ritual of some kind.
TC: Like the opposite of a purification.
IH: Right, the complete opposite. And frightening to meditate on. ’Cause it’s a stain. But it’s an inescapable one. Because eventually, the people in the community end up being part of this industry. So in a way, it’s like a soft slavery. You know, when the masters or slave drivers aren’t standing around with whips and whatnot, but the economy is, the need for survival is.
TC: Is it fair to say that you take a less serene view of that landscape than that great poet of the Caribbean, Derek Walcott?
IH: Why would you invoke that?
TC: It just came to mind.
IH: I don’t think Derek takes a serene view of that landscape at all. I think if it wasn’t for my understanding of the way in which Derek has captured the tragedy of that landscape, the drama that continues to unfold, I wouldn’t have the language to even begin.
TC: By the way, I don’t mean it as a criticism of him.
IH: Yes, of course. In one interview, he said—I’m misquoting, but it was something along the lines of—“No one can doubt the serene beauty of cane flags in a sunlit day.” And it is really true. From a high point, looking down at the flags of cane fields, this green reflecting sunlight, moving almost like a cobra.
TC: Like the scales.
IH: It can take your heart.
TC: That’s right.
IH: And momentarily you can forget, in a sense, the horror that this field is a field drenched in blood. It doesn’t really occur to you. In fact, going around the Caribbean, any of the islands, you end up somewhere so beautiful that the marks of its history are not evident immediately.
TC: That’s right. I mean, we can’t generalize about any complete artist. And obviously for Walcott to have done his work, he had to countenance all of that. Nevertheless, there are tendencies, right? And I think it would be fair to say that he, when possible, would side with beauty.
IH: I think for the poet it’s a curse; it’s a burden.
TC: Because we prose writers, when possible, we side with the horror. You know?
IH: Yes, you lower the bar.
TC: We just don’t want you to forget.
IH: Well, beauty is true. We cannot forget that.
TC: Yeah, but horror is fact. I’m joking. Anyway, there was that experience I had last summer, of that drive to the beach in Jamaica, and seeing the staggering beauty and just thinking, “Wow.” I mean, of course it reminded me of Nigeria, but also, I was hardly able to escape for one minute the sort of brutality and deprivation that made it what it was.
In “Bicycle Eclogue,” what you do is place the poet in Florence.
IH: Yes. That’s why it’s an eclogue. I was inspired by, maybe you could say, Dante, Virgil, Rome, Florence.
TC: True, but for me it is also an eclogue because of that landscape on which the memory falls. The poet sees a bicycle on a wall. He calls it a two-wheeled chariot. He can’t afford to go into the museum, and so he is sort of getting this sensation from the humble things that he sees on the street—the lead brick, for example. The tires on the cobblestone. And then, as happens in poems, suddenly he is back at a certain age, when he was a little boy in the District. A reference of sorts to your early book Far District. And there’s a stone lodged in his palm because he’s had a bicycle accident.
“The doctor’s scissors probing my flesh didn’t hurt,
nor the lifeline bust open when the stone was plucked out;
what I wailed for that afternoon was the anger in mother’s
face when she found out I had disobeyed her simple wish
to remain indoors until she returned from kneeling
in the harvested cane.”
So, we’re taken back into this memory of a childhood slight, a hurt. Then, third leg of the relay, where you bring it around the final curve—not the home stretch, the third leg. Asafa Powell.
IH: Oh no. Not Asafa.
TC: Yes, Asafa Powell. Gets the baton. And the poet and the mother are approaching the hospital gate. And “her fist was stained to my fingers’ curl.” And the mother is holding her child’s hand that has a wound, and her hand is getting bloody as well. And what I love:
“If I had more
sense, as my blood darkened to sorrel at the age of twelve or thirteen”
—that’s how old he is—
“I would have forgotten the sting
and wreathed tighter my hold before letting her go.”
So, older, the poet realizes that the greater pain is not taking every opportunity to hang on to a mother’s protective hand. And then, the home stretch, the race is already won. He returns to the camera and the bicycle in Florence. And makes a photograph of it. The poem’s perfectly wrought. Will you read it again?
[IH Reads “Bicycle Eclogue” again]
TC: Remember how we marveled on that video, the live performance by Bobby Shmurda doing “Hot N*gga.” It was a pretty small club, right? But everybody in the house knew every line. And they were just thrumming and bouncing with the beat. This must have been a month or two before he got locked up for that murder charge; I suppose if your name is Bobby Shmurda, there’s a pretty good chance you might be capable of murder. In any case, we wondered what it’s like to be in a space in which the lyrics get committed to memory by strangers who don’t know who you are, which happens in hip hop. How does a poet negotiate that reality? Is it gratitude? Is it envy? If it’s not related to what you do, what is it? How do you relate to the Bobby Shmurda video?
