In “Liechtenstein”, the poet Ishion Hutchinson chose to position himself in the Caribbean tradition of rewriting Shakespeare’s famous “comedy” The Tempest, (1610).
Before him, George Lamming, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire are some of the other writers who have reworked what might be seen as the foundation text of the “colonial encounter”. Oddly enough, to stage the particularly violent relationships between the trio of Caliban, Prospero and Ariel, Shakespeare seems to have taken his inspiration from a well-known passage in Montaigne’s Essays. As Retamar has pointed out, Des Cannibals (1580) was published in 1603 as Of the Caniballes in an English translation by John Floro, a tutor at Oxford University and friend of Shakespeare’s: the copy of this translation which Shakespeare owned and annotated has come down to us1. According to Montaigne: “there is nothing in that nation [of cannibals] that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that savage which is not common to them”. Thus, the bard’s reading, against the grain, contrarywise, in a misprision of Montaigne’s essay, turned him into a visionary capable of predicting the colonial order that was about to be deployed and so present a powerful allegory of it.
Unsurprisingly, in the 1950-1970s, some African or Caribbean poets took a transgressive approach to The Tempest, turn by turn, imagining another Caliban who preached back to Prospero the conqueror, denounced the treason of Ariel-the-mestizo / Ariel-the-clerk, and defended his island against any form of colonisation.
Ishion Hutchinson’s originality thus does not lie just in the fact that he has returned to The Tempest, but rather in the way he has engaged with this play. His “style” — which might be called baroque, given the extent to which he plays on a contrast between shadow and light, with intense colours, a lexical wealth and the figures of twins and superpositions — defines his singularity as a poet, while at the same time linking him to other individualities who have rubbed up against the same text. It is just this ambivalent reading experience that Marielle Macé describes in Façons de lire, manières d’être [Ways of Reading, Manners of Being]: reading being, for her, an opportunity for individuation which allows us to shape ourselves as subjects, “the effort to be oneself is here seconded by literary models just as much as it is captured by the forces that stop or waylay it2”.
So, in “Liechtenstein”, around Caliban-the-unnamed (or nearly so), or else Caliban-the-forgotten, who is mentioned only in stammers (“Kali`na, Kari`nja, Kali`nya”), Ishion Hutchinson brings together an entire secular and sacred “library”— including Caliban: The Missing Link (1873), whose author, the anthropologist Daniel Wilson, affirmed that, with this anthropoid creature, Shakespeare had anticipated Darwin’s theses3; the poetry of Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), who wrote a dedicatory poem for Floro’s English translation of Montaigne’s Essays and was also a friend of Shakespeare’s; as well as the Bible and its three mentions of the prophet Daniel who, exiled in Babylon, where Nebuchadnezzar held him captive, excelled in the interpretation of dreams. Each of these references gives to the “Daniel” of the poem an additional texture and might explain its overall tripartite structure — reminiscent but critical of the one adopted by Brathwaite in his poem “Caliban” in which it marks out the three phases of the ritualistic journey of the hero from Africa to the Caribbean, i.e. separation, transition and rebirth4.
Ishion Hutchinson may allude to Shakespeare’s Tempest through direct quotations (“to name the bigger light”, “Mooncalf”, “Fine apparition”, etc.), but he also conjures up some fragments of it quite freely: for example, Ariel-the-poet no longer proclaims that the island is his, as Shakespeare’s Caliban did, but that he is the island, and he alone is it. Daniel-Ariel-Isle now refuses to be confined within Prospero’s text — who, focused on his conquest, “lives in the absolute certainty that Language which is his gift to Caliban is the very prison in which Caliban’s achievements will be realised and restricted5”: instead, he writes comments in the margins, adds codicils to The Tempest, erases what is detestable, even digs out holes in the pages!
A gaping space; elusive worlds: a distant past we can no longer photograph (a slave ship); a recent past we no longer know how to photograph: the absence of a father snatched away by metropolises (“Are ghosts photographed flash on or flash off? (Do not torment him. Do not torment him.) His father can be anywhere and is”) and, in terms of a future, a suspension. Has this father figure been lost, body and soul, while seeking for what the poet Olive Senior has called “unencumbered skies, over the / Cayman Islands, or Lichtenstein, / or Geneva)6 ? In Ishion Hutchinson’s poem, Liechtenstein is an imaginary third space ruled over by Trismegistus, a god who is at once Hermes and Thoth, and who is “falsely neutral”, as in a country unincluded in colonial history, but pursued by the fluttering of other ghosts. So, should such unencumbered skies be preferred over a tempest?
The subject of this poem is a book, read, in part torn-up, then recomposed — and no longer the quest for a third term to be added to the dialectic of master/slave, sublime/grotesque, cabbage moths/stars. The page is an island, the island has a name, even three of them. It might have had just two: on reading “Liechtenstein”, we finally grasp how Aimé Césaire, on visiting Martinska Island off Croatia with his friend Petar Guberina, felt the stirrings of the “motionless verrition” of his future poem, Le cahier d’un retour au pays natal7.
Translated by Ian Monk
Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He is the author of Far District (2010) and of House of Lords and Commons (2013). He has received numerous prizes, in particular the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Brodsky Memorial Fellowship in Literature, the Whiting Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry in 2019 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal. He teaches poetry at Cornell University and works as an associate editor on the review Tongue: A Journal of Writing and Art.
1 Roberto Fernández Retarmar: “Caliban: Notes Towards a Discussion of Culture in Our America”, The Massachusetts Review 15, 1/2 (Winter-Spring 1974): 7-72, p. 14.
2 Marielle Macé: Façons de lire, manières d’être, NRF Essais. Gallimard, 2011, pp 18-19.
3 Edward Kamau Brathwaite: Islands, Oxford U. Press, 1969, p 79.
4Éric Doumer: “Caliban Playing Pan: A Note on the Metamorphoses of Caliban in Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Caliban’, Caliban. French Journal of English Studies 52 (2014): pp 239-250.
5 George Lamming: The Pleasures of Exile, Allison & Busby, 1984, p. 110.
6 Olive Senior: “The Knot Garden”, available online at: thelearnedpig.org/gardening-in-the-tropics/5842
7 Translated as Notebook of a Return to My Native Land by Mireille Rosello and Annie Pritchard, in a bilingual edition published by Bloodaxe Contemporary French Poets, 1995. “Verrition” is one of Césaire’s neologisms, like “négritude”, but in this case a hapax legomenon, or nonce word, which concludes the poem and has been left untranslated. Its meaning can quite easily be divined. [Translator’s note.]