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

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


     It passed through Aunt May’s head, upsetting
     the furniture, left her chattering something,
     a cross between a fowl and a child; they can’t say
     how it tore down her senses, no words, packing
     their instruments, flies returning to genuflect
     at their knees, on Aunt May’s face, gone soft;
     no words, except: Don’t fret, driving off,
     as if they had left better promises to come.

Hutchinson’s poems, with their virtuosities of composition and allusion, give great pleasure in their remembrances and associations, as in his invocation of Vallejo’s “Black Stone on Top of a White Stone”: “rain scowled down, Vallejo and Vallejo as I hurried/up Eager Street; Thursday, I remember the white stone//in the flask and wild asterisks hissing…” The sounds that are present in “Vallejo” and “white stone” and “flask” and “wild asterisks” surpass even the original in their texture.

Hutchinson culminates a multitude of poetic devices in a completely natural line. There is a richness that comes from his masterful deployment of form, as in “The Orator”:

     Amid a ratcheted, alloyed ghost,
     I returned stares in the blackout
     that clogged the podium where a bore
     was harping in dead metaphor
     the horror of colonial heritage.
     I sank in the dark, hemorrhaged.

The end-rhymes, with their promise of stopping the line, shut nothing down—instead the poem speeds on with their surprise. The “I” is eclipsed in the language, and the reader can get lost in the world created rather than the speaker.

In “The Ark by ‘Scratch,’” the voice comes from the elements: “I credit not the genie but the coral rock: I man am stone./I am perfect.” One believes him. But sometimes the personal voice reemerges, and Hutchinson ends with a lyric similar to the one he begins with, called “The Small Dark Interior.” It tells the story of the “I” overhearing, watching a father with his child as they all three ride a bus together and we see how profoundly the individual aligns with the collective experience:

     As my eyes adjusted,
     I found her, same position,
     in the small dark, and decided
     I am ready to forgive
     my father his own flawed life.

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.

Of Love and Class: Love Is No Small Thing by Meghan Kenny (Louisiana State University Press, Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, 2017).
Recursions (2016 Fiction Prize)