Tender the Maker
by Christina Hutchins
Utah State University Press, 2015
by A.K. Afferez
February 25, 2016
A book written for the makers who grieve is a strange one in a world convinced of the joys of creation and the misery of destruction. Grieving indicates loss, and what kind of loss could a demiurge experience? Tender the Maker revisits the age-old comparison between poet and deity, highlighting its blind spots, namely the times when creating also means losing, destroying, forgetting. It’s a work of memory that takes the reader across the world and back, even though the places mentioned are no longer true to their description.
Childhood is the fulcrum of this process, which scours familial and personal memory to find moments of vacillation that hold both doing and undoing. This purpose is clear from the onset, as the collection opens with a quote from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: “...bright creation–jubilant!–often closes with a beginning / and opens with an ending”, prefiguring the first poem where the birth narrative is belied by the poet’s assertion: “I was born wizened. ... / I was old.” The other epigraph is by Edmond Jabès and bluntly states: “Death is an accomplice of creation.” And death, or some avatar of it – loss, oblivion, urbanization – seems indeed to be lurking everywhere, though the poet ceaselessly reminds us that this is a balanced order, in a world leaning “into its light / and its shadow” – a necessary coexistence. Thus, the wonder of childhood memories is not here for sentimental, nostalgic reasons (even though, at times, the poems veer off into recollections laced with idealist preciosity), but rather to delineate a certain progression, an evolution in the way one perceives and is attentive to the mechanics of love and loss.
The child of this collection is a precocious one: “at three I came to myself above the summer / Alps.” Few get the benefit to experience the sublime in their infant years, but this child does, and the reaction is appropriately one of muted terror and exhilaration at the same time – “I leaned into / the mouth of my making.” Early childhood sets the course: the recollection of each memory is tinged with both wistfulness and clarity, the acknowledgment of something gained and something lost, released. Cleaning out the garage as a child leads to the recovery of the desiccated body of the family salamander, which had been missing for months. This irruption of mortality into the banality of everyday life and happy-go-lucky childhood is minimized, normalized – partly due to the almost comical effect of the description of the flattened body, the onomatopeia of the ball bouncing down the driveway – and yet, it is still enough to create “a lifetime of dread.”
A lifetime, and a whole geography of dread. Hutchins takes us all over the world, whether it’s places she’s been to herself, from Russia and West Germany to San Jose, CA – before it was disfigured into Silicon Valley – and along countless highways, or places like Vietnam that open themselves up to her imagination through photographs. Places loaded with history – be it the intimate ones of childhood or the brutal ones of concentration camps and workers’ strikes that highlight the enduring impact of oppression and repression. Each poem becomes a map where time and space intersect and unearth connections that help us confront the weight of history, whether our own or that of others. It’s the intimate history that may be the most devastating, though, as it’s the one that teaches the most direct experience of loss: the father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and, later on, his death, are recounted in solitary scenes stripped down to the core of their emotional force.
Hutchins does remind us every step of the way that, as artists, the actual work of art we strive for may “last a lifetime” – with each poem, each epiphany along the way being one small iteration of the broader work unfolding within our lives. It is a fractal perception of the universe, aptly setting the foundation for a spin on the relationship between the poet and the cosmos. Hutchins’s awareness of how spirituality may imbue our acts of creation goes deep – she is, after all, a professor in theology, among other things – but these are not poems of faith, per se, as they eschew any kind of stilted sacralization, but rather poems that tend towards the mysteries of creation, that attempt, simply put, to restore our faith in the act of writing.