Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy


Having found myself at that tenuous stage of life where friends of mine are having children with increasing frequency, my avuncular tendencies have responded by going into overdrive. The most pronounced symptom of this is the compulsion I now feel to get strange and, hopefully, insightful presents. First on my list is Q is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy by the British Colombian teacher Tiffany Poirier.

Well, that’s not entirely true. First, I usually give them a plush Cthulhu while singing: “Squamous horror from beyond the stars / I wonder what you are / you’ve come so far / to melt my mind and eat me”, because its never too early to start trying to reconcile your little ones to the vast indifference and terror of the cosmos. Then, if their parents ever allow me near their children again, I give them this book.

Addressing such concepts as causality, infinity, mind/body duality and solipsism in simple rhymes, some will no doubt be tempted to see in Q is For Question something like “baby’s first existential crisis”. I know I particularly liked the letter “Y” for You:

You: As you grow from day to day, / what parts of you will always stay? / Of what stuff do you consist? / And of this stuff / what will persist?

Yet in the back of the book, and on the companion website Poirier encourages parents to talk to their children about difficult concepts, to make games of them, and listen to what they have to say. It is, after all, an important part of preparing them for life, existential crises and all. While I’m not a parent, I believe this to be an incredibly powerful sentiment, and one worth encouraging.

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The New Death and Others by James Hutchings

There is a talent in James Hutchings’ writing that becomes apparent when one reads his collection of short stories, parables and poems: The New Death and Others, and I have hitherto been remiss in my duties to it, having months ago agreed to review it.

Perhaps best described as a work of weird irony, the majority of the pieces satirize the tropes of weird literature. By and large this is a good thing, for there is a great need for the weird to be able to laugh at its own melodramatic melancholy and oft-exaggerated features. Within this atmosphere of parody Hutchings also sets his sights on political and cultural topics, targeting reality television, war, consumer and business culture and many general acts of superficiality and ostentation.

Not all of the works in the collection, however, are ironic, and it is clear from the number of poems and prose inspired by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsay and Robert E. Howard that the author does indeed see himself writing from within the tradition of the weird tale, employing often elegant language to describe the oddities of his otherwordly settings.

Hutchings’ greatest strength seems to lay within the conceptual spaces he explores, and in his talent for the clever concluding twist that he employs in such pieces as “How the Isle of Cats got its Name”, “The God of the City of Dust”, “The Face in the Hill” and “The Scholar and the Moon”, which describes the fantastical culture of the Mayajenese people, and their often deadly rooftop politics.

Despite the growing ubiquity of flash fiction, particularly on the internet, there has been proportionately little increase in the number of writers employing the styles of the aphorism, allegory or parable. The gallows humour that the author brings to bear on many of his subjects, as well as his talent for allegory and unexpected endings mentioned previously, makes The New Death a positive contribution to this body of literature.

Internally a few indicators hinted that the work was self-published. There were some consistent but minor errors of proof reading throughout, the kind that inevitably find their way into a work no matter how many times a single pair of eyes happens to pour over it (sadly, I did not notice until the very end of the work that Hutchings has provided a contact address along with a request that readers alert him to these matters, and so unfortunately I did not record them as I read). There was also a slight unevenness in quality of the contributions, and I have the feeling that with some editorial oversight certain pieces would not have been included, or else would have been divided up differently. Considering the overall quality of many of the collection, these are minor points, but it is indicative of the effect that ebook publishing has on the material writers are releasing upon the world.

I myself am certainly no exception to this.

Even with an editor, my ebook collection of poetry “Songs Unsung, Poems Unspoken” shows the over-eagerness or lack of circumspection that tends to accompany this form of publishing. I was so taken with the seemingly magic number “50” that I included pieces in that collection that were, upon reflection, probably not worthy of it, and in the name of eclecticism I gave little thought to the overall effect of the work.

And like my own work, a certain lack of unity of tone and style was one difficulty I found myself encountering with The New Death, sometimes finding it jarring when what I took to be a weird tale had its eldritch atmosphere dispersed by some modern reference made in jest. It is possible that designated sections for satirical and non-satirical prose, and another two for satirical and non-satirical poetry would have helped the reader in this regard. Even with this though, some stories, such as “Todd” and some poems such as “If My Life Was Filmed” seemed slightly out of place in the collection taken as a whole.

I very much appreciate the narrative quality of the poems, and while employing largely rhyming verse, Hutchings often succeeds in evoking the fantastical, folkloric potential of the style without descending into the stretched sounding turns of phrase that have, in many ways, made it fall into a state of disrepute among the modish literati. Still, I must confess that I do not know quite what to make of his decision to base so much of his poetry off of the stories of other writers of weird tales. While these pieces often have many remarkable stanzas, at some points it seemed that the author was forced to spin out a few too many of them in order to approach the scope of the stories they were based upon to the determent of the poetry itself, and at these points the verses do occasionally seem to stumble on the need to make the lines fit into even rhymes.

Despite this, there are many striking stanzas in The New Death that I will not soon forget, such as this one from “Diamanda and the Isle of Wives”:

“The babe in arms, the maiden fair
the childhood friend – not one was spared.
Was this an end that you would choose
or was your love of freedom used
to blind your heart and cruelly cloak
the wicked plans of wicked folk?”

It is thus with some humility that I recognized in this collection several of my own errors as a writer, yet Hutchings’ successes are all to his own credit, and many of the stories and the stanzas from his poems will no doubt remain in my mind for some time to come, drawn up by some meandering reflection or other. And after all, this is the lasting power to which all writers, I suspect, actually aspire.

James Hutching’s second collection of poetry and prose “Flights of Fancy” is slated for release on September 28, 2012.

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