Chris Hutchinson is the author of four poetry books as well as the speculative autobiography in verse novel Jonas in Frames. His most recent poetry collection, In the Vicinity of Riches (Goose Lane Editions / icehouse poetry) appeared in spring, 2020. Catch him online at: chris-hutchinson.com
It’s true, I used to tell lies about going straight.
Before I was dumped and disowned
I knew how to purr, how to serenade
how to skim over moods of thin ice.
You said I nursed before killing my spirit
that I softened my voice before scorching my breath.
I said I left the army right where I found it
to croon love ballads in sub-basement dives.
I used to pretend I was born out of wedlock
indebted to gangsters, for better or worse.
It was kill or be killed in the Front Room in Newark
where I first pawned my horn for that China White lie.
There was a time I pumped gas for a living
after a beating smashed all my front teeth to stubs.
Lost wages, arrhythmic courthouse proceedings—
they carved my innocent bones into dice.
Let’s not forget how handsome I was
a classic, square-jawed cock of the walk.
Pinched outside Lucca, I mailed you my mugshot—
you, my future Goldwater Girl in disguise.
Yes, I whipped myself raw with the silkiest riffs
feeling myself heavy-aggrieved. So what?
I’d learned by then the best way to worship
was the worst way to use––without thinking twice.
So I chased gut-rot with sips of Chablis
and Seconal, and grass, and milk from the poppy––
detached from Santa Monica’s ugly side, before it squeezed
and cracked the head of my youth in its vise.
Did I worry I’d end up alone
that I’d die, almost blue, in my sleep?
No. I’d go out swinging on the outskirts of Rome—
all those tunes in my head, catchier than lice!
I used to feel I was somebody
somebody else, the fool who only aimed to be—
and maybe I would’ve stayed somebody
if I’d have kept clean, and just womanized.
Yes, I once feigned love, forged scripts, and dreamed
of spiking my mother-in-law’s gin. But tonight, I’m free.
I’ve unloosed a new kind of gravity
because a dream is what I am, falling from the sky—
So spare me your delicate scowl.
I’ve been where you are, I know where to go
and I’m on my way now.
Spare me your words of advice.
Spare telling me again how I sang
but never wrote the lines (though now I wish I had, for you)
my sweet comic valentine.
Thank-you. Thank-you. Goodnight.
Chet Baker, Falling Out a Window (1988): A mini-entrée by Catherine Owen
The essential word for every trumpet player, embouchure, comes to mind immediately when I read this gut-twisting poem, homage, narration near a hagiography of flaws and their genius. Every poet needs an embouchure too, a way of shaping their mouths to the sounds they emit, a training of their physiognomy to make music bodily as well as mentally. Did Chet Baker commit suicide when he fell out of his hotel window? The facts suggest a possible otherwise but this piece enters another kind of likelihood in which addiction, dental tragedy, divorce, and further downfalls led to this slip out the second floor and down to the pavement where he died at age 58 after a stellar and checkered life devoted to his art.
It’s tricky to write a persona poem. In the first person no less, but Hutchinson achieves the realness with style and believability. I hear Baker utterly as he addresses his third wife, recounting the tawdry and stirring trajectory and bidding her farewell with the repetitions of “spare” and a closure befitting a performer at the culmination of a show. As usual, it’s the poet’s ear that makes the content matter and Hutchinson is a master of form as he bops between the triadic stanza (Baker’s three wives?) and the solo line (the trumpeter finally alone and reminiscing?), torqueing vital echoes like the equivalencies of “free”, “Chablis” and “gravity,” the bounce from “wedlock” and “Newark” to later the idiom “cock of the walk” or the slant rhymes of “vise” and “lice” (and dice, lie, disguise, womanize) and how they prefigure the final word, “goodnight.” I love the tweaky oxymorons of “delicate scowl” and even maybe “comic valentine” too, resonating with one of Baker’s most famous collaborations with Stan Getz. It’s not a sonnet but it sure has a middle twist: “the best way to worship/was the worst way to use––without thinking twice,” a wisdom that will keep me thinking for a long time. That’s what the best poets and musicians do – they give you songs that make you imagine another way of being in the world. Thank you. Thanks.