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1 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

Loaded with ore: poets Ishion Hutchinson and Leontia Flynn grapple with history, heritage and literary tradition

Although very different poets, Hutchinson and Flynn have each written books that ask difficult questions about lineage.

By Paul Batchelor

Although very different poets, Ishion Hutchinson and Leontia Flynn have each written books that ask difficult questions about lineage – both in terms of their own families, and the poetic traditions in which they situate their work. House of Lords and Commons, Hutchinson’s second collection, opens with “Station”, and an encounter with a man who may or may not be the poet’s estranged father:

The station’s cold
cracks a hysterical congregation;
his eyes flash little obelisks that chase
      the spirits
out, and, without them, wavering, I see
nothing like me. Stranger, father, cackling
rat, who am I transfixed at the bottom
of the station? Pure echo in the train’s
beam arriving on its cold nerve of iron.

This stand-off is not resolved until the final poem in the book, when the father suddenly reappears; in between, poems crackle with tension, threatening to burst with subtle and not-so-subtle effects. Consider, in the lines quoted above, the opening cymbal crash of harsh “ck” sounds, and the way that swiftly moving third line throws you into the stumbling rhythm of the fourth… These poems demand to be read aloud: we need to hear, literally, how musical effects clarify, and how Hutchinson’s syntax achieves or refuses resolution.

Hutchinson’s first book, Far District (2010), was an accomplished debut, but something exciting has happened: everything seems to have grown louder, faster, more magnificent. Other artists – Geoffrey Hill, César Vallejo, Lee “Scratch” Perry – are invoked not by discreet allusion but by direct quotation, or else they have a poem addressed to them. Hutchinson’s appetite for formal challenge is voracious, from single-sentence poems (“A Burnt Ship”) and narratives (“Pierre”, a childhood anecdote about favouritism and privilege, told with wry restraint), to hallucinatory character studies like “The Night Autobiographies of Leopold Dice” and unexpected moments of lyric calm such as “Moved by the Beauty of Trees”. These disparate poems are united by their wildly unpredictable diction and a sense of restless momentum.

“The Wanderer” is one of the collection’s highlights:

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I can tell you this, boy,
history is that rusty anchor holding no
      ship in the bay;

it’s mineral, natural as colonies of polyps
      in the reef.
I am no paragon of science; I am a drifter,
      a sea swift
some poet once used to make a crest in
      Time. Thunder

rifts the grain of his epochs, spinning
      Cortés from quartz,
repeating Pizarro along with all the
      names that depopulated
the trees of parrots and stuck a yellow
      disease in the sand.

History is ever-present, but hidden – manifest as the felt absence of “no ship in the bay” – and the tone swoops from that ambiguous “boy” (affectionate or imperious?), to the richly ironic “natural as colonies”, to the witty play on Cortés/quartz, to the matter-of-fact “stuck a yellow disease in the sand”. The echo of Keats’s famous advice to Shelley to “be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore” is apposite: it’s advice that Hutchinson has taken to heart. House of Lords and Commons is a work of thrilling, tumultuous ambition.

As its title suggests, The Radio, Leontia Flynn’s fourth collection, is concerned with attempts at communication and understanding, often in circumstances where a full dialogue is impossible. The two title poems are both vivid, touching, unsentimental portraits of the poet’s mother, who is remembered as “small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant… high-pitched and steely”. Flynn is less sympathetic towards her child-self and her siblings:

that former urgent Lilliputian tribe
who swarmed about her – importuning
      love! –
have quit their attentions, suddenly, and
      strolled off
like bullies bored, and lean and loaf about
sullenly misremembering babyhood.

One reason for this changed perspective is that Flynn is now a mother herself. In “Yellow Lullaby” she remembers, “Every time my daughter cried, I came/barrelling out like some semi-deranged/trainee barista…” Flynn has a finely tuned ability to register large and small changes in circumstance, and she expresses the new perceptions and understandings that they unlock with ruthless clarity.

The quality of ruthlessness is especially evident in Flynn’s three hilarious translations of Catullus – she enjoys puncturing pretension as much as her Roman forebear did, and her acerbic, pithy style is tonally closer to the original than many translators get. It’s hard to resist a line such as “I can’t say I love you more than, like, my kidneys”, which opens “after Catullus 11” (though the poem is in fact after Catullus 14). Elsewhere, a line that the 19th-century translator Leonard C Smithers rendered as “Unhappy Catullus, cease your trifling and what you see lost, know to be lost” becomes, in Flynn’s version, “Give it up, moron”.

A more serious-minded reckoning with an antecedent can be found in “August 30th 2013”, an elegy for Seamus Heaney that begins as a respectful eulogy for the poet and all that he stood for, and then seems to be moving towards an admonishment of the ethos of more recent poetry, which Flynn characterises, cruelly but not unjustly, as “crowd-sourced and quantified” and “spurred by the age’s itchy self-promotion” – before executing a sudden turn: “But this is my idiom”. And so, mindful of “the Goddess Dullness squatting on our pages” (referred to elsewhere as the “daily meh”), Flynn breathes the new life of an entirely contemporary voice into a seemingly traditional stanzaic structure. That the elegy is not “Heaneyesque” in style testifies both to the generosity of Heaney’s example and to the sureness of Flynn’s talent. 

House of Lords and Commons
Ishion Hutchinson
Faber & Faber, 68pp, £12.99

The Radio
Leontia Flynn
Jonathan Cape, 64pp, £10

Paul Batchelor is a poet and editor of “Reading Barry MacSweeney” (Bloodaxe).

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This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum