A Brief History of the Short-Lived
Gibbons, BC V0N 1V0
2012, 96 pp., $18.95, ISBN: 978-0-88971-266-9
Soon, he thinks, he should find the room
From where, occasionally, beautiful voices can be heard.
But first he has to climb a flight of stairs, he must
Reach the floor where words are manufactured
From liquid-hot lead.
I am tempted to leave the rest of this review blank because the above lines do an astoundingly imperfect job of describing Chris Hutchinson’s A Brief History of the Short-Lived—and, given that this collection can only be described imperfectly, why go on? Well, there’s a lot to discover here, if little opportunity to explain, so I’ll press on.
This book is a search for the room described in the lines above, and while it is successful in that search, it never enters that room with finality, mostly collecting the instances in which “occasionally, beautiful voices can be heard” from the hallways and the “stairs.” “He must,” indeed, “Reach the floor where words are manufactured/ From liquid-hot lead,” but he never does. Instead, Hutchinson wanders like an unsuccessful Macbeth, living the eloquence of motivation, but never landing the knife. And the book is better for that failure.
The above lines are from “Titivillus,” and what follows in that poem is typical of A Brief History’s success. The poem continues:
Journeymen whose long-
Stemmed pipes fume beards of smoke tell him
With scalded eyes what he’s already told himself
Though he hasn’t understood.
Like the “he” who maintains a presence throughout this poem, the reader of this collection is on a journey clearly and eloquently told, but little understood. While it is tempting to suggest this “he” is the poet, it seems more likely this “he” is the book itself, its poems and the “liquid-hot” language that never sits still, but also never dissolves into shapelessness, that is continuously coalescing and departing. As a result, the reader can follow these poems rather easily, and enjoy them immensely, but can only explain what just happened, not the logical gaps or jumps between instances of clarity. Put another way, after a poem the reader knows “what he’s already told himself/ Though he hasn’t understood.”
Thus does “Titivillus” begin its journey, which travels, depending on your method of counting, through about eight to eleven thoughts, images, imaginations, half-erased revelations, etc., all rendered with ease and grace. The wisdom of the journeymen offers “not a map revealing some deep/ Paternal instinct, but the spidery sketch of a child/ Fathered by wind.” Again, the poem is denied entry, as it was to the room where “beautiful voices can be heard.” It does not leave empty- handed though, but with a “spidery sketch” which propels us to an alternate reality: “Or so he sees himself/ Reflected, as a giant silkworm moth batters itself/ Against the window’s glass, wanting in.” At this point, we enter the fast-forward-quantum-leap mode so prevalent in A Brief History. The moth suggests:
there is no sanctuary, no secret
Guild—only rafters where, inside dense immobile
Shadows, he imagines the egg sacs of insects quietly
After this, the “firebrick walls give heat” before “a pair of steel wings buckled to a bench” excites and frightens the poem’s “he” by “beating out a panicked tattoo.” Here we begin to sense that though we’ve journeyed, maybe we’ve also been in one room, or mind, this whole time: “He is afraid, but calm/ Locked in the teeth of this new fascination.” The reader is with him here, knowing the fascination well, even if lost in the process of it. But as the poem ends, we can say with certainty from where the fascination emanates: “There is/ No moth, no unmeasured expanse, only endless/ Figures cast from the white-hearted lead.”
This “unmeasured expanse” containing “endless figures” comes from the mind of this poem’s “he.” And if the “he” is the poem itself, then its mind is language, or the “liquid-hot lead” now recast as “white-hearted lead.” In “Titivillus,” we are going where the language and imagination can take us, but we are also simultaneously constrained by and locked out of the mind, or room, where they are generated; we are torn by the fascination of the contradictions Hutchinson makes possible. This is only possible if the poet creates clarity of image and thought while transitioning between instances of clarity via the endless ability of language to make errors, to fudge connections, while appearing to be natural and reasonable. So we follow here, we see, but we’re not sure how we do that, how we correct the errors to create some kind of cohesion. Our only clue is that all of it—the errors, the starkly clear images, the realizations that we’ll never really know—comes from and ends in the mind of the poem, in the possibility of language, what Hopkins might well have been referring to with his “ocean of a motionable mind.”
