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A World Of Voices: House of Lords and Commons

Alice Manning on the contrast between Western and Jamaican art presented in Hutchinson’s anthology.

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Image Credit: Faber & Faber, 2018

Ishion Hutchinson is a Jamaican poet and lecturer currently living in the United States. House of Lords and Commons, his sophomore collection, explores power and the absence of power, delving into his childhood memories of growing up amidst the struggles faced by Jamaicans post-independence.

It is certainly a collection that traverses an array of themes. Hutchinson hones in on depictions of bristling harbours and the strenuous work of sugarcane farmers, amidst metaphysical debates that highlight the difficulties of reconciling the past with the present. Interwoven throughout is a subtly articulated commentary on the relationship between humanity and nature, and the privilege of forgetting.

The dust jacket of House of Lords and Commons depicts Hutchinson as a writer of the “post-Walcott” generation, in reference to the late St Lucian poet Derek Walcott. This assertion reigns true as you progress through the poems. Walcott wrote of his country in the context of it having ‘no visible history’, associating the people of St Lucia with their landscape in that both are unable to convey the complexity of their roots. Hutchinson subverts this motif , drawing an extreme conclusion. He offers a world where everything is connected to nature, and all of history is just ‘a rusty anchor holding no ship’ (The Wanderer). The end product makes for a challenging yet worthwhile read.

Furthermore, the traditional pillars of western culture are reduced to mere anecdotal devices that prompt deeper remembrance rooted in family life and Hutchinson’s own identity. Hutchinson displays a clear interest in the disruptive power of dichotomy; in exploring the conflict between western art and culture and his own Jamaican upbringing.

In particular, he questions who exactly such art is made for. Bicycle Eclogue demonstrates this well: ‘I, without enough for the great museums, / am struck […] the bronze tulip bell – smaller than Venus’s nose’. The implication is that the ordinary bicycle is in fact just as special, and that is it the gaze of the viewer that counts. That turns it into a prized ‘two-wheel chariot’.

This progresses (or, equally, regresses: Hutchinson is keen to embrace the possibilities of both) to a memory wherein western art is negated for personal experience: ‘the local artisan, Barrel Mouth – no relation / of Botticelli’. Hutchinson swiftly moves the focus of the narrative to the art that he knows, without so much as a backwards glance at the western canon.

The most  thought-provoking aspect of  this volume is the manner in which Hutchinson asks the reader to consider how everything can be connected. In this sense, his verse encourages anti-racism from an ecological as well as ethical stance. 'White' as a colour, and also the social group that it signifies, is presented as quietly tyrannical, attempting to disrupt the natural state of things.

After the Hurricane sees scores of ‘white helmets’ manipulate the outcomes of a natural disaster to be viewed in terms of human inconvenience: ‘they draw tables to show the shore / has rearranged its idea of beauty for the resort’. This accompanies a disregard of the ‘flattened, scattered lives’ that become the true consequence of such an event. Hutchinson’s antagonists go against the natural grain, with outlandish metaphors highlighting the absurdity and cruelty of their ideology: ‘they can jail the sea, draw borders / with their San San, Grand Lido and Hilton’ (Inferno).

Conversely, humans become personified by nature where they are living in harmony with it. The field workers in Fitzy and the Revolution work with the land, their lack of disruption making them interchangeable from the crops they are harvesting: ‘every year the same men, different cane, and when different men, / the same cane.’

Above all, Hutchinson’s poetry is lively and imaginative, constructing metaphors that become larger than the poems they inhabit. A lingering sense of threat pervades the collection, keeping the reader permanently alert. The lasting impression is that everything is permeable; Hutchinson’s work disrupts the everyday regularity of things, engaging with the idea that everything we understand to be true is merely a meticulously crafted illusion. This conclusion, however, is best put in his own words, taken from Sibelius and Marley:

‘History is dismantled music; slant,
bleak on gravel. One amasses silence,
another chastises silence with nettles,
stinging ferns. I oscillate in their jaws.’

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