Saturday, October 25, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 6th review - Other People's Lives

Another very tardy review that I have finally come back around to.  I actually had to reread long sections of Chris Hutchinson's Other People's Lives to refresh my memory, but in some ways that is a good thing, since poetry often takes a few readings.

I find there is definitely some interesting stuff in this collection, which I found a bit stronger overall than Unfamiliar Weather.  There is a lot of intensive use of language, in the sense of a great deal of attention to unconventional words and words that may have been chosen as much for their sound as for their meaning, and towards the end of the collection, perhaps even Hutchinson is starting to drift into John Ashbery territory (which I don't like as meaning seems completely secondary or even tertiary in an Ashbery poem).

Other People's Lives is on the Brick Books imprint, which has put out quite a few strong collections over the past few years.  I was particularly taken by Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair, as well as the follow-up collection, Breaker.  I review both in this post.

Almost all the poems in Other People's Lives are free verse.  However, I was intrigued by the rhymes and near-rhymes in "Homeless" which is in sonnet form. Here are just the final words of each line: "streamed / mushrooms / believed / bloomed. / past, / bone / cans / moonstones. / withdrew / reopening. / knew / dwelling / sight, / light."  Rhyming mushrooms and bloomed is boss.  I was less impressed with reopening/dwelling.  I'm kind of on the fence with past and cans.  I don't think it entirely works, but I probably would have accepted past/canned or passed/cans.  Anyway, an interesting experiment.

"Entertaining*" is at one level a description of a party that is being thrown, but at the same time it is a bit of a mediation on the impossibility of communication.  It starts relatively innocuously: "Tonight, your friends will come / with masks of coloured smoke, / butter-tongued admonishments, / promises punctuated with the sucking of breath ...".  Despite the host's efforts "everything / you meant to say rushing into this vacuous pit faster / than your ability to lift your head...".  The evening ends in "ill health / and fashionable ruin."  Of course, that could describe many evenings where a great deal of alcohol is involved, but part of the tragedy seems to be in not being able to break through and explain oneself clearly, even to friends with whom one is presumably close.

In the middle of "Nineteenth-Century Loner" comes the following passage, which is largely opaque to me.  The words flow well, but they strain against meaning:
Let's picture the suburbs at night
conspiring against the ornamental opulence
of the dream-state, and him whispering to
and from the death of sleep recurrently
as waves breaking upon the glassy moonlit sands
where no one goes unless alone and
prone to ludicrous imaginings.

Does this simply mean that this loner is drifting in and out of sleep (from his suburban home)?  The passage is so over-written (overwrought) if that is the plain meaning, but that seems to be the point.  Certainly a fair number of the late Victorian poets were prone to such florid passages.  As I said, this strikes me as moving close to Ashbery, and I think Hutchinson's next collection takes him still a bit further in this direction.

In "Game" Hutchinson seems to directly address what he is up to in some of his poems: "Is it a game, this semantic shuffle, or that / which gets you to the breakfast table--the goal / not the centre, but life's ironic fringes-- / obsessed not with words, but with their hinges?"

I think I will end (for now at least) with "As It Was" which seems to be describing a fairly typical day in the city for this incipient Language poet: "The city was a beautiful day. / Out on the grid, the open grid, vehicles / multiplied a certain domestic resonance. / Signs stopped. Whatever it was they were / thinking moved us...".

So I hope this gives you a taste of what Hutchinson is up to with these poems.  They are not nearly as straight-forward as many of the other collections I have reviewed, but Hutchinson is clearly someone who cares about words and their impact, even if clarity is a secondary consideration at times.

* Perhaps a minor rift** on Henry Green's Party Going?

** I just noticed that I should have written riff, but this is good too.

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