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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

John Couth reviews

Inside to Outside
by Christopher Gutkind

104pp, Shearsman Books.
$14 (USA) £8.95 (UK)
0-907562-80-0 paper

This review is about 5 printed pages long.

Throughout Inside to Outside we’re invited to explore the intricate and tenuous relationship between inner self and a phenomenal world. A starting point from which Gutkind guides us on a reductio back into questioning the precise nature and existence of the I and, through a labyrinth of thought, guesswork and dream, towards a definition which finally eludes in the drift of transient, unsure, unsecured function.

The collection’s opening poem concludes:

    I see someone’s life is bent
into a question mark,

awake without answer
will gradually be felt

my life taking its shape,
    the shape
taking its place.


Bent to this shape, the poet is characterised as a questioning but passive observer. From the outset, we’re challenged to consider what in a person’s life amounts to volition and what to chance. Then challenged further to penetrate the perplex: if the inner world moulds our perception of the outer, so that what’s believed ‘shapes’ what we perceive, then how does it ever become possible to articulate a description of the truth.

In ‘Mould’, we’re offered a description of the precariousness and fragility of this inner being:

I am the still sometimes put hyphen
    between non and fiction.
Or I tremble within it, haphazardly boring

a way out, falling off its end only to
    swing from the thread and crawl on its
underside, easily, spinning back and forth

between its buttresses. (I’m that small.)
    If I stake my dreams it’s only
not to lose my way


In a metre that’s controlled and well crafted and a diction that’s fresh, direct and uncomplicated, the poet unfolds his skill in presenting complexities of psychology and philosophy, all the time maintaining an honest familiarity with the reader, as if discussing a problematic love affair with a close friend. The stanza that sums up the daring underlying this technique is found in ‘Concentrate’:

I would extend a foot
past the edge of my mind’s eye.
   It acts as a diving-board,
for a moment I’m unground
    and sinking.


In the poem ‘Here’, elements of the exterior world become personified, endowed with a separateness and independent ego. Then follow several poems exploring the essence and function of a name, the poet’s own, and again we’re reminded of how something so personal can slip away, returning us, inexorably, to the dualistic landscape of self and other:

its definition grew,
    spawning itself, each one speaking
something in common

and something else,
    its life becoming remote with age
till it called again

hearing a child answering


And in ‘Visit’, where the ability of a name to encapsulate us is encountered and dismissed:

and I’m jealous
    of those flat worlds that wrap us up
to move about at leisure


However, Gutkind concludes through the poem that human completeness is only possible when another individual takes the trouble to penetrate the surface label and seek to comprehend what lies beneath. This collection offers his suggestions as to the nature and function of the ideas, guesses and dreams that lie beneath the surface of what we are. Contact is not articulated sensually; indeed, these aren’t poems of sensuality but of a poet who encounters sensuality through the act of writing:

     My mind is lucid
senses tremble on a drop
    a new music arrives
lifetimes shuffle off to sleep
    fingers crook to write

     I wait on each step.


I find echoes here of Deguy’s words, ‘Blind, they’d say of the poet because for him to transform is to discover.’

In the birthday poem, ‘Mother Time’ (a meditation on the title’s twin elements), the intensity of the mother-son relationship is expressed cerebrally and with sensitivity. This in turn leads into the notion of the self existing in the other, before we’re presented with the poem’s second element: the nature and measurability of Time and our relation to it. Time is a human invention and only as such can we measure it; in reality, it’s a word denoting not a phenomenon but an idea, and it’s that idea the poem animates:

What is this thing we’re in
that always goes past us
or stays still as we pass?

                               ‘Mother Time’

Or in the repeated consideration doing or being:

I watch …
it doesn’t always pass by.
Sometimes it’s us passing life by.


Or in the pondering of eternity in transience, this time in the timeless acts:

Again the timeless uses us
in its changing and  (who knows?)
perfect conversation,


This meticulously constructed, sensitively expressed, yet measured poem ponders, almost forlornly, the opportunity for seizing control of our lives against a backdrop of chance:

And sometimes we go with it,
from fate to fate,
in as many ways as we are,

along the umbilical allowance of our lives.


But underlying all is the echoing impotence and fragility of a human life set against an eternal immensity. We hear the poignant, tiny yearning:

remembrance like a battery,
different energies
making or breaking,

each of us a little spark of proof,
wanting to be caught
before we go,


So in the end we’re left with time, encapsulated in ‘another fleshy daydream’, and with thought itself:

I was thinking … it’s a way
of seeing …
stroking something

that never stops.


Or can we be consoled by a paradox the poem offers that, like the poet’s mother and each of his passing days, we, through the experience of our lives, live forever:

And what am I doing
but about to begin another new day,

about to leave the day
I’ve come to adore,
which has happened forever now,


Because these are poems working from the inside out, one is constantly reminded of the inner reference point against which the phenomenal world is measured, a world  — commercial, mediated and progressive — which Gutkind seems to distrust more deeply as the collection advances. This alienation is strongly present in ‘Supermarket’ where the poet, having finished shopping and exited from an unreal world, finds no escape or solace on the outside, just another deception where:

People wander, cars go by,
in the greater market they call community.

They have made it look so real,
so like it’s supposed to be like this.


And in ‘Swimming in America’ where acquisition has replaced religion and routine (as in ‘Commuter man’) has replaced ritual:

I wander the aisles for my needs,
for products to call home.
We wait in line for our plastic communion,
the ringing-up of authorizations,
another dawn, another shower.

                               ‘Swimming in America’

And where object has become purpose:

They carry bags, still, and maps,
and now phones, and other pieces of our soft heroics.
They carry their home in a voice or two.


Neither is there salvation in a benign deity, for with a dark humour and wry dig at Bishop Berkley, Gutkind envisages human existence in ‘Around us’ as a figment of someone’s daydream during a work break, someone who’s about to be disturbed by a friend. There’s no alleviation, only the world as encountered in ‘Triptych’ where emotion and beauty are deluged by data and where the electronic image becomes a threatening new reality.

In ‘Body’ we encounter the future sense of other, the final dualism, through a mind slowly losing touch with its own body. Now the ghost inhabits a metal machine, flesh is displaced and self exists solely as mind:

Body, body me, will you be happier
when you’re made more metally,
when you’ve lost the loss of larger, older currents?


This idea of flesh replaced by metal is picked up from ‘Triptych’ and examined further in the collection’s final section ‘2000–2170’, a science fiction exploration of the phenomenon become reality and its consequences on human perception. In the poem ‘2170 (Other)’, robot humans ponder a photograph of their ancestors ‘unreal in their fragility’ and give thanks for what they’ve become. ‘And flying out of time / and out of space’ encounter their eternity, while we’re invited to consider whether the price was worth paying, balancing their un-human certainty against our quest for the truth:

We live between natures and certainties,
chemistries and physics,
we guess to know .

                               ‘2120 (Death II)’

Inside to Outside is a collection full of ideas, focus, clear expression and well constructed, sustained verse from the pen of a poet who’s ‘still looking out’ for those who are doing likewise: readers eager to think, to confront and to experience. Dealing with issues, such as genre, progress, commercialism and the public space, his perspective though intensely private is expressed with a directness and honesty that makes it a pleasure to engage with. Even if Gutkind’s not offering neat answers, his questions resonate.

John Couth

John Couth