Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968 1993
Wesleyan /University Press of New England $35.00 cloth $14.95 paper
by Joshua Weiner
Heather McHugh's selected poems opens with a kind of parable that strikes the major chord of her work to date. In it the poet describes a trip she made to Italy with other "Poets of America," to shmooze officially among Italian literati and administrators. In her pensione room the poet discovers a volume of poetry written by one of the bureaucrats, who on the previous day had "with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated / sights and histories . . ." But not knowing Italian the poet puts the book "back into the wardrobe's dark." That night, at dinner, someone asks "What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think --" The truth
is both, it's both," I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:
The statue represents Girodano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church [. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .] The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which
he could not speak. That's
how they buried him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
poetry is what
he thought, but did not say.
("What He Thought")
McHugh's poems ask "what's poetry?" deliberately and repeatedly. In this poem, what is never said suggests that the saying and the poetry are somehow mutually exclusive, an equation refuting Auden's definition of poetry as memorable speech. In McHugh's overture, the not-saying gets said, as Bruno's very power of speech is acknowledged by the Church hell-bent on silencing him. The paradox of eloquence lies in the bureaucrat's passionate outburst and the poems he himself has written in a language made mute by McHugh's confessed ignorance. McHugh takes such intellectual ironies and makes them felt by structuring them dramatically and by using narrative as a springboard for meditations on God, sex, death, animality, disease, time, and the sedimentary layering of language itself.
Sassy and darting rather than stately and measured, her work is as sensitive to the built-in ironies of speech and as committed to song as Elvis Costello's.
I didn't love a shape
and later find you fit it--
every day your sight was a surprise.
You made my taste, made sense,
made eyes. But when you set me up
in high esteem, I was a star
that's bound, in time,
to fall. The bound's
the sorrow of the song.
I loved you to no end,
and when you said "So far,"
I knew the idiom: it meant So long.
("The Trouble with 'In'")
Boundaries are binding, love limitless; yet in the idiom of lovers, expressions of devotion or ambivalence vibrate with hidden meanings. For McHugh, the deepest intimacies give rise to a language frought with duplicity. The attraction of such writing is in the voicing of bitterness, regret, and lament coupled with a verbal exuberance that plays endlessly with stock phrases, double entendres, root meanings, and puns. McHugh's ear is uniquely tuned to a frequency of contradiction and multiplicity.
Taking a mere scrap of speech as an indication of metaphysical complexity, she sees that the phrase "to have to"
is an odd infinitive, in which
compulsion and possession meet
and share a word together.
Both propose, and both accept;
to have, because it wants to hold;
have to, because it has no will.
But then there is
no past or present, either:
coming's going, in this match.
It's odd because they're two at one
but endless, in the end, in their
capacity to be attached . . .
("To Have To")
McHugh's verbal twisting here is certainly the kind of interrogation of "individual will" one could expect from the post-modern school of "Language" poetry associated with poets like Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman, with its syntactic disruptions and its obsessions with the ideological complicities embedded in the process of reading and writing; yet McHugh's sense of grammar's elasticity has more in common with the Earl of Rochester's energetic and conceptually dazzling poem about the paradoxical nature of Nothing than it does with more current experimental procedures.
Like Dickinson, a poet she greatly admires (and about whom she has written brilliantly in her recent book of essays, Broken English, Wesleyan 1993) McHugh's strengths are rooted in a technical monomania -- but one that sometimes leads her to wildly comic effects:
A name's another thing
in dog-dom. Fido the Uberpooch is dead,
some singing's overcome the underhund.
The underhund's no private
nose or eye. Smell's well, sights bound.
He cops his swill from the bar's back door,
scopes kibble out in big denominations;
even his birthday suit
is finest furs; you'll have
no other dog before me, he rebarks; I'll be
boygone. I'll be
downhome, awaiting his arrival.
What I mean by home is
totally upgussied: I've
got five pink weenies in the microwave
(he loves paw-long hot-men)
The word-play lights up the poem, ringing bells and whizzers like a silver ball striking hot in a pinball machine. One
of the dangers for such a poet is simply
showing off: Deep Thoughts and Wit Aplenty, Inquire Within. So when in another poem McHugh replys to a fellow air traveler's polite inquiry "So what/are your poems about?" with "They're about/their business, and their father's business, and their/monkey's uncle, they're about//how nothing is about, they're not/about about. This answer drives them/back to the snack-tray every time" one can't help feeling sorry for the strawman -- poor guy, with poetry he's just out of his league. . . .
In her better poems, however, the occasion to be clever opens to a genuine richness, as it does in "Language Lesson, 1976":
When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean
he's gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw
a kid on a leash look mom-ward
and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold
the relish. Hold is forget,
On the courts of Philadephia
the rich prepare
to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,
doubletalk mean lie. I'm saying
doubletalk with me. I'm saying
go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,
and let me be
the one you never hold.
Although she favors the iamb, McHugh is committed to the improvisation of intellect as it leads her down a zig-zagging path of associations. Likewise, one can count on her to rhyme a poem's last word without being able to predict oneself the placement of the first word in the pair, as rhymes fall unexpectedly through the poem's score. For McHugh, rhyme often becomes another element in her "centrifugal spray" rather than a necessary ordering principle. The full rhyme "untold/hold" paradoxically sounds a coupling that negates itself. To be "the one you never hold" is to be the one not forgotten; to make "nothing without words" is to make love: the poem says two things at once, insisting on its ability to do so. This lack of resolution puts rhyme to an unusual purpose -- that of open-ended suspension -- and deepens McHugh's wit, bringing it close to Celan's dictum, "speak, but don't split yes from no."
The irresolvable is a common enough state in the country of romantic catastrophe. It is less common, perhaps, in the elegy, where resolution and ending become subjects for despair. In McHugh's poems, death comes in the shape of a question mark, an existential uncertainty. In "What Hell Is," the poet describes the predicament of dying in a household stocked with modern conveniences:
The man who used
to love his looks
is sunk in bone
and looking out.
Framed by immunities
of telephone and lamp
his mouth is shut,
his eyes are dark.
While we discuss despair
he is it, somewhere
in the house. Increasingly
he's spoken of, not
with. In kitchen
conferences, we come
to terms that we can
bear. But where
is he? In hell,
which is the living room.
In hell, which has
an easy chair.
For a poet who rarely resists any opportunity for a paranthetical aside, there is a concentration of vision here that poignantly and sparely highlights the terror of a diseased alienation.
Sometimes McHugh's "will to be peculiar" (her own phrase for Dickinson) encourages a syntactic and semantic contraction into enigma; sometimes her jokes overkill. Such faults have developed among persistent strengths: in these formally distinctive, deeply felt, and intellectually challenging poems, McHugh has invented a style for herself that acknowledges the materials and contingencies of language without sacrificing poetry's primal resource in song.