“What is terrifying about happiness? / Happiness.”

It’s a line from Ishion Hutchinson’s 2016 book of poems, House of Lords and Commons, and its seeming plainspokenness is the kind exception that proves the rule of Hutchinson’s dazzling language in that book, and in his debut, Far District, published in 2010. This poet’s way with words is something like Derek Walcott’s, crossed with Christopher Smart. Or as in the title of one of his poems, “Sibelius and Marley.” A grandeur and an immediacy. That kind of range, that mix of long past with the near contemporary. And a burning urgency, fueled by a resistance to opinionating, that he seems to have learned from, among others, César Vallejo. And a fidelity to the dream of place, which seems to me one of the most important engines of his work, the source of some of its longing, the source of the wish to reconjure what can’t be seen: Hutchinson is one of the best descriptive poets working today, but it’s easy to forget this because the music of that description is anything but plain. Listen to the opening of the title poem, “Far District,” a title that evokes the familiarity and distance that seem everywhere in modern life:

When nothing existed in the district
and I walked around with knapsack and notebook,
like Adam in the garden, naming things,

a derelict at Half Way Tree Square told me
the sea is our genesis and the horizon, exodus.
I wanted to recant, ‘There is nothing here,

no visible history.’ My tongue stoned,
dried-brain, I boarded the sardine-can bus
to school. Packed in the heat, a memory …

If his poems begin in a sound in search of an image, his endings always recoil from the closure of epiphany or wisdom-bestowal. Instead, he ends with the bewildering beauty of the visceral, or the music of what is. Here’s the end of “House on the Hill,” which is partly an homage to Trakl and “his baroque / style leaning towards violence,” which leaves us suspended—floating in the mystery and the sensation of clarity, simultaneous, paradoxical, the action of brilliant language—working out the feeling of voice and death, the sensation of being haunted, but without using that or any other word that puts a finger—or a foot, if you will—on the scale of meaning:

My ears, tuned to the blue
above and below, had already captured
Trakl’s music, his taut

string of poppies, shrill-echoed,
not even her death disturbed—
only now, reading him, butterfly

furies startle from self-cursed
pages, that hill, with her chiton voice,
and beat their wings in my throat.

There’s a sheer sturdiness to Hutchinson’s stanzas. Heft and intensity whose intensity never seems heavy-handed. That’s a hard line to walk. The grace of his lines obscures that fact, just as the sturdiness of these stanzas plays brilliantly against the subtlety and fineness of Hutchinson’s sensibility.

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JESSE NATHAN: How does the poem find its way to its final form? You talked about how the poem “Far District” started out as blank verse, then became tercets. How do you find your forms?

ISHION HUTCHINSON: When it comes down to it, form, like style, is a matter of faith. In terms of this longish poem, the initiating impulse was to create a “bildung” narrative—which makes sense since the poem’s major concern is the education of the speaker and so it traces his journeys, both literal and figurative, inside and outside of school. I had in mind that image narrative, if you will, of a boy moving through his known world and finding it strange. The blank verse seemed right for that act of meditating or mediating between such a liminal space. But as the poem grew, the narrative became more episodic, fragmentary, chaotic even, and seemingly resistant to the blank verse form, despite the heavily enjambed lines I had already accumulated in the initial draft. This is fairly consistent in the kinds of poems I write, even now, in that what usually emerges out of the writing process is a sequence or series. As I continued drafting “Far District,” the fragments began to isolate themselves into three liners. I don’t think there was any grand epiphany when that happened. It happened and the tercet form took over. I felt lucky that I had found a way to aerate the propulsive narrative drive of the poem with a form that itself is steeped in the history, at least going back to Dante’s commedia, of the unevenness of a spiritual quest or journey.

But before I settled on tercet, other stanza forms emerged. I guess I approach form from the Keatsian idea of poetry as something which surprises by a fine excess and not by singularity. So for me the excess is important. It’s where the raw material exists in the first place, the unwieldy, prosaic mush the poet tempers into lyric compression, into something with a sharper edge. The tercets, finally, held that tempering, if I can put it that way, for what I wanted. I grew up hearing stories, and love being immersed in a narrative, something that feels fulsome in its unity of beginning, middle, and end. I think that instinct is natural to my own writing, in that a sort of narrative suggestion is always a present overtone in the lyric form, so narrative—in terms of storytelling—is not what I am most interested in or striving for in a poem. I want, for the poem to be effective, harmonics, a pattern in which words are interacting with each other and crystalized into an irreducible and memorable event, which goes beyond the experience of the poem being a finished thing.

JN: Well, let me ask you about that finish. It seems like you make poems that want the reader to feel a texture, an artifice, in the language, and I’m curious. Why do you think you’re drawn to texture?

IH: I’m drawn to it the way I’m drawn to an individual human being. And we’re all different, speaking superficially, just on the level of physique. We’re drawn to the way things look, and even if we’re not in touch, we might imagine or even desire to know what that might feel like. A poem is similar in that regard, in that as a reader I experience it as a tactile reality. Therefore, when I encounter an article in a line of a poem, that article has a special, felt identity and isn’t a mere function of grammar; it’s doing a certain kind of revelatory work, which matters to the life of that line, rhythmically, yes, but when a poet decides to say “a” and not “the” or vice a versa, the poet seals something inaudible, perhaps even ineffable in the texture of that line, not unlike a single cell in our DNA which makes us different and unique.

Let me stretch that idea further in another direction. I think a lot about where I grew up, in front of the sea in Port Antonio, Jamaica, and how the shade of the water, depending on the light, changes. This might seem obvious or commonplace, but to the untrained eye, the color might appear to be one particular shade of blue, or aquamarine, or some other stable adjective to fix that color, but when you know it, when you have lived long in front of the sea and can recognize the different slight ways that the light works off the water to make the color much more dynamic, than one description—blue, aquamarine, or whatever the case might be—isn’t enough. You’re confronted with a multiplicity of subtle mercurial textures and sensations, which put your language under duress to respond adequately, in the first instance, and in another instance, with the fresh expressive force animating good poetry. Doing so demands rigor of attentiveness and creating a trust of intimacy, a felt connection. I think doing so is bound up with an instinct towards survival. I’d say that that instinct is in all poetic forms, a building of the faith necessary to be remembered; and what is that but not a bid for survival?

I mean the whole history of poetry or literature in general, seems to me to come down to the ways that textual differences, that the felt differences in texts for each poem or piece of writing, are a reminder of the single human life that is behind its making, hoping to survive in the mouth of a future reader after that life has passed on.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.