Berkeley Talks transcript: Poet Ishion Hutchinson reads 'The Mud Sermon' and other poems

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #179: Poet Ishion Hutchinson reads 'The Mud Sermon' and other poems.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Noah Warren: Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to the year's last Lunch Poems. Amazingly, it's flown past. Thank you all for ... And we hope to preemptively see you in the fall again. But it's your participation, your attendance has made it a remarkable season. Thank you for your forbearance, and being here and supporting us.

We're very lucky today to welcome Ishion Hutchinson to close us out. Before we get going, I'll ask you to silence your cell phones if they're not, and I want to extend our thanks as always to the Berkeley Library, whose support makes this all possible, especially Amber and our student workers. To Callie from Pegasus Books, who has Ishion's most recent collection for sale over there, also, of course. Thank you, Callie. Support the poet, support the bookstore. And to Poets and Writers, who is, in part, co-sponsoring this event today.

For me, to read Ishion Hutchinson's poems is to wander through a text whose intricacies may at first elude me, to snag on an edge of beauty, to read again. It is to let my ear be guided by the rise and fall of meters before the eye catches up, and so to hear the formal dignity of sense made before I am able to quite parse the syntax. Hearing the poems aloud, I seem to enter as an active participant into the sensory welter of Jamaican place, the pain of serious thought, and the shattered forest of elegy. What Hutchinson has said of Milton, Milton's restless serious grammar, applies beautifully to his own verse. Hutchinson wrote, "Instead of finding yourself outside, you find yourself within the language, in a rousing wave that riles and delivers on a layered plateau. You're never safely one place or the other."

When he speaks about being between places, I hear an echo of what I understand to be Hutchinson's own position. A quote such as this helps me see the instability that backdrops the masterful solidity of Hutchinson's formal music. Both that flux and solidity come through in the title poem of his forthcoming collection, The Mariner's Progress, which stages a journey through the alien grandeur of the English tradition, a journey as charmed and surreal as the ancient mariners to which it alludes. In the poem, bladed lines of Jamaican sugar cane blur into the lines of poetry that define the speaker so entirely that he, "seems to himself a broad, Antillean echo, lost in the marrow wings of a pelican or an albatross cloud remnant, tasseled low flyer beneath the radar of the wind."

I hear how the anxiety in echo or remnant, how the bird scene morphs into the literary bird, the albatross. And yet how the speaker's sheer eloquence keeps at once dispelling these concerns even as each new word remembers others' speech. It may be that in poetry, we can, unlike in life, choose to a degree our ancestors. If so, Hutchinson carries forward voices from Homer to Homeros that sing of underworld descents, forsaken armies, homeless mariners. Commanding that deracinated tradition so powerfully, he makes of its weightless materials a sturdy home.

But one can't live only among shadows. The opposite. I find Hutchinson's work so powerful because of the webs of literary reference which lead the poems abroad, are balanced by the deep gravity of the home one can't choose or make, the Jamaican lives and landscape that are his recurrent subjects. And it seems to me that the gap between these culturally disenfranchised subjects and the high style Hutchinson so often elevates them into is the source of much of his poetry's pathos.

I hear this in the title for instance, of House of Lords and Commons, not Houses of Lords and Commons, so singular, which collapses the two distinct hierarchies Lords, Commons into one. It doesn't refuse the binary, it doesn't deny that Lords and Commons, but rather, erasing a single letter twists the language to bring the two terms into close destabilizing proximity.

In Hutchinson's hands, the spirit of inclusion in the ennoblement that comes from intoning common lives in the language of lords is a twilight gesture. This book is a work of almost universal elegy. And its acts of naming are also acts of interment. Fitzy, J. Maxwell, Barrel Mouth, Aunt May, Pierre Powell, Principal William, Ms. Rose, Pete, Mr. Kildeer, Leopold Dice, Isabelle Garcia, Sweet May. Sometimes we know these people's life stories, but more often we don't. Just as sometimes Hutchinson's winding syntax guides us and sometimes evades.

In both cases, the linguistic sharpness and the tonal tenderness reassure us even when we can't follow, and we recognize at the border of sound and sense what we can know and what we don't need to. We mourn these people even as we respect their privacy, their right to opacity. Ishion Hutchinson is the author of four books of poetry and a forthcoming book of prose, all from FSG and Faber. He is the recipient of the Brodsky Rome Prize, of the Windham-Campbell Award, and the National Books Critics Circle Award. Forthcoming soonest, are School of Instruction, this fall, Fugitive Tilts the year after, a book of prose, and Mariner's Progress, '25, I believe. An honor to welcome, Ishion Hutchinson.

