Jan Hutchinson, Kinds of Hunger.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd.
RRP: $19.99. Sc, 60pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Jan Hutchinson was educated at Victoria University and has worked mostly in libraries. Her poems have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Kinds of Hunger is her fourth collection of poetry and is divided into two parts. Part I is the shortest part and is based primarily in a rural landscape, observing mist, the forest, endangered trees, a valley, a railway crossing, often meshed with human, animal and bird interactions, such as a shy voice, a Māori girl, her daughter, an old man. There is a pervading echo of melancholy, for a lost world, or other losses interlaced between nature and individuals, as seen here in this verse from “Inside Katherine Mansfield’s Urewera Notebook” (p 10):
mist seeps through my sleeves
seeps down my socks
creeps through stalks of toetoe
on the way to the river …
Jan Hutchinson’s poems detail the typical emotional routines of life today – reading a writer’s notebook, a letter, life in a valley, the intersections and intrusions of the issues of the day, and the occasional times for thoughts about sadness in the world that we see in many of the poems. Hutchinson typically writes one-page poems attentive to life. Her introspective moments are triggered by a notebook, men striding through a forest, the company of strangers, a railway crossing and many other familiar scenarios. Her style, not surprisingly is lean, often employing short 3- or 2-line stanzas. Within these parameters Hutchinson is good at what she does, while several poems step outside her normal range. “Conversations with a Longfin Eel” (p 11) is about men bringing down totaras in the forest:
who heard the men stride through the forest?
their boots clomped down the track
how did they bring the totara down?
they pushed a sharp-toothed saw
my flat stone broke
the current heaved in metal-time …
In many of the poems the choice of words emphasises the melancholy mood. “The Māori girl has lost her whenua”, (“Missing The Wastelands”, p 12), ‘people gossip in this town’ (“A Letter to Sappho”, p 13), ‘she’s a flax flower holding sunlight’ (“Five Ways of Living in a Valley”, p 14). One poem, “The Company of Strangers” (p 17) takes these parallels further, drawing on the dog with a tumour standing ‘in the middle / of someone’s stream / not wanting anything’. “You Look Through a Window” (p. 21) is strikingly effective. The poem ends:
a nurse winds a roll of bandage
over and over your foot
securing the end with opaque tape
though I listen through eleven
circles of gauze
you still hear something I cannot reach.
Then there’s the clever poem “Railway Crossing” in two columns like railway lines, or “Angela” (p 22) about a woman confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy:
we’re in the park and she’s telling me
about cerebral palsy and how
I’m twenty-five but I’d kick my wheelchair
if I could …
Part II has a different approach, connecting with a dying person, her father, grasses, music, artists and writers. Hutchinson’s well-constructed poems include “The Steppe” (p 35) an interior reflection on death:
that month, overcome by cancer
you lay in an empty warehouse
you stared up at iron girders
while I drove a troika
across a vast steppe …
Much more representative is “Springing Grasses” (p 37) regarding the joys of nature:
leap cricket leap
blue chirp black chirp
the inside joy the ragwort dance
wing on wing
swing sails high …
Hutchinson lives in the world of the sailing ship in “The Bay”, (p 41):
the narrow scar
on my left cheek
over the zygomatic
into a new world …
The poet dwells on three painters in the next few poems: Renoir, Matisse and Rita Angus. In “A Whining Pink Nude” (after a painting by Henri Matisse), (p 44), the poem ends with these words:
Matisse with a pink quill
sighs quelle belle galah quelle belle galah.
While the poem about Rita Angus: “Rita’s Sketch-book” (p 45) concentrates on
the sadness of the bird
only Rita heard
her pencil reached down
sang on her finger-bone …
More interesting and accomplished are the longer poems about King Lear: “I Plot to Secure Like King Lear’s Fool for Our Shrunken Household” (p 56) and “Message from Brother Finn to King Edgar” (p 51). The first poem ends with this passionate oration to the fool:
O fool come soon – quick quick
flatten my follies with your wooden
spoon, sprinkle my head-space
with a cup of wit a pinch of time.
And the second poem switches to a consideration of ‘the soul of the late king’ and concludes:
I’ll stretch out my right forefinger
east to west
draw a circle around him
the enclosure will move with the wind.
Next, we switch to considerations of writers – poet Anna Akhmatova and playwright Chekhov. Here is the conclusion to “Anna Akhmatova Turns her Back on the Secret Police”:
her poems fledge on ice-cold banks
of the Neva
they have come the whole way.
And the start of “Walking Behind Chekhov” (p 59):
dissolving my notes in a puddle
I roll up my trousers and with a long pole
cross the flooded plains …
For Jan Hutchinson, it is the whole of life that imbues poetry with instantaneousness. Each moment of life, each small occurrence is embedded within her poetry. Throughout her poems there is a powerful sense of being and of being beyond the purely physical.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).