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by Heather McHugh
Wesleyan University Press, $20 (cloth)
The dexterous, anagrammatic intelligence of Eyeshot, Heather McHugh’s seventh collection, nearly overwhelms. Pleasures abound; lines tumble over themselves, each finding its logic buried in the music of its predecessor: “this cursive, this subversive currency!” When McHugh pushes this logophilic thinking into the visual, as in “Significant Suspicions” (“or old ardented ear-rings . . . Oddly one / lives on, continually”), where ears are “ardented” by the rings that frame them (“or,” “old,” “oddly,” “one”), she writes with a facility unmatched since James Merrill. But this relentless virtousity grows (at times) oppressive. In “Goner’s Boner,” it is difficult not to regret her morbid, pun-rabid fascination with a hanged man’s posthumous erection: “there he hangs / but it does not.” And when in “Songs for Scientists” she asks, “Do you / prod for God’s address? grope to learn / if love survives?,” it is difficult to ignore the strong epistemological differences between the “probing” scientific labor she evokes and the synthetic nature of her own work, whose ethos is predicated on the notion that “coincidence / is not an accident. It surfaces in order for the eye / (and its possessive mind) to love.” But McHugh’s poems do not grope, and we’re forced to ask what to make of a lyric form whose reach is exactly its grasp. The poems find their pleasure in constant performance, their meaning in points that connect and then divide: the sky “falls into rubrics”; “my one” becomes “money”; Being “yearns to multiply.” These points of connection are a kind of grace, and it is the poet’s wonderful intelligence that makes them possible. Rarely, though—and perhaps this is a petty complaint in a book so full of pleasures—do they show the urgency implicit in Sylvia Plath’s defense of virtuosic performance: “Five bright brass balls! / To juggle with, my love, when the sky falls.” The difference between “falling” and “falling into rubrics” is the difference between catastrophe and categorization.
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