Ishion Hutchinson: Good afternoon. Can you hear me? Thank you, Noah. It's actually weird to say, "Good afternoon." Now I see it. You do come to a Lunch Poem to be here at lunchtime to listen to poems. Yeah, you have to see it to believe it. Thank you for that very generous introduction, Noah.

I was listening and sinking more and more into my sofa chair because it sounds like a very grave and serious young man. I'm trying to recognize him but I believe it is certainly the case that I take this voyage into poetry very seriously, and take none of it for granted, because of the weight of history, both growing up in Jamaica and knowing the violent history that comes with that. But also the violence, too, of canon, and seeing that my work as a poet, in part, is to figure out what sort of emancipatory forces I should summon. Luckily, I stand in great shoulders within the Caribbean tradition of many poets and writers that I admire, and envy, and wish they hadn't been born. Don't tell them that. This isn't recorded, of course.

I'll read the title poem of the collection, the House of Lords and Commons. And the poem is titled "The Lords and Commons of Summer." I should tell you that summer here should be a pun on Sumer, that Babylonian city and civilization. When I told a friend of mine that's what I was thinking about, he outright laughed at me, and we're no longer friends. I thought it was such a nice play on word summer, Sumer.


I circled half-mad a dead azalea scent that framed
my room; I licked anointed oil off a sardine tin,

opened Being and Time, perplexed myself, then picked up
and blew a clay bird whistle, silence came scratching,

the same way it did at the funeral of Heidegger,
when no silence came.


When my boy-self played séance in the Spanish
needles, havocking the bees, their bronze staining

my shanks, rain pistils sprung out of the earth and buried
glass splinters under my clothesline. Vivaldi and tangerine

below the early winter moon minting its double
over the city axled down in the buried sea's lilac

silver trimming my window wick with the fierce,
fast and low rustle of lions out of a russeted ice floe.


A furnace in my father's voice; I prayed for the coal-stove's
roses, a cruise ship lit like a castle

on fire in the harbour we never walked;
father and son, father drifting down the ferned hell his shanty shone, where,

inside, in my head, the lamp was the lamp.
The market, the park, the library not a soul

but grandmother's morning wash lifting towards heaven,
her flapping winding sheets; the barrister sun punished my sister, I stared at my hand

in a book, the horizon declined in my mouth, a hawk's scream tied all the hills together.
My little earth-shaker, visored in placenta, wonder of

wonders, tremulous in amniotic
shield, ensoulled already, father in the veritable

night, without house or harbour,
soon sea in a voice will harrow

a scorpion's blaze in me, to the marrow.


At night birds hammered my unborn
child's heart, each strike bringing bones

and spine to glow, her lungs pestled
loud as the sea I was raised a sea anemone

among women who cursed their hearts
out, soured themselves, never-brides,

into veranda shades, talcum and tea moistened
their quivering jaws, prophetic without prophecy.

Anvil-black, gleaming garlic nubs, the pageant arrived with sails unfurled
from Colchis and I rejoiced like a broken

asylum, to see burning sand grains, skittering ice;
shekels clapped in my chest, I smashed my head against a lightbulb

and light sprinkled my hair; I rejoiced, a poui
tree hit by the sun in the room, a man, a man.


The sky is loaded with ore, the mountains
the mountains are lingering on the threshold,

luminous with the valley's pollution. A late transport
shimmers, and I shimmer, too: this is one of the holy cities of America;

holy banks, mortuaries, holy cafés a golden angel
descends in the middle of three javelining spires.

Then I see poised, wraithlike, in the snow,
on the sifted avenue, muscles released from chiaroscuro,

a herd of darkness gathering to passage unto Shiloh,
where the Lord of Summer lives, kindling a coal fire.

And now for something lighthearted. I promise that will never happen. This is called "The Garden." And in some ways it is an invocation of something that happened in Jamaica in 2008, if I'm remembering correctly, where police forces went down into a community called Tivoli Gardens to extradite an alleged criminal that the US wanted to have extradited to the States. And for that reason, the community was shut down and became in a sense a police state within Jamaica.