Which brings us back to the title. According to a quick internet search, Titivillus is a figure from the Middle Ages known as “the patron demon of scribes.” Scholar Margaret Jennings refers to this character as “the recording demon.” The popular myth seems to be that Titivillus was he who caused errors in the work of scribes, although Jennings also focuses on the tendency of Titivillus to record non-clerically-approved musings, from such lowly sources as laypeople and, gasp, women. In any case, we can say that Titivillus has some role in accounting for errors in language that muddle clarity and in disrupting the ability of authority to censor speech. There is unmistakable evidence of such mischief throughout A Brief History of the Short-Lived. Makes you wonder how strongly Hutchinson considered using this as his title poem.
There is a major difference, however, in the historical role of Titivillus and Hutchinson’s role for him. Unlike those diligent scribes of old, Hutchinson is inviting Titivillus into his poems, relishing the possible havoc to be played and leaving the reader to sort things out. It’s as though Titivillus is the unnamed editor. The reader may or may not appreciate that, but this collection will take those willing to tag along on a wild, choppy ride.
That principle applies to nearly every possible level of organization: the book as a whole, the sequence as well as within the poems themselves. As far as the book as a whole goes, this collection provides an impressive array of poem types. The most prominent of these are long-lined conversational pieces that are filled with playfulness, humour and syntactically smooth, and often stunningly eloquent, passages—all of which is fragmented and dis-arranged by the demon of the scribes. Typical of these types is the title piece in which, again, an unnamed “he” moves casually from 1864—where “the Kingdom of Heavenly Peace has appeared and disappeared”—to 1977—when “wistful Bucharest/ Once again, is off the map”—to 1667—when Milton casually strides in for a moment, having just “ransomed” Paradise Lost for “resurrected sight.” From there, “he patrols the Vespers, the gloaming and/ The Middle Ages without a cigarette, guide or point of reference.” Once again, we suspect this “he” without reference is the poem itself, unmoored, but aware of where it floats. The poem’s not nearly finished yet, but know that eventually “his spree is over, his wallet empty/ But for modern forgeries of ancient counterfeits.” Forgeries! Counterfeits! So many clues that the key here is error, inaccuracy beautifully dressed, illuminated fragments of a map to the mapmaking room, full of maps to everywhere.
That’s all well and good, but no reason to read a book of poems. That reason comes in the moments when the poems settle into their images before they leap away. Take the passage below. It is a typically long, smooth sentence that manages to be crystal clear and surprising at the same time. There’s nothing amazingly notable in the prosody; its eloquence rests more in its ease and at the level of the sentence. From “Henry the Forgotten:”
He feels like falling
Into an old Dutch painting where light rays pioneer a hornbeam
Countertop to chance the rim of a servant girl’s lip.
The key to A Brief History lies in moments like this. If you are going to require your readers to jump around as much as Hutchinson does, then you’d better give them a nice place to land. And he does. Notice how efficiently he encapsulates his character’s feeling with a novel and precise description of the play of light in a painting. Light doesn’t reflect off the countertop, it “pioneer[s]” it. It does not land on the girl’s lips, it “chance[s] the rim.” The light is accidental, but Hutchinson imagines agency into it, and thereby explains both the light and his character’s wish to escape his own timeliness and to disappear into an agency of light he himself imagines into being. Light, of course, has about as much agency as does the controlling mechanism of these poems; that is, light goes places, it shines them up, but it never lasts. You could say these poems mostly just “chance the rim” of their subject matter, then quickly move on; but like that phrase itself, they chance beautifully.