IH: It’s hard not to try to speak about poetry without falling into kind of esoteric highfalutin language, because I seriously believe that what a poet is attempting to do is the work of immortality.
TC: That’s not highfalutin at all. Go on.
IH: It’s what I experience when I read a poem. The language of a lyric lift off. I think that’s the intensity of the pleasure that we get. We almost fall back to being a child with a very high fever. Extremely dramatic.
TC: Or something quite exciting, or something uncomfortable that’s happening to you.
IH: Of course.
TC: There’s an element of helplessness.
IH: You’re being invaded.
IH: And you want to and want not to feel that way. I tend to not like words like “negotiate.” Leave it for the marketplace. But I realize that eventually, what a poet’s left to do is submit. It comes back to that. There’s resistance and tension because that’s what makes something in language itself powerful. But what makes it grace is submission.
Audience Member: I love the words “submit” and “submission,” and I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you mean by that.
IH: Oh, yes. So what I don’t mean by it is when we think we have a poem and we send it to The New Yorker [audience laughs]. But what I think I mean is that we find this refuge in a poem. A space to be vulnerable. Even though we know that this poem will not protect us. It will not armor us. It will not stop what is happening in our world. But because it hopefully does something for what is beating here, still [touches chest]. That’s why we have to submit to it. We have to give it a chance.
TC: Speaking of a state of grace, I want you to read the poem “Pierre.”
IH: You pronounced it the French way. I won’t.
TC: I’m French, you’re not.
It was a boy named Pierre Powell
who was in charge of the atlas
in the cabinet. He also ended days
by shaking the iron bell from Principal
William’s window, a work we grudged
him for very little; what cut our cores
twice a week and we had to endure,
was him being summoned to fetch
the key, again from William’s office,
to open the varnished box with the world
map, old and laminated, a forbidden
missionary gift trophied beside the Oxford
Set of Mathematical Instruments and other
things seen only by Pierre and teacher Rose,
who now only nodded to raise him
to his duty. We waited in quiet
his return, Miss Rose all crinkled blouse
and bones with chalk dust in her hair,
did not stir until he was back, panting
at the door. Another diviner’s nod
and he opened it, unrolled the map expertly,
kneaded out creases and held down edges
for the ruler our eyes followed,
screeching out countries, and etched
in the periphery, a khaki-pillared Pierre,
with a merchant’s smile, a fixed blur
in our cry of Algeria, Switzerland, Chile,
soon withered away, and we eyed the field
of dry grass outside, a rusty mule,
statue-frozen in the punishable heat,
Pierre, a phantom sea fraying
over Antarctica, Fiji, Belize, India
of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce
bats, whose one cardinal point, Tropicana
Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar
being processed, whistled its shift change,
and terminated Geography. As if punched
from dream, those of us gazers spared the map-
rolling-up and cabinet-locking ceremony,
saw him, with a cord-strung key, an earnest air
bearing him away in a portal of sunlight.
He was absent the week before summer,
and when Miss Rose, in rare fashion,
inquired, a girl said he had gone back home.
“Home,” Miss Rose sounded the strange word.
“Home,” the girl echoed and added, “him from Cayman,
Miss, or Canada, somewhere with a C.”
We turned to Miss Rose to clarify Canada
or Cayman, this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral,
but she pointed anonymously a crooked
finger and said, “Run to the principal
for the key,” the whole class scattered, paid
no heed that not a single one was ordained.
TC: So, what’s this form? What’s this line thing? What’s it called?
IH: A couplet.
TC: So it’s just continuous couplets. I was wondering about my immediate reaction to it, and I think that part of it has to do with the glory of the schoolroom, where everything is still possible. But I think it’s also specifically because of what for me has become kind of an obsession with maps, and mapping, and place. And how that shows up in photography and poetry. So this is a poem very different from that other style, but it makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop, all of whose books had some kind of geographical connection in the title. Is Bishop important to you?
IH: Yes. In certain ways. In one way I would say in—it’s the wrong word, but when I say “vernacular,” what I mean is a certain ease. She makes it look effortless. And that’s perhaps because she was a great writer of prose as well. And her poems are not, you know, broken prose by any means. They possess what you call the enargaeia of poetry, that bright spark that takes your head off, but I think it’s one of the difficult things to manage as a poet. Because the lyric flight is so attractive. The elevation.
TC: Right. So there’s this faculty of attempting to reign it in and ground it, keep it honest.
