(Faber and Faber, 2023); pbk, £12.99
In a recent interview, Ishion Hutchinson remarked on the invitation to respond to the Imperial War Museum archive that resulted in the discovery of material relating to Caribbean soldiers who fought in the British Army in the First World War which is all but lost to history. Each time, coming across a black West Indian soldier’s name in a British officer’s war journal ‘triggered something’ in him, Hutchinson remembered. School of Instructions is the result, a book long poem that searches unceasingly for how to—in performance, in narrative and in words—enable those lost individuals to rise off the page.
Much like TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Hutchinson’s writing stages a shuttling between the time of the story’s present (the 1990s now of a young boy “Godspeed”) and an epiphanic connectivity with the past that transcends time. Godspeed is introduced as carrying his (Encyclopaedia) Britannica literally or imaginatively with him, a tome with few mentions of the soldiers. As a result, this long poem’s recovery of their presence compresses three moments of time in one vital wordful gesture: the past, present of the story, and the temporal present of the narrative act.
Sometimes this temporal porousness is seamless, as for example in the first section’s ‘names interred in the same roster’, schooled and instructed, ‘shouting “here, sir” and ”not here, sir’’’; or again with Godspeed’s playground injury ‘from a blade of cold steel… stuck through his tunic’, ‘a green ache of gangrene’, which is followed immediately by the lines, ‘The strength of the battalion stood a reed shaken penumbra/of God-fearers squinting with sand in their eyes.’ (XVI) Sometimes, eruptions are preserved in their disjunctures, much like transparencies, so that the storytime’s ‘now’ is overlaid upon both the First World War and also that of slavery:
Branching with delirium. He recalled
rain gauzed cannons with steam. Escutcheons
fluttered a red-letter day of sorrow:
Every man who went from Jamaica to
the front was a volunteer. 10,000,
Volunteer? Bourrage de crâne. Shadowed chain.
Sails, the air stagnate, white flashes of sharks
haunting fevers strangers shared in hulls,
never to break after centuries on land[.]
In all of this, books, language, and words are crucial; Goodspeed’s encyclopaedia is thumbed and pages turned. Intertxuality permeates the poetry. For this is a poet keenly aware that the medium is also the message. And so School of Instructions’ linguistic porousness leads to an insistent exploration of language and names where the formality of English jostles with biblical cadences and references, Jamaican patios, ancient and modern European languages. Elsewhere, an irreverent sonic playfulness might show up as a resistance to being schooled:
He also moon mouthed the “Our Father’ anthem: ‘Pest’ for ‘bless’,
‘slaughter’ for ‘guidance’ and dropped booms between
JAMAICA: ‘JAMAICA’ boom ‘JAMAICA’ boom ‘JAMAICA’
boom-sha-ka-la-ka: ‘land we love.’ (‘XXIX’)
Voice and register change with the incantatory naming of places (both Caribbean and the Middle East), and individuals (past and present); in addition, there are snatches of song and dialogue and questions. Eliot’s ‘compound familiar ghosts’ perhaps. Successive lines on the execution of privates for desertion, and the death of boys from pneumonia, malaria and other diseases, are full of pathos when read singly in isolation but collectively become devastating in the accretive roll call of the dead and dying.
School of Instructions plays with type and fonts: the capitalisation of all place names; the italicisation of French and Latin; the use of roman numerals; the classic roman memoralising of the final entry. Each of the five sections is prefaced with the sixteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ע or ‘ayin’, associated with eye or vision.
Formal experimentation, that relentless search for a language and textures in order to materialise—even perform—the bond with the past is dizzying, even overwhelming at times, and I had to reach for dictionaries and encyclopaedias to understand some of the associations. Reading time too is not linear with repetition, allusion and the delayed release of information, which yields understanding only at a stage than the time of reading. For these reasons, the small ordinary acts of domesticity that Godspeed is shown as undertaking (bringing cake to this grandmother, falling in love with Rosalie) feels grounding and human, especially when set within that larger, grander canvas where his story is also placed. For Godspeed, despite my mixed metaphor, is portal to different worlds and languages, and also their anchor:
Godspeed opened his ears not like the lid of a coffin but
like the great stone rolled back from the door of the
sepulchre to exhale gas and Christ. (‘XXIII’)
If I say I did not initially warm to School of Instructions, this is not meant as a slight. Books are there not only to be ‘liked’ or not to be ‘liked’; this is a remarkable collection—erudite, complex and challenging, and expecting many things from its readers. School of Instructions absorbs lessons from Eliot but forges a path that is uniquely its own.