While the long line constitutes the bulk of this book, they are interspersed by a few poems built in couplets, a few dealing in short lines, a handful of imagist poems all called “Representational,” and two sequences—one lyrical, the other made of tiny prose vignettes. Hutchinson’s lyrics, as you might expect, are slippery, but not totally. Take the first “Representational:”
See? A new coat of paint
makes the insides glow:
what peers out from within
the silky brochure
for a Palm Beach
says I’m Famous,
and their eyes
In this poem we move from looking into a room to looking into a brochure via a colon, which is more gap than connector, forcing the reader to fill that gap. Then we settle into one of Hutchinson’s clarity runs, which in such a short poem carries us through to the end, where an eerily de-familiarized image stares back. In another “Representational,” brevity allows the poem to capture just a brief moment, ensnaring it before it can escape a trap that might have been designed by William Carlos Williams himself. The poem in its entirety:
the cracked porcelain
of a dragonfly’s
the face of each
But brevity does not equal simplicity in A Brief History. In the “Serialist” sequence, for instance, twenty brief poems circle the “Echoing rings of self-/ location” suggested in the opening lines, which follow a George Oppen epigraph that wonders how the self could ever be supported at all. Hutchinson seems to agree. Suggestions abound and range wide, leaving the reader disoriented in the context of the sequence but grounded in the instance of the individual pieces. The effect is similar to that achieved in the longer-lined poems, but it is achieved through an alternate method of leaping between clarities. Finally, we arrive at the junction of “Pruning roses and/ ironic expression—to add/ by cutting away.” Again, Hutchinson seems to be commenting here on his poetic technique, which has been pruned to allow the reader to better view “Each thorn,” which is now “more obvious/ in the vacant spaces.” But beyond this poetic self-awareness, “Serialist” is a genuine argument for a vision of the self as de-contextualized, scattered, in parts and full of gaps.
The book ends with another sequence, “Imagio.” This sequence plays with novel form—it is labeled by chapter—while being very, very far from anything you might call a novel. It is made of tiny prose poems which are sometimes loosely connected, sometimes hardly at all. They are all, as you might expect by now, completely self-contained and clear, but the *** that separates the segments of each “chapter” might often be a canyon. You might say this is where the book becomes most itself, when its moments are most clear and when the spaces between them are most inexplicable. When, in Chapter IX, Luxembourg appears above a snow leopard, mothers “posses a killing insouciance,” and then an actress’ scenes are written “in black and white, in the back alleys of syntax,” the reader is ready, having been prepped by 80 pages of mad jumps that precede these. Then we get this to open Chapter X:
The failed chess player who breathes an oath
between a glistening pair of legs, or the strip
mall in its indefatigable emptiness—which
does the metaphor prefer?
Pertinent question, that. It brings us back to “Titivillus,” when it was the poem itself, not the poet, who possessed agency. The poet, in Hutchinson’s method, is simply offering things up to the poem, to the metaphor, to the language, to what really holds the power. You get the sense Hutchinson takes his poems into a battering storm, content to stay afloat and record what little his instruments can capture. That is not to downplay the importance of the poet, for a lesser poet in this storm would be hopeless to record anything more than desperate wailings. Hutchinson, though, is able to get limited but precise readings out of his science.
The “Epilogue” of “Imagio” hints that perhaps the poet didn’t always feel that way:
I imagined I could imagine all the doors of
all your houses opening and closing like the
valves of some sad musical instrument. But I
For once, this seems the true voice of the poet himself. It makes sense for this voice to make only one appearance if that appearance is to describe his absence through the rest. If A Brief History of the Short-Lived is any indication, Hutchinson learned his lesson, and kept himself out of this book, letting the poems steer on their own mad course. As a result, we readers receive not what is good for the poet to say, but what is good for the poem itself. We should appreciate that, because like a good therapist, Hutchinson has proven he can get the poem to speak unflinchingly its wonderfully insane possibilities. He can get the poem to tap its inner Titivillus. And the poem, it seems, would like to wander in this, our fragmented day. Thus, from “Imagio” we move back to the long-lined rhythm dominating the bulk of the book with “View From a Flag,” a beautiful poem I’d rather just urge you to read. Here we’re near James Wright territory: “the night is old,” “a furnace kicks against the wall,” there’s “light” running “across the cold/ Obscurely starlit fields.” Aside from letting us down ever-so-gently from the raucousness of what precedes it, the final poem reminds us of the range available in A Brief History of the Short-Lived. That range makes it hard to pinpoint any essence here besides multiplicity, error, or range itself. You can say this, though: in every corner of its range, this is one damn fine book.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. He’s a poetry and blog editor at The Puritan magazine, where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The Barnstormer, The Toronto Review of Books, The Toronto Quarterly, and Contemporary Verse 2. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.