TC: Yeah. To be close to the texture of things.
IH: In critical studies of Bishop, people say that she makes the familiar unfamiliar. Probably not the most effective way of saying what she does, which is the metaphysics of George Herbert, but it’s okay.
TC: Compared to the other thirty-four poems in the book, was “Pierre” hard to write? Easy, or the same?
IH: They’re all hard.
TC: They’re all hard?
IH: Yeah. What’s hard is the years that they take to rewrite. In a way, sometimes drafting is easy. You write in the moment, and then you accumulate. And that doesn’t really make a poem.
TC: Dare I ask the genesis of this one? Did it come in a flash? “Pierre. Where is that guy?”
IH: Really, yes. You know what’s interesting, I guess we fall back on our childhood a lot. We want to return to that Eden. And we’ll remember certain figures. And this was a boy from my primary school. I probably made the whole thing up about this particular incident. But something about him, maybe even just his name . . . My own name was a different embarrassment as a child. Not really, but people didn’t quite understand. You might think everybody in Jamaica are all Rastas and run around with weird names, but it’s not quite the case. So his name was attractive to me, too. He wasn’t “John” or “Winston.” Kind of typical Jamaican names.
TC: And to Americans, a typical Jamaican name sounds like, “Wow, that’s really posh.” Because you have these nineteenth-century British names.
IH: We do. We love the Victorians.
TC: Was “Ishion” transparently Rasta to people? Could they tell?
IH: Yeah, cause it just sounds made up.
TC: You grew up Rasta, very much a minority. So was that your experience of really not being with the coolest kids, or not being one of the cool kids?
IH: It’s strange. Because, at some point you are the coolest, because you’re so different. And kids wouldn’t want to eat my lunch, because people told them that Rastas don’t use salt. How is chicken not a vegetable? So there’s this curiosity. People approach you and ask you, and as a child you don’t know. But the attention is—
TC: What you have to offer.
IH: Yeah. I suppose that’s the thing. Seeking out differences. What is slightly off-center.
TC: So Pierre returns to you as a glimmer of a vague remembrance. And you start to sketch this thing out.
IH: I don’t remember exactly. You know, I will write and things will evolve. And they will track a scent, and I will realize what this hopefully should be about and try to see through. So I don’t remember exactly the drafting of this particular poem. ’Cause there’s the intention that goes, that “Okay, I’m doing this writing, but then that always fails, because . . .”
TC: Because it’s not about intentionality.
TC: You call it tracking a scent. So it’s a bit of hunting something that’s out there, and when you get it, you’ll know. When you bag it, you’ll know. I can’t really easily say that you’re a poet of a certain clarity. I suppose I could say Merwin is a poet of a certain clarity. Nor could I say you’re a poet of extreme density like, I don’t know, Geoffrey Hill. You seem to move quite comfortably between modes. I read certain things and immediately I’m think, “Okay, I’m gonna have to read that seven times, because I don’t understand.” I trust that the there will be there, and it’s always there. And then there are others of your poems I read, and they seem to have fallen fresh from heaven. Like lullabies, which seem to have no composers, though of course they must have been composed. The melody’s perfect, and there it is, you know? It’s a cradle song. So, I think I’m gonna have you read one more of the poems in your book. If you would, I want to ask for “Moved by the Beauty of Trees.” A poem of such grace and love and clarity that it has been a great consolation to me these past few months.
IH: When we were talking about that poem earlier, you said something about how it evoked Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. That’s one of my favorite books. Talk about a book that in its effortlessness and studied beauty, in form and shape, is like an eclogue. And perhaps a lullaby of old age. A summing up, a return to childhood. And it is. I remember reading that maybe for the tenth time, and this poem sort of emerged out of that experience.
“Moved by the Beauty of Trees”
The beauty of the trees stills her;
she is stillness staring at the leaves,
still and green and keeping up the sky;
their beauty stills her and she is quiet
in her stare, her eyes’ long lashes curve
and keep, her little mouth opens
and keeps still with its quiet for the beauty
of the trees, their leaves, the sky
and its blue quiet, very still and quiet;
her looking eyes wide, deep silent
hard on the trees and the beauty
of the sky, the green of the leaves.
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is the author of two poetry collections, Far District and House of Lords and Commons. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets, among others. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Cornell University and is a contributing editor to the literary journals The Common and Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art.
Teju Cole was born in the United States in 1975 and raised in Nigeria. He is the author of Every Day Is for the Thief, Open City, Known and Strange Things, and the forthcoming Blind Spot. He has been honored with the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Internationaler Literaturpreis, and the Windham Campbell Prize, among others. He is a photography critic of the New York Times Magazine.
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