Wednesday, July 1, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 20th review - Brief History of the Short-Lived

This is an incredibly tardy review of Chris Hutchinson's A Brief History of the Short-Lived, which is his third collection of poetry.  I actually had to go back to my own review of Other People's Lives to recall just what I had already said about Hutchinson and his poetry.  I also saw that he has a newish book out called Jonas in Frames, which straddles the line between epic poem and novel, and I may get to that some day.  However, I may no longer classify Hutchinson as a Canadian author for the purposes of the challenge.

Overall, I find myself reaching for the dictionary a bit more often in these poems than in the previous two collections.  I generally find that I am less attached to these poems than those in his earlier collections.  I either hang onto poems that still tell an interesting story (a relatively rare phenomenon in this collection) or the language is particularly arresting to me.  As a rough guess, I think that means 10-12 poems kind of jump out at me from A Brief History, whereas that number was over 30 from Other People's Lives.  (It is probably fair to say that the review itself sampled only a small number of poems (just as this one will), so it is not immediately apparent that I favour one over the other by such a large margin.)

A Brief History opens with the rain.  One might even imagine that Hutchinson is back in Vancouver, where he lived for roughly a decade and where he set many of the poems in Unfamiliar Weather.  From "The Gift": "The spring malingers. He is sick of it -- / This loose fabric of rain, all warp and no weft. / America, once predatory, has presumably fled. / ... / ... His own name / Blurring, drips onto the windowsill where it / Puddles, and puzzles him...".

"Crosstown Still Life" is a curious poem that rides the line between sense and nonsense.  On the one hand, you have the image of a "thrift-store Poet Laureate" who rides "the M train to Brooklyn" while declaiming poetry or at least posing questions that are informed by a poetic sensibility.  One such statement is "could is be that within all / Postures of stillness lurks a clandestine What's next?"  On a side note, I don't imagine that Hutchinson is recalling Garrison Keillor's fantasy of preaching from Walden on the subway (from "Local Man Moves to the City"), but it may not be too much of a stretch to think that he is referring to Charles Simic's "Dime-Store Alchemy," which contains a number of prose poems inspired by Joseph Cornell.  Incidentally, Simic was the U.S. Poet Laureate.  Most of the time his poems feature much shorter lines, but those in "Dime-Store Alchemy" are longer and do tend to pile one image on top of another, much like the middle section of "Crosstown Still Life."  For instance, this block of text is so dense, yet it has an alluring internal propulsion: "the morning becoming / Night by way of an afternoon everything's busy skyrocketing / Through: moorhens, Japanese paper, protractors, alphabets / Genome decoder rings and the missed phone calls from our dearly / Departed self-confidence. Never mind if our beliefs revolve / Around Calvary, the Smithsonian or National Geographic...".  Just don't ask me to try to unpack it.

There is a similar feel to "Captain Nemo Resurfaces," though this one is a bit easier to place into context.  The entire text can be taken as the slightly-unhinged rantings of Captain Nemo*, whereas the source of the lists in "Crosstown Still Life" is unclear; only a relatively small portion of the poem is placed directly in the mouth of that thrift-store poet.

To return to Nemo, the poem opens with him waking up: "Is it dawn already inside the world's / Subconscious, or is it still the postmodern / Age of aquatic mosaics where governments / Blur the edges of words?" The good mood doesn't endure: "... And though I awoke / Buoyant and smiling like the pufferfish in some / Marine biologist's float parade, you'll see / I am glancing now above the crannied murk / At the media squinched unhappily / Into those trilobite faces we all know / From the pages of American Scientist.  Ha!"  From here, Nemo's mood continues to darken, and soon we find ourselves faced with the outcast (dreamed up by Verne) who has turned his back on the land-dwellers: "I've come / To spit poisonous pearls into your earth / Which rejects me and all of my people."

Compared to these two quite dense poems, "Equinox" is centered around a much simpler metaphor of a city tree transformed into a kind of green streetlamp: "One tree grows in the gated city / Like a leafy bulb screwed into the ground / Drawing the earth's current. No one notices. / Its green luminescence lives only in the minds / Of its inhabitant birds, sparrows and jays whose / Throats convert the tree's energy into a thrum / Of hallelujahs."

Hutchinson draws on the legend of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in "Poet in Middle America."  Of course, Lorca famously visited New York, but the idea of him driving deep into the U.S. "into the creature-stew of the valley's smog" is somewhat ludicrous (and yet amusing due to its incongruity).  I will say that the attention to the geometry of the Interstate system is impressive, and if I ever do publish my anthology on poems about transportation, this is a strong candidate for inclusion.  The poem ends with Lorca still in flight: "Today the expressway is a flume of fire-/Reflecting steel. You say the twentieth century / Has been replaced and miles of earth skinned / Like ripened fruit. But let's recall the artist, alone / Yet not along, speeding towards his unborn / Admirers: those of us in this desert who know his heart / Was filled with butterflies and bullets."

It's a bit more difficult to place "East-West," but if I had to, I would argue that it records the wanderings of a location scout (for the movies) around the Mediterranean.  It is not entirely clear if it is the scout or the poet who is aware that it is the near poverty of many of the places he visits that makes it possible to gain access to these sites by throwing hard currency around.  A secondary theme is how many of the places mentioned in the poem had their glory days far in the ancient past.  This seems particularly apt for Greece, which is currently undergoing severe economic contractions and is the first "advanced economy" to default on its payments to the IMF. But back to the poem: "Once the site of temporal displacement / Delphi has been retrofitted with a waterworks / And crowded with public officials ready to drag you / Through an umbra of gin and clove cigarettes. / These markets are unsafe...".

I'll end the review with one of the last poems in the collection "Flying Dream, Terminal City," which is essentially a poem about dreaming of flying.  Sometimes the dreamer is falling, a bit out of control, but normally the dream-flight is controlled, and this isn't a nightmare per se.  It is somewhat interesting that the poem is actually written in first-person plural, so "we" are flying or falling, along with the poet.  The poem opens on a night-time vista: "Lawns and boulevards have been painted / With the glow of crushed stars. / Every green tendril and blade frosted over / Curls tightly and shines."  Even though "we" are above the trouble and turmoil on the ground, this is not a placid dream: "Buses grunt and sigh and mimic / Our distress, knowing we are gone before / We arrive, knowing on waking we must try / To rephrase what yesterday we failed to express."  Nonetheless, at times we are able to soar over barriers, only to confront other aspects of modern life that disappoint or otherwise diminish us: "We are falling through silence / And open like snowflakes unfolding / Insensible scripts. Anything is possible / Notwithstanding these barricades / And cavalcades of mounted police. / We escape to the rooftops where the sky / Is eclipsed by a billboard which would have us / Mortgage our lives to a humanoid duck. / There are rules to flying, even in dreams." This strikes me as somewhat similar in spirit to a Terry Gilliam film where there are moments of freedom, but generally it is transformed into something more sinister by the end.  That's not to say this poem ends on a note anywhere near as melancholy as Brazil or The Zero Theorem (where the protagonists retreat completely from "reality").

I hope this review gives a hint of the rich language employed by Hutchinson and some of the ideas that he is grappling with throughout the collection, though, as I already noted, I tend to find the emphasis on language (often overwhelming meaning) to be too much sometimes.  For my taste, Other People's Lives got the balance right, and A Brief History often goes a bit too far.  Still, I would recommend giving it a go if one is attracted to cerebral poetry sprinkled throughout with unusual word choices.

* While I doubt Hutchinson had this in mind, I am reminded of several of Robert Browning's long poems that were essentially monologues, such as "Caliban upon Setebos" or "Fra Lippo Lippi."

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