But what the poem is really after is trying to get as much of the names of plants from the botanical garden in Kingston. So one of the things that the colonial forces did when they would come to places and take over that, they will create gardens in cities, botanical gardens, and as if it wasn't enough to settle one place, they had to bring stuff from other plants from other places and create these gardens.

I think those plants themselves have great significance to understanding the history of colonialism, but also speaks to the present, whatever that might mean, now or the recent past.

"The Garden."

The streetlights shed pearls that night,
above the hot mint, the sky quivered, a man
heard his true love’s name, the stray dogs
ran but did not bark at the strange shadows
that night, 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 there
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,
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 quiet, the royal
palms did not salute when the jeeps roamed up
the drive way 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
were in flight, they 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
that night
the prisoners prayed in their bunkers,
the baby drank milk as its mother slept,
and by the window its father
could not part the curtains.

"After the Hurricane."

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.

Like most of you, I like to vacation in Italy. The first time I visited Florence just as a student, I was studying in America and went as a student and just had no money to go into the museums and so on. But just to be outside the buildings felt like it was enough. And so this poem begins with that sort of meditation then circles back to Jamaica. It's called Bicycle Eclogue.

You know it is in Italy, if you park an old bicycle on a wall, it suddenly becomes art, right? So "Bicycle Eclogue."

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 agains 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 my 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.

Maybe we should stick with Italy. It's very pleasant there.

Noah mentioned that I have a book coming out, a book of poems coming out in November. November is the date. Put it in your calendar. It's not The Mariner's Progress. Well you did say it was a School of Instructions. That's the name of that book. And it's a book mostly memorializing West Indian soldiers who fought in British regiments during World War I. They were all volunteers. They went to fight for Mother England in hopes that Mother England would have recognized them as human beings. We know how that turned out.

So this poem, the soldiers who went from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and so on, they weren't allowed to bear arms. They were mostly there to dig the trenches and to carry the weapons. Though they did briefly see combat in the Middle East. But this section, this is just a section invoking the experience that they underwent in Europe, mostly in France.

As we know, one of the tropes of war poetry, particularly British WWI poetry is mud, right? The image of mud shows up a lot. So I wanted to sort of bring that trope and somewhat a cliche at this point, into this atmosphere of these West Indian soldiers who haven't really had their own selves recognized in British poetry.

("The Mud Sermon.")

They shovelled the long trenches day and night.

Frostbitten mud. Shellshock mud. Dungheap mud. Imperial mud.
Venereal mud. Malaria mud. Hun bait mud. Mating mud.
1655 mud: white flashes of sharks. Golgotha mud. Chilblain mud.
Caliban mud. Cannibal mud. Ha ha ha mud. Amnesia mud.
Drapetomania mud. Lice mud. Pyrexia mud. Exposure mud. Aphasia mud.
No-man’s-land’s-Everyman’s mud. And the smoking flax mud.
Dysentery mud. Septic sore mud. Hog pen mud. Nephritis mud.
Constipated mud. Faith mud. Sandfly fever mud. Rat mud.
Sheol mud. Ir-ha-cheres mud. Ague mud. Asquith mud. Parade mud.
Scabies mud. Mumps mud. Memra mud. Pneumonia mud.
Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin mud. Civil war mud.
And darkness and worms will be their dwelling-place mud.
Yaws mud. Gog mud. Magog mud. God mud.
Canaan the unseen, as promised, saw mud.

They resurrected new counter-kingdoms,
by the arbitrament of the sword mud.

How much time do I have? Five minutes? Are you okay? All right.

So for something very happy, here's a poem in the voice of Lee "Scratch" Perry, who I'm sure most of you might know, one of the great architects of Jamaican music through all phases of Jamaica popular music from sca right up to dancehall. But I'm most interested in Lee "Scratch" Perry's work in the late '60s and up to the mid-'70s, when this other form of reggae started to emerge called dub, which is a studio music really.

So the musicians would record the rhythm and then the producer, Scratch, would mix the sounds on the console. And what he had to do, sort of deconstruct the original form and make it into something new, something other. And part of doing that was to take away a lot of the instruments around the bass and drum. So you would remove the horns, remove the piano, and so on. And usually one of the methods is to front-load the heavy bass rhythm with that strong drum kick.

And he built a studio in Kingston called the Black Ark Studio. And it's a studio with many rooms. Scratch died last year, was a very enigmatic figure to put it lightly. So he painted this studio with many, he just painted in wild colors. All of the rooms were covered over with collage, and in a way that describes how his music worked, it was a sort of collage music.

