Drunk on Dub

The new Caribbean sounds of Ishion Hutchinson

The March Up Country is the English title of Xenophon’s Anabasis, “a true story of remarkable adventures,” as the Loeb Classics edition advertises this famous account of a failed military campaign against the Persian king, after which Xenophon led 10,000 Greek mercenaries “from the gates of Babylon back to the coast through inhospitable lands.”

“The Anabasis of Godspeed” is Ishion Hutchinson’s title for the following excerpt from his long poem School of Instructions. Hutchinson overlays two narratives. One is the history of West Indian soldiers in the British Army who were deployed in Europe and the Middle East during the First World War. The other is the tale of a 12-year-old boy, Godspeed, living in rural Jamaica in the 1990s.

Godspeed is a visionary in the making. He rejects “the Antichrist” Pope John Paul II when the pope visits Jamaica (which he did in 1993). Godspeed, whose school report says he “lacks aptitude,” is busy inventing a personal theology, guided by the prophet Pipecock Jackxon, who laughs at death and declares himself “Dandelion the King of Zion.” Drunk on dub music, Godspeed folds the scroll containing Pipecock’s dark, defiant, comic testament, and puts it on his own head like a bishop’s mitre “to guide his oncoming dreams.”

The march up country of the West Indian battalions connects to Godspeed’s story because it is another version of radical Black self-fashioning. These volunteers—two-thirds of them from Jamaica—were in the double position of serving British imperial authority and struggling against it to establish their right to fight on equal terms with white British soldiers. Hutchinson tracks their progress across the Holy Land as they face artillery fire and as young men like Private O. Harris, carrying in his pocket sassafras, flowers, and tobacco from his tropical home, are “detonated into thousands and thousands of moths.”

That image rhymes with the multitude of dead butterflies that sicken Godspeed. But Hutchinson does more than set up thematic and imagistic rhymes between Godspeed and the West Indian soldiers. Turning quickly from one to the other, sometimes in the same sentence, he creates a hallucinatory montage in which time and place swing loose from their usual coordinates. Something similar happens stylistically as Hutchinson’s soaring prose stanzas mix lyric rhapsody, elegy, battlefield report, island vernacular, and the rhythms and diction of Christian scripture, with Xenophon echoing somewhere in the background.

Hutchinson points to a model for this complex poetic music when he mentions Lee “Scratch” Perry. A producer, composer, and singer, Perry was a key figure in the Jamaican music scene that fostered reggae greats like Bob Marley. Dub was Perry’s specialty, with its remixing (or doubling) of previous recordings, incorporating reverb, bass rhythms, recorded noises, natural sounds, and improv-isatory rapping voiceovers. The eccentric masterpiece Hutchinson refers to is Perry’s psychedelic 1980 record, The Return of Pipecock Jackxon. It is Perry’s imaginary alter ego on this album, Pipecock, who is Godspeed’s mentor. Think of Hutchinson’s poetry as a literary version of Perry’s mixing console scrambling audio signals to create a new Caribbean sound.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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