House of Lords and Commons

House of Lords and Commons

by Ishion Hutchinson


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A stunning collection that traverses the borders of culture and time, from the 2011 winner of the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award

In House of Lords and Commons, the revelatory and vital new collection of poems from the winner of the 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award in poetry, Ishion Hutchinson returns to the difficult beauty of the Jamaican landscape with remarkable lyric precision. Here, the poet holds his world in full focus but at an astonishing angle: from the violence of the seventeenth-century English Civil War as refracted through a mythic sea wanderer, right down to the dark interior of love.

These poems arrange the contemporary continuum of home and abroad into a wonderment of cracked narrative sequences and tumultuous personae. With ears tuned to the vernacular, the collection vividly binds us to what is terrifying about happiness, loss, and the lure of the sea. House of Lords and Commons testifies to the particular courage it takes to wade unsettled, uncertain, and unfettered in the wake of our shared human experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374173029
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His poetry collection Far District (2010) won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and House of Lords and Commons (2016) won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. Other honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner journal, and the Academy of American Poets’ Larry Levis Prize. He is an assistant professor of English at Cornell University.

Read an Excerpt

House of Lords and Commons


By Ishion Hutchinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Ishion Hutchinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71454-3



    The train station is a cemetery.
    Drunk with spirits, a man enters. I fan gnats
    from my eyes to see into his face. "Father!"
    I shout and stumble. He does not budge.
    After thirteen years, neither snow nor train,
    only a few letters, and twice, from a cell,
    his hoarfrost accent crossed the Atlantic.
    His mask slips a moment as in childhood,
    pure departure, a gesture of smoke.

    Along freighted crowds the city punished,
    picking faces in the thick nest of morning's
    hard light that struck raw and stupid,
    searching, and in the dribble of night commuters,
    I have never found him, wandering the almond
    trees' shadows, since a virus disheartened
    the palms' blossoms and mother gave me the sheaves
    in her purse so he would remember her
    and then shaved her head to a nut.

    I talk fast of her in one of my Cerberus
    voices, but he laughs, shaking the scales
    of froth on his coat. 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.


    The rumour broke first in Duckenfield.
    Fitzy dropped the shutters of his rum shop.
    By the time it got to Dalvey there were three suicides.
    The mechanic in Cheswick heard and gave his woman
    a fine trashing; but, to her credit, she nearly scratched his heart
    out his chest during the howl and leather smithing.

    The betting shops and the whorehouse Daylights
    at Golden Grove were empty; it was brutal
    to see the women with their hands at their jaws on the terrace;
    seeing them you know the rumour was not rumour,
    the rumour was gospel: the cane cutters did not get their salary.

    Better to crucify Christ again.
    Slaughter newborns, strike down the cattle,
    but to make a man not have money in his pocket on a payday
    Friday was abomination itself; worse cane cutters,
    who filed their spines against the sun, bringing down great walls of cane.
    You'd shudder to see them, barebacked men, bent kissing
    the earth, so to slash away the roots of the canes;
    every year the same men, different cane, and when different men,
    the same cane: the cane they cannot kill, living for this one day

    of respite when they'd straighten themselves to pillars
    and drop dollars on counters and act like Daylights is a suite
    at the Ritz and the devastating beauty queens with their gaulin
    fragile attention gave them forever to live in a tickle, the whetted
    canepiece, this one day, forgotten in a whore's laugh.

    Suddenly these men filled Hampton Court square
    demanding the foreman's head.
    They were thirsty for blood and for rum.
    Fitzy stayed hidden in his shop behind the shutters.
    He heard one man say it was not the foreman's head they should get,
    that would not be wise.
    The man continued: it must be fire for fire;
    the factory must be burnt down.

    But the men murmured. They were afraid.
    Someone made a joke, they roared,
    and soon they were saying fire can't buy rum,
    they were roaring money, then rum, pounding Fitzy's shutter,
    shouting his name for him to set them on fire.

    They grew hoarse against the shutters.
    The sun had taken all motion out of their voices.
    Fitzy could hear them through the zinc,
    like dogs about to die, cried-out children, that dry rustle
    you hear after the crop is torched and the wind bristles the ashes.
    No men were out there. Only a shirring noise.

    That was when Fitzy opened the shutters.
    Their red eyes in charcoal suits looked up at him,
    and with an overseer's scorn, he nodded them in.



    Standing in this motorcade of rusting
    ideas, you sighed: non serviam. What for?
    If they can jail the sea, draw borders
    with their San San, Grand Lido and Hilton,
    what would they do to your cumulus head
    and the wobbling knots you go around on?

    Everything ripens in the road —
    a mouth shines the mic, pomade-melting
    words, a dark-glassed savant imploding
    through his tight collar, words, words, yes!
    a flurry of bell beats; they hammer rings
    of pot covers and lift scarlet banners
    towards the sky; electric wires stretch
    three vicious scrawls into the day.

