The World As Is: New & Selected Poems 1972-2015
Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor
Currently serving as Poet Laureate of Colorado, Joseph Hutchison has fifteen volumes of poetry to his credit, so this sixteenth collection, a substantial, 264-page gathering of his work from 1972 to 2015, is certainly due, if not past due. Hutchison has been quoted as saying that he prefers to write in accessible language with layered meanings, and a reading of The World As Is confirms that assertion.
What Hutchison does best is render stunning imagery crafted from plain words. A prime example is his “At Willamette National Cemetery,” an eloquent tribute to his father, a deceased veteran.
The symmetry of this cemetery—
even in death
strictly formationed, at
supine attention. Gray
granite plaques flat
in the drenched grass.
Of course, we cannot always assume that the “I” in the poem is the author, but in this case, it seems so. The speaker in the poem goes on to say that he would have preferred an upright tombstone, but thought his modest father would be pleased with the stone laid flat.
Another poem representative of Hutchison’s style is “The Gulf,” a lament for the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill in 2010. Here, he harnesses his prodigious gift of imagery in support of an environmental cause:
The heron sails low over the grassy marsh,
legs stockinged up to the knee-joints in crude,
nowhere to land that isn’t poison, nowhere
to stand and snap up a clean fish or two.
Later, the poet shifts attention away from the heron to now-idle fisherman whose “Company contracts ban them / from talking to the media…” and who “crouch to wipe oil / off the long leaves of grass.” Like any good poet, Hutchison never states directly “the fishermen are sad” but shows us an image from which we infer they are sad. Hutchison’s skill extends to a level from which he is capable of making complex political arguments through imagery, with a minimum of rhetoric or none at all. The pictures do the talking for him.
In “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a political satire, the clown car stalls in the center ring of the circus. Inside the car, we find
…a motley gaggle of eager
Armageddonites, ex-CIA think tankers,
talk radio megastars, flaks for Big Oil—
all playing rock, paper, scissors. The victor
gets to clamber out and take the first crack
at deceiving the crowd.
In a way, it’s a shame this book was finished before the recent presidential election. Hutchison would have feasted on it like a shark in a feeding frenzy. But maybe he’s already working on that, for his next book.
This collection is by no means limited to political poems. Over the course of his career to date, Hutchison seems to have covered almost every subject under the sun, and they’re all here in this volume—confessional poems, love, marriage, divorce, children, infidelity, death, sorrow, personal loss, and even a series of haiku—something for virtually every taste and interest, but with the caveat that all these poems are from a decidedly masculine (though not “macho”) point of view.
This is not to say that the author is insensitive to women, only that he does not presume to represent them. One possible exception, however, is found in “The Other Life,” a poem in which the speaker passes time with a quiet, attractive, untalkative woman, and wistfully tries to imagine what she would say if she did talk.
And the moon, magnified, keeps
rising, half-hidden by clouds,
at first smoky copper,
then bronze, then white gold.
Now the cloudbank’s edges shine;
inside, its brilliance flashes.
She looks me in the eyes,
about to speak.
Another woman, much younger, probably in her teens, is the central character in “Greeley, Colorado: Sunday Evening Scene” in which a working-class family dines at a pizza joint. The poet, struck by the character’s good looks and attempts to act sophisticated (typical teenager, right?), describes her as follows:
Well, that girl
Had class. She ate pizza
With her pinkie stuck out like
Signaling for a turn and all the time
Dousing those fiery
Italian spices with her ice-cold
Remember standing under
The green and white awning, watching
That small town Aphrodite hop
Into the back of a blue
Pickup truck to be carried
West on highway thirty-four
With her legs dangling from the tailgate.
An even younger female is the focus of the first poem in the book, “Crayoned Rainbow,” the title a reference to an artistic work done by his daughter Susi when she was three. The poem is dated thirty years later, so add “memoir poem” to the list of poem types mentioned earlier. The father and daughter dialog ranges across the “what’s this?” and “what’s that?” expanse of the drawing. The author reacts to the child’s answers in that way in which fathers react when their children show unexpectedly superior imagination and intelligence, as they often do, before they are corrupted by education.
I admit: sometimes
wonder takes me,
and I see she’s a miracle
happening in secret—
the way mist-laden air
unlocks the colors
occulted in sunlight,
lofting them up
over the Earth,
above our heads—
as her sketch explains.
In such a wide-ranging collection, spanning five decades, we might reasonably expect to find significant if not radical change from the earlier poems to the later works. Such is the case with Adrienne Rich, for example, whose writing morphed from formal to free verse, and from politically neutral to feminist, over the course of her career. Hutchison, however, seems to have found his poetic voice early and stuck with it. Based on the consistent style and quality of the poems in this edition, his writing appears not to have changed radically with time, though his choice of subject matter has varied, sometimes correlating to his personal stages in life and sometimes in reaction to the political and cultural winds blowing through each era. The World As Is offers a worthy sampler of a distinguished poetic career which, fortunately for readers, is not over.