Monday, June 2, 2014

7th Canadian Challenge - 15th review - Unfamiliar Weather

This is actually the third book of poems by Chris Hutchinson that I read, but I figure I might as well review them in their proper (published) order.  There is a fairly strong arc going from largely straight-forward poems (with perhaps an emphasis on lucidity and clarity -- the way I try to write my own poetry) to more focus on the language itself (sometimes at the expense of meaning) in Other People's Lives and A Brief History of the Short-Lived.  While he doesn't quite reach John Ashbery territory by A Brief History, he is getting a bit close for my taste, and I personally think his best work is the middle volume, which I'll try to review this weekend.  I'll keep a bit of an eye on his future volumes, but I expect he is moving in a direction that doesn't really interest me (a bit too academic and sterile).

Unfamiliar Weather is broken into four parts. I found the second part the most interesting, though I did like "Small Burdens" -- the multi-part poem that opens part one.  In this collection and basically in his second collection, I generally thought the multi-part poems worked the best.  That is also what I often find for George Bowering.  Given that Hutchinson briefly lived in Vancouver, it is certainly possible he was inspired by Bowering.

"Small Burdens" takes up a different "thing" that often bothers people and devotes a calendar day to each one.  So Monday is all about the weather: "Your eyes have starved all winter ... / ... / How you staggered delirious to meet the spring."  Spring doesn't quite turn out as planned and the "you" of the poem only wants to go back to bed.

Tuesday brings up politics: "Today, bus fare went up again, it's rained / the last ten days of June and your neighbourhood floods / with heroin and cops.  So where should you complain?"  Writing to local politicians is essentially as futile as throwing stones "at the Milky Way."

Wednesday the poet takes public transport ("The Bus") and finds it lacking.  Going on a date on Thursday is apparently nerve-wracking.

Friday (and not Monday?) brings up work as its own special burden: "Is this all there is? Squeezing life / into the cracks, into the small openings of the day."

I still don't quite get why going to the movies on Saturday is a burden, unless it is simply realizing that one's life will never be as glamourous.  And Sunday is "art": "your small world spinning apart / around a deep-felt nothingness you consider / art..."  This burden is considerably more abstract than the others.  But it's a fun little series.

The second section seems to have mostly been written while in Vancouver, but looking back over his recent move across Canada.*

In "Translations," the poet speaks to a former lover:
Do you remember the summer
we spent in bed, how after love our eyes would wander
out the north window, unreel above Burrard Inlet? I used to imagine
the mountains were prehistoric waves about to smash this town to bits
we might reconstruct one day into an image of whatever future
we desired.  What you envisioned I never thought to ask.

While the bus in the poems in the first section are local buses, Hutchinson also writes on long-distance bus trips and how they enable one to change one's life if one is willing to take a journey without looking back.  Nearly all of the poems in this section speak to uprooting oneself from the East (apparently with Toronto as an intermediate destination) and traveling 5 provinces west, settling in Vancouver (at least as of the writing of these poems -- Hutchinson ultimately got a job in the States teaching poetry and moved South).

From "Lost in Transit": "The world is very small at the greyhound station. / Your destination is the size of a baggage tag, / your past, already fading like a bruise./ Lost in transit, everyone's a stranger / to themselves ..."

While this poem is a bit didactic, I can relate to this idea of uprooting oneself in the hopes of finding something better out there...

I would say that "At the Greyhound Station" covers much the same ground but is a bit more artistically satisfying:
Grounded here
at the Greyhound station, a woman
flicks her cigarette at the curb, shuffles her feet,
kicks at stones like annoying
afterthoughts or fragments of remorse
And I want our stories
to intertwine, fuse like two headlights
fixed on the road ahead ...
Cramped back into my seat
I am a solitary pilgrim again, the sky gone
faint behind the tint of my thin reflection
continually getting lost and falling in love
with a stranger's life.

I would agree with Hutchinson that imagining the lives of one's fellow passengers can be a game to pass the time.  One is oddly vulnerable when travelling on these long-distance trips, and generally a bit more open to or receptive to others.  Of course, that is only if one is travelling alone.  And this may have been more true in the 1980s or even early 1990s before everyone had cell phone service that covered a bit chunk of rural Canada.  There is definitely less "romance" in imagining a stranger's life when they are blurting it all out in a one-sided telephone conversation.  Then they are just one more annoyance (or part of the "burden" of public transportation to return to the poem that kicked off this collection).

I thought the third and fourth sections were ok, but definitely did not live up to the heights of these cross-country migration poems of the second section.  However, I did enjoy parts of the poem, "Variations on a Theme," which closed Unfamiliar Weather; it both tapped into the persistent ache of a dissatisfied soul and added one last dash of Can. con. to this collection:
Another glass to prolong the moment
since you can't sleep anyway; only
the cat is lost in its important slumber.
But listen: on the radio, Glenn Gould
hums off-key behind his piano--
the way you too sing
these crude little songs
to keep the whole universe

* It is certainly a bit amusing to me that I am reversing Hutchinson's path -- from the States to Vancouver to Toronto.  However, I plan on stopping there and not going on to Montreal... 

Apparently, Hutchinson was just in Vancouver (last Wed.) doing a poetry reading in support of a fourth collection called Jonas in Frames.  While this probably would have been interesting, I had some obligations I simply couldn't shake off.  And apparently, I missed an earlier reading in Toronto, so I guess I will not be seeing him read live any time soon.


  1. Thanks for giving my first book some attention. Yes, I lived in Vancouver--but for a stretch longer than "briefly"--for about a decade. I was never much swayed by Bowering; Newlove was a bigger influence back then. But that was a long time ago (or it seems so anyway).

  2. Thanks for checking in. I liked quite a bit of the book, particularly the 2nd section. I hope to review your 2nd and 3rd collections within the next week or so.