Heather McHugh & Herman Melville
Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses one or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work.
Herman Melville - born August 1, 1819, New York City, New York
Heather McHugh - born August 20, 1948, San Diego, California
1 - McHugh: "The World Cannot Stop Moving"
In the poems of Heather McHugh, "the form of life / is a motion." Movement means change. Motion spurs emotion: "We move, we are moved. / It runs in the family. / For the life of us / we cannot stand to stay."
The changes that motion embodies are constant, unpredictable. Someone is struck by lightning. "I'm different now forever," the person says. "My hair used to be straight. / My eyes -- you see? They're gray as ash. / They used to be light blue." Yet this singular experience applies to us all: "You live, // if you're lucky, but take my word -- // it changes how you look."
McHugh's poems are sexy, and a lot of what's sexy about them is their quicksilver eroticism, their swift dark flow. Love is a dare, a risk of rushing into dangerous changes. The risk is irresistible: "Give me a spike / in my EKG. The moment's meant / to jump, the moon returns, the drumhouse rolls us // all around." The world of constant motion is charged with sexuality, with life: "The river holds the sky and yet / they move."
2 - Melville: Kennel Bound
The average Heather McHugh poem is better than the best Herman Melville poem. His poetry is mostly in his prose. The language of Moby Dick is as resourceful as great verse. Yet his poems are cautious, limp. They're exactly what you wouldn't expect. They're heartbreaking to read. They expose just how completely his setbacks broke him as a writer. But broke is too romantic a word. It's uglier than that. His work calcified. He went brittle, stiff.
Earlier, from 1846 to 1857, he had chased his ambitions with violent dedication. The mixed reactions to Moby Dick discouraged him, but he pushed on. He leaped into Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales. Slowly his publishers and editors lost confidence in him. After the failure of The Confidence-Man in 1857, he gave up. He looked for shelter, turned to verse. I'm here, he seemed to say. I'm staying in the kennel. I'm not doing anything wrong. I promise to keep my barking quiet.
3 - McHugh: "The Single Truth is Simply False"
The MacArthur Foundation gave Heather McHugh its "Genius" grant in 2009. She's been as honored in her lifetime as Melville was neglected in his. She grew up in Virginia, studied at Harvard. The New Yorker accepted one of her poems when she was seventeen. She was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 1994 and for the Pulitzer in 2004. In 2007 she served as guest editor for the Best American Poetry series.
Dangers, her first collection, appeared in 1977. It opens with an epigraph from Robert Browning: "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things." This comes from one of Browning's persona poems, "Bishop Blougram's Apology." From the start McHugh announces her Browning-like interest in creating characters. Here and in her second collection, A World of Difference, she disowns the confines of the confessional poetry of Lowell and Plath. She evades what she calls the "I-I-I-I-I" of their self-absorption. The poet has to slip outside herself. She must see from stances other than her own: "The single truth is simply / false; the truth is never more / than an example."
Browning is self-conscious about his masks. He sets himself off from his creations so nobody will confuse him with them. McHugh is much less concerned about fixing the line between the personal and the invented. She commits so powerfully to each poem that the experiences in it seem fully lived. It's sometimes hard to tell the confessions from the constructions. This seems to be how McHugh wants it.
4 - Melville: "All Wars Are Boyish"
Battle-Pieces is Melville's most memorable collection. It's a citizen's view of the Civil War. The poems tour Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Sherman's March, Appomattox. The theme is national: "I muse upon my country's ills -- / The tempest bursting from the waste of Time / On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime."
Melville supports the war but knows its costs. "All wars are boyish," he admits, "and are fought by boys." The sight of young soldiers "marching lustily" is the "saddest that eyes can see." In one of his verse's few famous passages, he speculates: "How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime / Would come to thin their shining throng?"
5 - McHugh: "A Fool for Feeling"
The speed of McHugh's poems hurtles the reader forward. Her line breaks surprise us as they rush us down the page. Her enjambments delight. Combining rejection with agitation, she says, "the room won't settle / for me." A girl spins and ages: "Windmill of ankles / and wrists, she had to turn // thirteen." A father mingles bulb and mischief, proposes "a little man / in each refrigerator, making / light of cold." A question pits noun against verb: "How much can a brain stem / stem?" Time rotates: "Circular / argument, a clock returns / to where it started."
More elaborately, McHugh will trick us through a series of wordplays: "I (happening to be / alive -- or feeling alive, feeling a- / round -- a / fool // for feeling!) found / you fond as well..." Those double-slashes for the stanza break are worth thinking about: the movement from stanza to stanza matters as much to McHugh as the movement from line to line.
