Writings / Reviews

Poetry Review: Othering People's Lives

J.A. Weingarten

Other People’s Lives
by Chris Hutchinson
London, ON: Brick Books, 2009
125 pp. $19.00

Chris Hutchinson’s new volume of poetry, Other People’s Lives, delivers exactly what its title promises: a cross section and intersection of life stories. Yet he seems equally concerned with othering lives; he simultaneously makes these stories seem impenetrably strange and familiarly vivid. Whether through objectivism or through powerful lyricism, Hutchinson constructs and estranges lives that seem in dialectical tension with one another or with themselves. He predicates his collection on such tensions, all of which are marked by frequently collapsible binaries. His erratic confluence of now and then, self and other, distance and proximity, open and closed, visible and invisible, signal the complex fluidity of these poems, a feature further enhanced by cunning and sound poetic technique.

Tying these poems together is difficult, because Hutchinson is a difficult poet. Nevertheless, he is, like his reader, often in search of an evasive centre. Although “each of us” desires such order (48), this centre seems unattainable. Rather than any centripetal force, Hutchinson instead celebrates fleeting “moments, not monuments” (50)—here he seems to be alluding to John Newlove’s 1965 poem, “Then, If I Cease Desiring.” The allusion is appropriate, since this collection is very much about desires and their connection to time and space: “Signs stopped. Whatever it was they were / thinking moved us, traceries of smoke rising / from the lips of the jackhammer squads” (38). Like the line itself, the semiotic act abruptly stops and thus meaning is left suspended; elsewhere, he describes this process as a “semantic shuffle” (35). Yet as semiosis stops, we move: tangibility shatters and we (or our thoughts?) evolve into something as indistinct as smoke. Hutchinson’s diction is always this precise (in this passage, I find the ambiguity of “they” striking) and his lineation always this exact (here the enjambment and caesura is particularly noteworthy). The lines signal the fragility of both language and tactility; as these things bind individuals, their “stopping” is certainly troubling. Therein lies an aspect of the poet’s desire: to move things when they stop and stop things when they move.

Despite Hutchinson’s obvious skill, one finds his use of similes exhausting. Frequently, this overused technique makes his writing seem hollow: “It’s what makes me nostalgic / for my other life, the isolate Canadian one / in which I once dissolved / like a cube of sugar inside / a glass of flaming absinthe” (57). The persona’s longing for his “other life” is an example of Hutchinson’s fascinating fragmentation of singular lives, the self now made other. The inorganic crutch of the simile, however, pervades the collection: “like a kite” (49), “It appears as if underground” (61), “like a trap door” (73), “as if history were finally / tired of coming ‘round” (104) are only a few examples.

In this regard, Hutchinson’s poetic is at its best when it is assertive, as in “Crossover III”: “Yes, I am my own / poverty and, love, / you are your own” (53). Again, the poet’s lineation is so precise, his oscillation between the first and second person so keen, and his use of caesurae so adept that one wonders why he relies on so many weak and wordy similes. Nevertheless, the merit of Hutchinson’s volume is the combination of its quickness, its difficulty, and its depth. In summing up his poetic, one recalls his depiction of love in “Up Above”: “a small, reckless disclosure, / quick as a wink’s invitation / of risk and possibility. / Believe me when I say that / every love story hinges on such a moment” (73). And every poem, too.

About The Author


J.A. Weingarten is a Ph.D. student studying English Literature at McGill University and Doctoral Fellow with McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada. Currently he is working on modernist representations of history in the poetry of John Newlove, Al Purdy, Don Gutteridge, and Dorothy Livesay. While completing his M.A. at McGill (2007/2008), he made guest appearances as a poetry critic on "The Wednesday Morning After" on CKUT 90.3. His M.A. degree culminated with his final research project entitled "'You Know I Can't Talk When All That Goes On': Modern Noise and Poetic Vocality in John Newlove's Poetry."

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