    You turn, old man, from the crowd,
    deep in its frenzied coal pot, visibly
    shaken when speakers command the trucks,
    and they rumble forward, legions,
    a spectral army, or animals, despoiled
    of reason.

      You will not serve, not here,
    not even among the quiet asphodels.


    That red bicycle left in an alley near the Ponte Vecchio,
    I claim; I claim its elongated shadow, ship crested on
    stacked crates; I claim the sour-mouth Arno and the stone
    arch bending sunlight on vanished medieval fairs;
    but mostly I claim this two-wheel chariot vetching
    on the wall, its sickle fenders reaping dust and pollen
    off the heat-congested city coiled to a halt in traffic.
    And I, without enough for the great museums,
    am struck by the red on the weathered brick, new tyres
    on cobble, the bronze tulip bell — smaller than Venus's nose —
    turned up against the river, completely itself for itself.
    The scar in my palm throbs, recalling a tiny stone
    once stuck there after I fell off the district's iron mule,
    welded by the local artisan, Barrel Mouth — no relation
    of Botticelli — the summer of my first long pants.
    The doctor's scissors probing my flesh didn't hurt,
    nor the lifeline bust open when the stone was plucked out;
    what I wailed for that afternoon was the anger in mother's
    face when she found out I had disobeyed her simple wish
    to remain indoors until she returned from kneeling
    in the harvested cane, tearing out the charred roots
    from the earth after cane cutters had slashed the burnt field.
    It was her first day, and her last, bowing so low to pull
    enough for my school fee; for, again, the promised money
    didn't fall from my father's cold heaven in England.
    As we walked to the clinic on a rabble of hogplums,
    her mouth trembled in her soot frock, my palm reddened
    in her grip, plum scent taking us through the lane.
    By the time we saw the hospital's rusty gate, her fist
    was stained to my fingers' curl, and when I unfastened
    my eyes from the ground to her face, gazing ahead, terribly calm
    in the hail of sunlight, a yellow shawl around her head,
    something of shame became clear, and if I had more
    sense as my blood darkened to sorrel at the age
    of twelve or thirteen, I would have forgotten the sting
    and wreathed tighter my hold before letting her go.
    And now, as I raise my camera, bells charge the pigeon
    sky braced by the Duomo, a shell fallen from the sun.
    I kneel, snap the cycle, rise, hurry away.


    All the dead eyes of the dead
    on portraits behind her looked
    down as she ate donuts off
    a cloth napkin, her mouth
    sugared. I saw myself possessed
    by myself in her glasses' milky
    lens that possessed the globe
    on her desk, a Quaker gift the former
    principal, dead but not yet
    a portrait, left with Africa
    spun towards us. She swallowed,
    then asked why was I here.
    I told her, for intimations.

    She stopped mid-chew, surplice
    of sugar danced at the down
    curl of her lips. She said Excuse me.
    I continued: for immortality.

    She looked with cow-out-of-pasture
    concern, the others' eyes scalded
    through me, the clock fell
    silent though the second hand
    wheeled around the white face.
    For my freshness, she said,
    You must be punished:
    you must go out to the cemetery
    by the chapel, write down
    every last living name off
    the tombstones before she arrived.

    No problem, I knew the dead.
    I was well off with their names.
    But, she asked, a fresh donut
    christened the napkin, if I am clear
    why she has done this,
    why she must punish me.

    The portraits drew one breath.
    I began: for my rejection
    of things past,
    because, for my life, the green graves
    by the chapel puzzle me
    and the sea outside our classroom,
    those ships no one else sees,
    humming, humming
    their frail sails, join us,
    though I don't know who us is.
    She rose, utterly black;
    I retreated, she filed
    past the cabinet,
    upset the globe;
    I whirled out
    the door; there
    cliffs and clouds,
    the dark manchineel
    blinding the path
    I bolted down,
    hardly believing
    my legs running
    and leaping
    above ground,
    straight down
    Hector's River
    sea-road, flanked
    by the hushed,
    breaking sea.


    After the hurricane walks a silence, deranged, white as the white helmets
    of government surveyors looking into roofless

    shacks, accessing stunned fowls, noting inquiries
    into the logic of feathers, reversed, like gullies still retching; they scribble facts

    about fallen cedars, spread out like dead generals on leaf
    medallions; they draw tables to show the shore

    has rearranged its idea of beauty for the resort
    villas, miraculously not rattled by the hurricane's —

    call it Cyclops — passage through the lives
    of children and pigs, the one eye that unhooked

    banjos from the hills, smashed them in Rio Valley;
    they record how it howled off to that dark parish

    St. Thomas, stomping drunk with wire lashes and cramps,
    paralyzing electric poles and coconut trees,

    dishing discord among neighbours, exposed,
    standing among their flattened, scattered lives for the first time.

    It passed through Aunt May's head, upsetting
    the furniture, left her chattering something,

    a cross between a fowl and a child; they can't say
    how it tore down her senses, no words, packing

    their instruments, flies returning to genuflect
    at their knees, on Aunt May's face, gone soft;

    no words, except: Don't fret, driving off,
    as if they had left better promises to come.