And so the studio was very successful. It's where Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, some of the great names recorded some of their most well-known work. Scratch was a mentor of Marley. But one day all of a sudden Scratch burnt the studio down. Never explained why to anybody. So this poem is sort of engaging with that history.

So he called the studio the Black Ark, and of course that immediately tells you what he's after. The ark being a place of refuge. And when you think of that in the context of Jamaican history, or at least how I think of it, it is a sort of space in which he was collecting the remnants of the survival methods of being Jamaican, going through all of that pain and violence of history. He wanted to harbor it there, both the pain and the joy.

"The Ark by 'Scratch.'" 

The genie says build a studio. I build
a studio from ash. I make it out of peril and slum
things. I alone when blood and bullet and all
Christ-fucking-‘Merican-dollar politicians talk
the pressure down to nothing, when the equator's
confused and coke bubbles on tinfoil to cemented wreath.
I build it, a Congo drum, so hollowed through the future
pyramids up long before CDs spin away roots-men knocking
down by the seaside,
like captives wheeling by the Kebar River. The genie says build
a studio, but don't take any fowl in it, just electric.
So I make it, my echo chamber with shock rooms of rainbow
King Arthur's sword keep in, and one for the Maccabees
alone, for covenant is bond between man and worm.
Next room is Stone Age, after that, Iron, and one I
named Freeze, for too much ice downtown in the brains
of all them crossing Duke Street, holy like parsons.
And in the circuit breaker, the red switch is for death
and the black switch is for death, and the master switch
is black and red, so if US, Russia, China, Israel talk
missiles talk, I talk that switch I call Melchizedek.
I build a closet for the waterfalls. One for the rivers.
Another for oceans. Next for secrets. The genie says build
a studio. I build it without gopher wood. Now, consider
the nest of bees in the cranium of the Gong, consider
the nest of wasps in the heart of the Bush Doctor,
consider the nest of locusts in the gut of the Black Heart Man,
I put them there, and the others that vibrate at the Feast of the Passover
when the collie weed
is passed over the roast fish and cornbread. I Upsetter, I Django
on the black wax, the Super Ape, E.T., I cleared the wave.
Again, consider the burning bush in the ears of Kalonji
and the burning sword in the mouth of the Fireman and the burning pillar
in the eyes
of the Gargamel, I put them there, to outlast earth as I navigate on one
of Saturn's rings, I mitred solid shadow setting fire to snow in my ark.
I credit not the genie but the coral rock: I am stone.
I am perfect. Myself is a vanishing conch shell speeding round
a discothèque at the embassy of angels, skeletons ramble to checkout
my creation dub and sex is dub, stripped to the bone, and dub is the heart
breaking the torso to spring, olive-beaked, to be eaten up by sunlight.

I think that I will end with one poem from ... Noah makes it sound like I've just been in some cave writing poems and ... No, but I have been busy, and I am very grateful for the chance to read from some of these poems to you. Thank you for your attention.

I'll end with one of the poems from The Mariner's Progress, which is a series of sonnets. I think eight of them, and I will end with this one. And implicitly, maybe explicitly it's an elegy for ... the poem as a whole, "The Mariner's Progress" is a poem of an elegy for the great St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott. I don't think he needs any introduction. So to his memory:


To evening air I add, “blown cane blown cane
blown cane,” and step into the Quattrocento
outside the library by the pier. All’s changed.
Blown I am a broad Antillean echo
lost in the marrow wings of a pelican,
or an albatross, cloud remnant, tasseled
low flyer below the radar of the wind.
Trade Winds. Travailed not traveled. Shit-bloodied.
A million blades choir and collapse
on repeat their absolute, surging pledge,
picked up by potholes which I jump to reach
home. Blown canes, singed from the African holocaust.
Dark breaks in me carrying your line, lucid
sandglass, seething uphill. Mine to keep and give.

Thank you.

Noah Warren: Thank you, Ishion. That was a privilege, a lesson. I feel like my ear has been rearranged.

Ishion Hutchinson: I hope not.

Noah Warren: And thank you all, as noted. Books are for sale with Callie over there. This is our last Lunch Poems of the season. You can sign up on our mailing list over by the counter there. If you have the courage, please, we appreciate, help with the chairs afterwards. But no need. Thank you all for coming.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

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