Brick Dust in my Wine: Chris Hutchinson’s A Brief History of the Short-Lived

One way to approach a book of poems is to read it as a collection of evocative lines. Take, for instance, “Then your thought becomes a paper flower / Unfolded by an artless whim / And crumpled up by worrying neuroses / And planted in the heart of reason.” This is a pleasing passage, both rhythmically and intellectually: metaphor and sound working in tandem. An aesthetic akin to surrealism is at work in Hutchinson’s latest collection, and there is a tip-of-the-hat to other poets influenced by surrealism as well with a quotation from Frank O’Hara and a reference to Lorca who “drives into the creature-stew of the valley’s smog / where palmettos with squid-like hats / stand swarming the desert’s shoulders.” In places Hutchinson attempts to manifest line after line of unusual images. While his word-vortex is evocative at times (“Her fingertips, soft as leeches / stroking his white face”), at other times the lines, though still successful, could use a bit of pruning: “One tree… Its green luminescence lives only in the minds / Of its inhabitant birds, sparrows and jays whose / Throats convert the tree’s energy into a thrum / Of hallelujahs.”

Hutchinson’s book asks big questions about the nature of art. There are many references to Art throughout the book, and with titles like “Falling Through a Description,” and a broken sequence called “Representational,” it is clear that questions about representation are central. At times, when Hutchinson’s underbrush of images is a bit too thick, I wonder if obfuscation is the poet’s intent. Much of the strangeness succeeds: “Crickets have cursed the summer out / and unstitched each sequined consonant // from its vowel.” But I’m less sure here: “A shimmer of nerves waylaid by feasting. / Tiny chimes of dust seasoning his tissues.” I believe his consonants have sequins but am less sure that his dust chimes. Believability is hard to quantify. When attempting to discover meaning (or pleasure) from obscure lines of verse, the question arises: does the effort pay off? The thing about Lorca is that we believe him. His poems feel emotionally invested. O’Hara’s combination of brevity and swagger results in readerly bliss.

What interests Hutchinson are the gaps between the written word and experience: in “Representational” he writes, “It’s cold. What exits / beyond sensory data?” Indeed, what does exist beyond our knowing? Or is knowing all that exists? Fodder for poets and philosophers through the ages. Consider, “My pen dissolving / upon contact with the page” (mind the gap between pen and page); “the page knowing nothing of breath” (again, mind the gap); “the immaterial / stuff of attention” (again—careful—a gap). Good poems breed gaps. Or perhaps gaps breed poems. Regardless, the imagination lives in the gaps when a poem sets out to remind us of the ineffable nature of existence (read, beauty). Sometimes, though, to reach that vague land of beauty, one needs to hear the smack of concrete. Again, think O’Hara. Hutchinson gestures to the unsayable, but we are stuck with the brick and mortar of language. To quote a wine critic, I want “to taste a little more brick dust.” Or to quote Hutchinson “so while Sisyphus / dreams of carting a feather away / in a half-ton truck, we must seek / to ream the citrus from the fruit.”


Paul Tyler’s book A Short History of Forgetting (Gaspereau Press) won the 2011 Archibald Lampman award, and his poem “Mr. Doom” appeared in Arc’s children’s poetry issue. He lives in Ottawa.


Arc: an evocative collection of poems

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