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Review of Other People’s Lives
From Nick Thran , Event 39/2 (Fall 2010)

Chris Hutchinson, Other People’s Lives, Brick Books, 2009

Other People’s Lives, the second collection of poetry by Chris Hutchinson, reaches toward the capital-‘O’ Other with a world-weary skepticism.  This skepticism is rooted in what first appears as an almost terminal and impermeable sense of the self, where the common lot is the condition of stones on the river bed, what the poem ‘English Bay’ describes as ‘the anonymous busts of others/like me.’ Gravel paths, sidewalks, moonstones, ‘Old Testament Stone,’ ‘rocks in the beguiled/ jeweller’s head,’ ‘Serving spoon/ or funhouse mirror,’ ‘the sky’s cast iron lid’ – Hutchinson’s poems almost invariably run into mineral surfaces so hard they threaten to halt the poems’ agile and imaginative leaps.

This penchant for running toward the impenetrable could be what the poem ‘American Still Life’ – which features jewels, marbles, gravel and pupils ‘like a ding/ in the windshield of the soul!’ – calls ‘the most/ sadistic of … obsessions.’  It’s a sadism Hutchinson equates explicitly with preciousness, another word that resonates throughout Other People’s Lives.  As the poems appraise lived experience, they are mindful of the talismanic quality of the personal, ‘precious as the small, intricate, unworkable objects/ bequeathed to us in dreams.’ They also seem fearful of the solipsistic, affected qualities associated with the word.

Admittedly, when hitting their proverbial walls, some of the poems have trouble recovering from the blow. Then the words of friends arrive, not warmly, but as a kind of currency: ‘all spit and polish,’ Or we encounter other people, like the artist in the poem ‘Art,’ who is described as having a ‘calmness/ turned to stone,// …more/secret in himself,// more alone.’

More exciting are the many poems that shake the impact off and spiral out dizzyingly toward the next metaphor, the next image. The poem ‘Cross-Eyed’ ends with the couplet, ‘If description belongs to the surface of things – / how the mind swerves, disbelieving.’ In the secular and self-conscious landscape of this book, I read this disbelief as an act of faith that enables the best poems to wear down their own descriptive surfaces. The poem ‘No Such Address II’ greets wind, streat, rain, etc., with a ‘Hello’ that can seem open-armed, semi-detached, or full-blown ironic depending on one’s mood or inclinations.  The poem ‘swerves’ enough to accommodate different readings– ‘Each breath re-addressed/ at the intersection of each breath’ – while at the same time retaining the ‘shivering [romanticism]’ that is the hallmark of Hutchinson’s style to date. It’s in this swerving that Hutchinson hits his highest notes. ‘Continual’ opens:

Kaleidoscopic, refreshingly variable, you
transmute like energy, like water ever-circulating
    as mist, river, monsoon, tears –
this attempt to evolve and increase, old enemy
of atavism, as always, from here on in
    pressing forwards, first erotically into then
fully beyond tomorrow.

The poem then continues to ride its own making through crossing guards, tombs, bad credit and other roadblocks, affirming the tenet put forth in the poems’ epigraph: that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it simply changes form. In this vein, it’s interesting to note that while approaching the self/other divide from an entirely different aesthetic angle, Other People’s Lives yearns to close many of the same gaps as O Resplandor, Moure’s book just seems more in love with the impossibility of doing so.

Sometimes, as in ‘No Address II’ or ‘Continual,’ this form-changing seems to occur mid-air. In other poems, Hutchinson’s metaphoric and imaginative activity has almost physically altered the surface of things. The reader is left with ‘traceries of smoke rising/ from the lips of the jackhammer squads’ and pockmarks – ‘Locals bathe// where the wound opens.’

Hutchinson experiments with varying line lengths, with palindromes, with sonnets. His hand is deft – the form never begs for attention. Even the 20-sonnet sequence that closes the bok, ‘Cross-Sections,’ reads less like an attempt at virtuosity and more like a poet who has found a comfortable 14-line chair to sit down in and ‘[scheme]/ ways to continue, safe within and darkly through/ an immaterial sublime.’  Which isn’t to say there’s any safety or throughway to be found in this book. What Hutchinson has in abundance is an energy and talent willing to go to the end of his obsessions. One hopes he has the stamina to sustain these multiple blows of self-consciousness that are part and parcel of the desire to greet strangers ‘in our estrangement’ (a phrase from one of Moure’s epigraphs). Moure’s ‘Defrocked Ending’ finishes with the speaker ‘aching/ or loquacious,/ veering closer, mug up, leaning into the punch.’ Hutchinson, too, seems willing to stick his neck out.

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