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The Father of the Predicaments
Wesleyan/University of New England, $19.95 (cloth)
by Richard Howard
May Swenson gone, the Coven has wanted for its requisite sorceress. Herewith, after five earlier collections of verse, aspiring and accomplished in equal parts; after plausible translations of Follain and (with Nikolai Popov) Blaga Dimitrova; and after a volume of quite sanely conducted (though suffusively high-spirited) arguments with the medium--stirrings of the cauldron, one might say; and, crucially, upon the vivid evidence of this new book, the demonstrated determination "to follow every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam," what better logopomp to fall back upon, or leap ahead with, than Heather McHugh herself? High spirits are certainly the proper motive for such an election: no other poet of her generation has so voraciously exhibited (so vulnerably exposed, some might say) that reliance upon the manteia of language itself (herself? Is such poetry, like weaving and pottery, the Woman-Text, in the phraseology of, say, Robert Bly?) as indeed the one reliable thing. If "the father of the predicaments is Being," as McHugh breezily reminds us Aristotle once said, then the mother of predication must be language, and it would appear, from McHughs mastery of these mysteries, that our parlance itself is gendered, is sexed, is given over to the rites of the Good Goddess, "abuzz with iss / Etymologies."
Hers is the veridical language poetry, a method (if not a system) of charms and spells, recipes and incantations that will conduct the willing initiate up Dickinsons stairway of surprise and away from "the sheer opacity of things" into the transparency of meaning. Certainly the task is an inveterate and continuous one, always to be plied and pursued with the harassing awareness that:
untranslated, unplumbed. A million herring run where we
catch here a freckle, there a pock. The depths to which things live
words only glint at. Terns in flight work up
what fond minds might call syntax; as for that
semantic antic in the distance, is it whiskered fish,
finned cat? Forget the words, the world is too
amazing to be true[.]
McHughs supreme qualification to assume the office of Hex Pontifex, lately vacated by the author of Things Taking Place, is her acceptance, rather her glee, that this never-to-be-concluded labor must be the case: an amateur clairvoyant (the minor poet) is depressed by the invariant necessity, the poem always to be written over, never "definitive" because it could not account for the whole case; but the real right witch is elated by just this approximative "predicament"; her poetry never defines (which means putting an end to something), only--only!--identifies:
it is again, the mind, with its
old bluster, its self-centered
is dimming, what is bright?
The spirit sinks and swells, which cannot tell
itself from any little luster.
Even such meager snatches as I have cited of her strange device make it clear that McHugh by now is eager to braid her virtuoso technologies back into her general texture, her rhymes into her ongoing, not her terminal, relations. She exults in using all the recondite hardware her ancient art affords, artifices of the pythoness that were not to be revealed, precisely, to an audience hungry for reassurance, for certitude, and mistrustful of such elemental strategies as clandestine rhyming hexameters:
So there it is again, the mind, with its old bluster
Which cannot tell itself from any little luster.
The chief effect (result of her literalizing tactic) of such rhetoric will be wonder, the inevitable result of magic. Most of McHughs poems end in a spurt, as they proceed in a slather, of just such astonishment as is bestowed--afforded--by taking apart a phrase or a word that the language has crystallized below the tension of the lyre. McHugh thus reveals that there is signification beneath or within the surface of every move we make, of every phrase we repeat ("the future cannot help / but cut you down to size"), and she wrings a metaphysical pathos from the very temerity (call it the poetical unconscious) that "normally" carries us over the very gulfs she chooses to plumb:
to a logos and back, you go flinging
the thing that you are--and you sing
as you dare--on a current of
nerve. On a wing
and a wing.
Not, it will be noted, on a wing and a prayer. Starting from her elegy for a dying musician (carefully titled "Not a Prayer"), McHugh hasnt much truck with prayer, for what deity could she invoke but the very medium of the invocation? Hers is an immanent will if ever there was one, and she ends her new book, as I have just quoted, with an axiological pair of poems to the verbal birdlime in which she is so giddily entrapped, the second of which, "Etymological Dirge" is really a victory song of the entranced diviner, greedily going about her endless task of translating, of plumbing earth (one is fatally tempted to make the McHughian pun about plumbing as getting to the bottom of depths by means of fresh channels, piping):
and winning in the sufferer.
Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.
Id like to loiter a moment over this hypostatization of wonder as the signification of McHughs art, or at least of her rhetoric. For it seems to me she participates in one of the great sensibility-shifts of "our" modernity by her constant assertion and management of this emotion, which has until very recent times been gainsaid as a means of knowledge, of power, even of value. When the miraculously gifted Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Second was hailed as the "Stupor Mundi" he was the wonder of the world, all right, but there lingers about the phrase to our later sense a certain numbness, phlegm, and daze. Dr. Johnson regarded wonder as a breach in reason, hardly the desirable resonance for a grown-up reader. And it is only in our century, in the makings of just such wizards and sibyls as McHugh (or Dinesen, or Szymborska--are they characteristically women?), that wonder is no longer regarded as the appanage of ignorance and provincialism, but rather as an instrument of cognition, the means of discovering the paternity Aristotle assigned to Being, that "claim of presence to be lasting," which is the true and proper subject of this brilliant and important poet.
I must indicate a special interest in my observations. About thirty years ago (more!), I published, in a now-defunct periodical of which I was the poetry editor, what I believe was one of McHughs first poems, concerning a longed-for punishment invoked by a woman starved for (erotic?) fulfillment. The poem was called "Housework," as I remember it, and I find it wonderfully reworked five books later in "Sizing," in which the old sado-masochistic sense of chastening is perceived as parcellary to the even older sense of changing for the better. The splendid little poem is an appropriate envoy to these admiring remarks:
Wheres my hairbrush? Wheres the belt?
I want my switch. I need that cane. Just let me get
my hands upon that licking-stick, and then
well take the starch right out of you.
Your hide is fixing for a tanning. Just you wait
What hit you you wont know. The future cannot help
but cut you down to size. Its feeling for you,
more and more apparently parental,
cannot help but grow.
"Apparently parental" strikes the typical note--outrageous, even obvious, but undiscovered and true--of McHughs sorcery.
Richard Howard is professor of practice at Columbia Universitys School of the Arts. His most recent book is Trappings.
Originally published in the April/May 2000 issue of Boston Review