House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2016. 81 pp.
Reviewed by Allan Johnston
Mythology, autobiography, oral tale, masque, and satirical commentary merge in this intriguing collection. Enter any page of House of Lords and Commons and you will find crossings between classical and local, metropole and outlier, “high” and “low” culture, the ornate and the vernacular. The poems swirl with phrases caught in commas, semi-colons, punctuation that do not mark endings but rather establish continuance, the constant riff on the narrated tale even when Modernist tones (reminiscent of Eliot, Williams, and Thomas)—not to mention echoes of Shakespeare, Hopkins, and Herodotus—appear.
Perhaps this mix is best seen in the poem “Sibelius and Marley,” which juxtaposes the Romantic orchestral sweep of the Finnish composer with the famous Jamaican reggae icon. “History is dismantled music,” we are told; and later, “Music dismantles history.”
Similarly, in two poems set in Venice, we observe a rippling blend of the present and past. In “Bicycle Eclogue” this involves a “red bike left in an alley near the Ponte Vecchio” and a childhood injury, including 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.” At poem’s end Hutchinson captures the moment with a camera: “I kneel, snap the cycle, rise, hurry away.”
“Marking in Venice” brings the poet to the city well known as the setting for Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Again, past and present, foreign and familiar, blend together: he is in Venice for the “first time, yet [senses it as] a return (islands have that trick / about them: Jamaica, Cyprus).”
The collection is framed by the image of the absent father, presumably in England while Hutchinson grows up with his mother in Jamaica. Thus, in the first poem “Station”—
The train station is a cemetery.
Drunk with spirits, a man enters. I fan gnats
from my eyes to see into his face. “Father!”
I shout and stumble…
I have never found him, wandering the almond
I talk fast … in one of my Cerberus
This implied tension is addressed again in the collection’s final poem, “The Small Dark Interior.” Hutchinson describes riding “somewhere outside New Jersey” and seeing a child with her father reflected in a window, then losing the reflection as the vehicle moves underground, until finally—
I found her, same position,
in the small dark, and decided
I am ready to forgive
my father his own flawed life.
Allan Johnston is the author of two full-length poetry collections (Tasks ofSurvival, 1996, and In a Window) and three chapbooks (Northport, 2010; Departures, 2013;Contingencies, 2015. His poems have appeared in Rhino, Poetry, Rattle, Poetry East, and many other journals. He teaches writing and literature at Columbia College and DePaul University in Chicago. He is also co-editor of JPSE:Journal for the Philosophical Study of Education, and has published scholarly articles in Twentieth Century Literature, College Literature, and several other journals.