In The Vicinity of Riches by Chris Hutchinson is a poetry collection that takes a hard look at Late Stage Capitalism through the jaundiced eye of a poet whose Romantic sensibilities are constantly under attack by a society obsessed with virtual fame, iPhones, petrochemicals and antidepressants.
The speaker of these poems is bone-weary, cynical, emotionally distant, but beneath all of the skepticism is still a beleaguered belief in art. Take the poem “The Weather” in the first section of the book:
“I was midway through the journey of my life.
The weather dripped dollar signs and sex.
Thank god I had no job, no child, no wife.
“The imagination is like a house,” they said.
“Can it be bought and sold on the marketplace?”
I wondered aloud. “It can be burned to the ground,”
they snarled, slanting their slim cigars at the sun.
It was as if I were sweating booze in a symphony hall
and about to sneeze. It was as if I were readying myself
to terrorize the Racquet Club with cultural theory.
But forget it. Maybe I loved the textures of words more
than human orifices. I was halfway done with my life’s excursion.”
The speaker admits halfway through his life, language held more allure than dollar signs; however, he also lets slip the imagination is a commodity that can never be bought which is perhaps the source of its great power.
In other poems in the same section, Hutchinson complains “the price of gas is endless miles of sunburnt smog” and of, “so many lives blurring at the touch of a touchscreen. So many minds up in the Cloud.” Technology is a dehumanizing force in this collection separating people from each other, and our green responsibilities to the planet.
In another one of Hutchinson’s poems “The Book of Common Terrors (2024)”, one sees immediately the poet’s romantic sensibilities bump up against a capitalist Tilt-A-Whirl society in real crisis:
Tired of waiting and waiting, of forever sinking inside
the liquidity of plastics churning inside the North Pacific Gyre,
I go out and get myself a polychromatic Ray Wand
at the Speedy Mart. Wanting to live in a city that aches
like I do, and hoping to recreate a childish spontaneity
with which to resist a world — best described
in The Book of Common Terrors as “a bizarre bazaar
full of impassive impasses” — I bash and shake my cosmic Ray Wand
until it bleeds and stains my apartment walls with bands of light
limned in hues I can almost taste with my unprotected
skin. Because some go down in history and others
in ancient Alexandrian flames, this is me, writing
and writing until the stars through the windows are melting
grains of salt. And I see the room is made of nothing but windows
within windows, like waves reflected on the underside
of waves . . . Yet I still can’t conjure spontaneity
on command, at least not without a doctor’s script
or access to the spice trade’s silky matrices, and even then
playing dice with your serotonin is what they call a zero-
sum game. So the night, unhurried, fills in
like a bruise, inside of which I Skype with Dionysus
about giving up on wine, genius, and false remembrance —
maybe forever this time — in favour of that happiness we were all
promised once, though by whom, no one can recall.
That sense of wonder, or “childish spontaneity with which to resist the world”, is all the poet has left and although he makes light of it, he holds the cosmic Ray Wand out in front of him just the same as if it really did hold the power to ward off manmade evils.
The second section “American Freeway Exit Ramp: An Allegorical Travelogue” teases out tiny sections of a long poem that I had trouble parsing into a meaningful whole, but I do admire Hutchinson’s willingness to experiment with forms.
The acute attention to detail and thematic underpinnings rev back up in the third section of the collection called “The Aging Futurist”. Here, Hutchinson writes a poem called “North American Figures of the Capitalocene” where perhaps most explicitly he sets out the book’s underlying question: how to exist within an economic system that divides us from ourselves and from Nature. He writes:
Tell me what to feel, as summer swells
my appetites, as my appetites feed insatiable
regrets, and now this world seems only one of many
bitter seeds the wind has gathered, swept along, and then
haphazard, dropped. Commerce must be that —
that which makes things happen. It gives to take.
Through and for itself it consummates, fattens silence with self-
applause, and never bows to earth as if to stay alive
meant to kneel and beg before the question of its own
insufferable emptiness. Show me how to feel. Teach me
what this means. Or grant me riches, beauty, fame!
I’ll toss away this body like a coin.
The whole collection seems to revolve around Hutchinson asking what is it to feel in a world hot-wired by an economic system run amok, one that quite simply benefits the wealthy few and tries to reduce the imaginative lives of others to mere dollar signs.
In The Vicinity of Riches by Chris Hutchinson displays a wealth of thought and craft by a veteran poet in the middle of his career. These poems are not postcard scenes. They are post-modern elegies showing what happens when one worships the Moloch of technology, or the Baal of consumerism, at the expense of art, relationships, even self-preservation. It is out with Goose Lane Editions this coming Spring!
About the Author: Born in Montreal, Chris Hutchinson is the author of three previous collections of poetry (Unfamiliar Weather, Other People’s Lives, and A Brief History of the Short-lived), as well as the speculative autobiographical verse novel Jonas in Frames. He holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He now teaches at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta.
In The Vicinity of Riches by Chris Hutchinson
Goose Lane Editions
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