    Lesson of the day: Syria and Styria.
    For Syria, read: His conquering banner shook from Syria.
    And for Styria: Look at this harp of blood, mapping.

    Now I am tuned. I am going to go above
    my voice for the sake of the forest shaken
    on the bitumen. You can see stars in the skulls,

    winking, synapses, intermittent, on edge
    of shriek — perhaps a cluster of fir, birches? —
    Anyway. Don't get too hung up

    on the terms; they have entropy
    in common, bad for the public weal,
    those obtuse centurions in the flare

    of the bougainvillea, their patent-seeking
    gift kindled. Divers speech. Cruelty.
    Justice. Never mind, but do

    pay attention to the skirmish — the white
    panther that flitters up the pole —
    its shade grows large on the ground.


    The streetlights shed pearls that night,
    stray dogs ran but did not bark at the strange
    shadows; the Minister of All could not sleep,
    mosquitoes swarmed around his net,
    his portrait and his pitcher and drinking glass;
    the flags stiffened on the embassy building but
    did not fall when the machine guns
    flared and reminded that stars were inside
    the decrepit towns, in shanty-zinc holes,
    staring at the fixed constellation; another
    asthmatic whirl of pistons passed,
    the chandelier fell, the carpet sparkled,
    flames burst into the lantana bushes, the stone
    horse whinnied by the bank's marble entrance,
    three large cranes with searchlights lit
    the poincianas, a quiet flamboyance, struck
    with the fever of children's laughter;
    then, all at once, the cabbage palms
    and the bull-hoof trees shut their fans,
    the harbour grew empty and heavy,
    the sea was sick and exhausted, the royal
    palms did not salute when the jeeps roamed
    up the driveway and circled the fountain,
    the blue mahoe did not bow and the lignum
    vitae shed purple bugles but did not
    surrender, the homeless did not run, but the dead
    flew in a silver stream that night, their silk
    hair thundered and their heels crushed
    the bissy nuts and ceramic roofs;
    the night had the scent of cut grass
    sprayed with poison, the night smelled
    of bullets, the moon did not hide,
    the prisoners prayed in their bunkers,
    the baby drank milk while its mother slept,
    and by the window its father
    could not part the curtains.


    They talk oil in heavy jackets and plaid over
    their coffee, they talk Texas and the north cold,

    but mostly oil and Obama, voices dipping
    vexed and then they talk Egypt failing,

    Greek broken and it takes cash for France not
    charity and I rather speak Russia than Ukraine

    one says in rubles, than whatever, whatever
    the trouble, because there is sea and gold,

    a tunnel, wherever right now, an-anyhow-Belarus,
    oh, I will show you something, conspiring

    coins, this one, China, and they marvel,
    their minds hatched crosses, a frontier

    zeroed not by voyage or pipeline nor the milk
    foam of God, no, not the gutsy weather they talk

    frizzled, the abomination worsening
    opulence to squalor, never the inverse.



    By the shadowless lion-bluff of Pigeon
    Island, you have gone swimming, a clear
    afternoon, children's faint play noises ring
    in the yard by the hyphened church school near
    century-old cafés, one with a zinc fence signed in comic
    scythes your sides with laughter, but they vanish
    near the beach stretch, the piratical hoteliers'
    paradise, a white army of luxury boats idled,
    processional, waiting for a flare to blow
    and ignite another plantation, without Bible
    or chain, just the PM's handshake and bow.
    You ignore them for your first immersion.
    The blue water whitens and collects you in its salt mine.


    Aw, viejo, so this is the chessboard you wrote
    about, as by sleight, an emerald, patient army
    poised for your command, a voice without
    force to crack the terra-cotta quiet, steadily
    erect between two flailing lives; memory
    and this, the present, advancing only down,
    the body's tower rattled by what it carries:
    diabetes and your gift, the mighty, unscathed morne.
    We will not mourn at the bishop's speech
    that day, not when he crosses himself twice, an X;
    we will be like the breakers on the beach
    at Cas-en-Bas, mute with rage, serenely vexed
    that your life is not a chess game, played again
    in the shade, with other shades, companions
    literature, not language, has made aware
    of the others' ignorance, shifting in time.


Excerpted from House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson. Copyright © 2016 Ishion Hutchinson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Fitzy and the Revolution,
Bicycle Eclogue,
After the Hurricane,
A March,
The Garden,
The Difference,
A Farther Shore,
Homage: Vallejo,
The Ark by "Scratch",
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,
A Burnt Ship,
October's Levant,
Moved by the Beauty of Trees,
Sibelius and Marley,
The Wanderer,
Marking in Venice,
Girl at Christmas,
The Lords and Commons of Summer,
Small Fantasia: Light Years,
Mr. Killdeer's Cold Comfort,
Singing School Valediction,
After Pompeii,
Trouble on the Road Again,
The Orator,
Reading Late: Anabasis,
The Night Autobiographies of Leopold Dice,
Second Return,
The Small Dark Interior,

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