Islanders: House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


In Ishion Hutchinson’s second collection, House of Lords and Commons, we hear the voices of Port Antonio, Jamaica, with its disparity of race and wealth, remembered and re-envisioned by the poet. The book opens, in the poem “Station,” with the line: “The train station is a cemetery,” and ends: “who am I transfixed at the bottom/of the station? Pure echo in the train’s/beam arriving on its cold nerve of iron.” Various voices, often voices of the dead, are invited to the platform, their stories a “pure echo,” with the poet’s lines enacting the “beam arriving on its cold nerve of iron.” Hutchinson fully embraces the elegy, which is, in his case, an elegy for the Jamaican islander. In all of the voices, and in all of the lines, one hears longing.

Some of Hutchinson’s poems take on Jamaica’s sugar-cane industry, bringing into verse the terrible imbalance of man and master. In “Fitzy and the Revolution,” Hutchinson writes of the servitude of cane cutters, the men “who filed their spines against the sun, bringing down great walls of cane,” undone by their endless work: “every year the same men, different cane, and when different men,/the same cane: the cane they cannot kill, living for this one day//of respite…” As the cane cutters amass, their numbers are daunting to the foreman, Fitzy, who hides in his rum shop, but when he dares to look out, he finds the echo of men, as if in a graveyard: “No men were out there. Only a shirring noise.” They stand before him, and “their red eyes in charcoal suits” look at Fitzy. The men who so forcefully scythe through the cane have become whispers of themselves, when facing one white man with money: “and with an overseer’s scorn, he nodded them in.”

Hutchinson models and reinvents Virgil in his “Bicycle Eclogue,” which opens in Florence (the first line reads, “that red bicycle left in an alley near the Ponte Vecchio”). While he stakes a claim on the land of Virgil in the first five lines, Jamaica is his ultimate claim: “The scar in my palm throbs, recalling a tiny stone/once stuck there after I fell off the district’s iron mule,/welded by the local artisan, Barrel Mouth.” In a Proustian reverie, what the present pain brings him back to isn’t the doctor cleaning the stone out of his hand that day, but his mother’s face—because of his disobedience, she had to leave her work cutting sugar cane: “It was her first day, and her last, bowing so low to pull/enough for my school fee.” Here we find ourselves between the house of the lord and the commoner. In the poise of her face, he recognizes shame, although those before whom she is ashamed are not in his view. He realizes that, if he’d had the ability to understand, he would have “forgotten the sting/and wreathed tighter my hold before letting her go.”

There are other echoes of the ancients throughout the book. In “After the Hurricane” (on the surface, it explores the effect of devastation on an already devastated population), one hears Homer in the “silence, deranged, white as the white helmets/of government surveyors looking into roofless// shacks/....they scribble facts,” as if we were reading the aftermath of a battle scene from the Iliad. The poem then moves into the reality of the hurricane—“call it Cyclops—passage through the lives/of children and pigs, the one eye that unhooked//banjoes from the hills, smashed them in Rio Valley;/they record how it howled off to that dark parish...dishing discord among neighbours, exposed,/standing among their flattened, scattered lives for the first time.” This is also the devastation of Troy, the trials of Odysseus. The end of the poem focuses on one individual:

Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, PN Review, and The Critical Flame. She is the poetry editor of Salamander Magazine and works as a freelance writer.

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