Reviewed by Joel Deshaye
Other People's Lives. Brick Books 2009 128 pp. $19.00
A reader of Chris Hutchinson’s Other People’s Lives can expect to peer into many lives and also to contemplate, with the author, the writing of lyric poetry—an art of intimacy that allows poets to write as if their own lives were those of others. Near the end of the book, Hutchinson writes, “I’m in trouble again / with words, and other people’s lives” (102). The nature of that “trouble” is less certain than Hutchinson’s convincing and emotive portraits of various others, such as a photographer dying of cancer in “What We Think She Sees” and a loner at a party in “Art.” These specifics are less prominent, however, than Hutchinson’s ruminations on poetry and his imagined relationships with others who remain undefined.
These others are significantly ambiguous in Hutchinson’s book; ambiguity is the ironic focal point in Other People’s Lives. Poems such as “I Keep a Name” and “A Name” suggest that Hutchinson intentionally resists naming the “others.” His personal pronouns are accordingly vague, as in “As It Was.” “I” and “you” are often interchangeable in lyric poetry, and Hutchinson is concerned with being “at once ourselves / and other” (121). In “Riddled,” he indulges in a puzzle of subjectivity that, for him at least, can be pleasant. When he refers in the opening poem to “the weightless pleasure” associated with promises that are “unanchored / as gymnastics / on the moon” (11), he might well be thinking about the difficulty of his own poetry, asking us to enjoy gymnastic precision and tolerate the bagginess of near-zero gravity.
Various phrases in Hutchinson’s book describe his poetry: phrases such as “intuition adrift” (22) and “semantic shuffle” (35) suggest that he fantasizes about relinquishing control over his own words. In “Just Awake,” Hutchinson offers a memorable image of composing poetry without being fully conscious, “the pen moving on the page like a dreaming eye, like a bird’s wing / adjusting itself to the shifting breeze” (88), ultimately “trying to sing” (88). Nothing in Other People’s Lives appears to be as formally loose as automatic poetry—there are English sonnets and poems composed entirely of couplets and triplets—but Hutchinson obviously wants poems spontaneously “to sing” as much he wants them to be crafted. He claims that “what a child hears of voices” is the “pure plash / of a cadence loosed from sense” (17), and perhaps he sometimes wants the reader to be that listening “child.”
While he might sometimes prefer “cadence” to “sense,” Hutchinson also tries to “describe exactly the pure inhabitation of a single moment” (88). As in “Just Awake,” those “moment[s]” might not be experienced with a sense of clarity, but Hutchinson captures several with impressive exactitude, even if he ultimately casts doubt on his own precision. In “Someone Else,” “my only friend on the phone, boastful / as a parade, marches his opinions, all / spit and polish, into my right ear” (54). His imagery can be vivid and recognizable. Yet several of his poems end by implying that “what’s definable / fades into the deep” (30). He concludes one part of “Cross-Sections,” the long, penultimate poem in the book, with a telling statement about the difficulty of understanding one’s own words: “I’m bankrupt in the least specific way. / Please tell me exactly what I’ve said” (114). If the reader is indeed a figurative child who does not understand the words, then Hutchinson is not likely to get a satisfactory answer.
If Hutchinson has a problem with communicating in this book, it is in the ratio of answers to questions. In “Crossover III,” Hutchinson begins by writing, “Yes, I am my own / poverty” (53). In “Someone Else,” someone is “silently asking” something, to which the speaker only replies, “These drowsy hands” (54). What were the questions? Surely no poet does much for art without instilling a sense of wonder in the reader, but if Hutchinson’s questions were a little more apparent, his audience might also see the fuller import of his book.
So, for example, in “Crossover I,” Hutchinson claims that, after a loss, we feel something relatable to the “texture” of “the wet clay / of death’s // inaccuracy” (51). How can death be inaccurate when, finally, it never misses? Does it ever get the wrong man at the wrong time? Who can tell? I might be satisfied with having arrived, maybe, at appropriate questions, but I want more poems that affect me before I understand them (or think I do). I want to ask Hutchinson, “What are the questions to your answers?” But I don’t want a direct response; the question is for the clarity of the poet, who might then not feel “bankrupt” in his own economy of good sense and sound. Click here to return to the current issue