In Tender the Maker, local poet Christina Hutchins weaves together memories of her childhood and moments of her adult life to examine what gets left behind when something, or someone, is lost. The Albany poet was the city’s first poet laureate, a title she held from 2008 to 2012, and the book, which won the 2015 May Swenson Poetry Award, is her second full-length title.
Tender the Maker, released last month, crisscrosses between years spent in pre-Silicon Valley San Jose, when the area was still called Santa Clara Valley and the smell of ripe fruit effused the air. It also meanders along the cobblestoned streets of West Germany, where Hutchins said she first became tactilely aware of her own humanity, to Route 1, Highway 17, and many places in between.
But it is in “Unrepeatable Poem,” through fragmented scenes as Hutchins’ father succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, that the author’s voice is most poignant. The isolated moments create a tender tableau of increasingly heart wrenching exchanges. His voice again, a desperate sundown, “They’re locked./It’s terrible. They’re all locked in.” Are you/lonely? “Yes.”
Similarly, “Vigil,” in which Hutchins deals directly with her father’s death, is exquisite in its simplicity. Although many of Hutchins’ poems are densely layered in imagery, this seven-stanza verse is stripped down to a solitary scene. The piece fixes its gaze squarely at her father’s unclosing eye, enclosing readers in an intensely intimate moment as his body is prepared for cremation.
The majority of Tender the Maker deals with loss in a less direct way. Hutchins meditates on the accumulation of possessions — the remnants of life left behind. A shoe is stuck in the form of the foot it once held and a salamander’s skin remains where the body has long since vacated.
Memories from her childhood spill out onto the pages like loose photographs from a cardboard box, long stowed and suddenly upended. At times, Hutchins lingers too long on those rose-colored moments of youth. The innocence of a child’s day spent outside amid cantering horses, joyful dogs, and nesting birds in “The Music Inside” feels like a Rockwellian vision, with all of its whitewashed idealism.
That sentimentality is stripped away, however, in the book’s second chapter, which opens with “Eye of the Storm, Pescadero Coast, 1972,” an ode to Cesar Chavez’s 24-day fast in support of the United Farm Workers’ boycotts and the 1939 Federal Agricultural Laborers Association strike, led by Filipino workers. The same shirt pulled over the same head/not once but again and again, a eucalyptus turned/inside out. Brutal, foam-white,/the sea tore at its rocky coast. Route One was/forsaken.
Throughout the book, readers are reminded of past injustices and horrors — at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Hutchins excels in turning even the most mundane of daily activities — walking past roadwork on Solano Avenue in Albany, for example — into metaphors for more central questions; in this case, how to bear the weight of history.
There is no answer presented. Rather, the question itself is a call for moral reckoning, a request to remember that history, and in so doing, to not repeat it.