Deft internal rhymes further energize the verse. Slant rhymes, mosaic rhymes, propulsive verb rhymes all drive the poems with obsessive urgency, accompanied by flashy combinations of polysemy, homonymy, every variety of alliteration. A body "will choke on mushrooms, soak its bones / before it thinks to suck and be sucked dry." Puzzles surface in a playful meditation on seven preserved brains: "Do you // prod for God's address? grope to learn / if love survives? hope to know if thunder's / good?" A lonely individual (a "spinster" in the original Dangers volume, changed to a "solitary" in a revised version of the poem) talks about the way things split in nature: "Rocks too / crack / along pre-extant tracks. / Weakest at the spine, down lines / of symmetry, the shell, / the skull / tapped by a gentle hammer, tell / the halves of life / beginning and life loss." Conjuring up the hillside chutes that drop felled trees to the shore in the Pacific Northwest, McHugh writes: "So a pine slides down to a seafold, a freehold / of facets, all my ownerships and signage not- // withstanding."
With her tone of breezy, often humorous intimacy, McHugh usually boards the roomy jet of everyday American English, yet seldom keeps to the main cabin with the other passengers. She takes the controls and pilots the plane as high as she can fly it. In a Laundromat, the "cold air / at a doorway's whim relieves / the room's held breath." Meanwhile the social, political, and romantic turns of the same poem spin into action: "In each convex eye, in each fat / churning watergate of suds, intolerance. / They'll have no dirty laundry here. / Love, we are washed up." A bicentennial poem tries to free up some of the self-imposed bonds on our national speech: "When Americans say a man / takes liberties, they mean / he's gone too far." McHugh's descriptions, swift and fresh, can be as nimble as expert magic tricks: "The subway is a wind / instrument with so many stops." And: "The cars approach and then get swallowed up / in wet hedge, shine transmogrified to hiss; / the hedge grows fast and faster on this / diet of wet traffic, deepening my ear and eye."
6 - Melville: "A Perverted Bunker Hill"
McHugh's nerve and virtuosity lay bare Melville's tentativeness in verse. He spent decades using poetic forms he could never master.
McHugh thinks in meter and rhyme. They're as instinctive to her as sprinting and jumping are to an Olympic hurdler. With Melville, the strain is constant. Even lines that read well in isolation lose their pith in context. "This bluff's a perverted Bunker Hill," he writes in Battle-Pieces. That's a fair statement of what was both understandable and disgraceful in the South's romanticism. But it becomes a disaster when put back among the lines leading up to it: "The rebel is wrong, but human yet; / He's got a heart, and thrusts a bayonet. / He gives us a battle with wondrous will -- / This bluff's a perverted Bunker Hill."
I doubt Melville read other poets' verse this badly, with such a thudding metrical beat and such exaggerated end-stopping. But after all his years of writing increasingly experimental and varied prose, he simply couldn't make his language thrive inside his new self-imposed cages.
As a poet, Melville is a conformist. His conformity is strict. It doesn't release his originality, as it does with McHugh, or with poets as varied as Marilyn Hacker and Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy. It traps him. It tames him. It makes it nearly impossible for him to speak.
7 - McHugh: "The Storm in Us is Nothing"
In 1994, McHugh published Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993. The book is a retrospective of her career up to that point, and includes revised versions of much of her earlier writing.
Hinge & Sign also features quite a few new poems. They're some of McHugh's best work. They bring into prominence many of the themes the later verse has developed: death and the afterlife, God and religion, love and loss, children and birth, nature and humanity, being and consciousness. They're not small themes, and McHugh is passionate and often deeply moving in her pursuit of them.
The passion is married to a fresh sense of tragedy and bleakness. "It's fifty years before a person // seems to get the drift: the storm in us is nothing / next to the storm we're in; and the storm we're in / is plainer yet: it's simply nothing next." Yet there's no surrender in McHugh's clear-sighted maturity. She suggests "we shall not overcome, except / in undergoing more" and the poems here are thrillingly alive. She's more pessimistic about our experiences now, yet has grown stronger in her ability to convey them. This combination gives her verse its appealing warmth, wrapped inside her cool wit, a reverse Baked Alaska effect: "The possibilities become us, / even in our sleep -- the whirl // belongs to flesh, the humming / to electrons -- being we could keep, / buzzes we could get."
8 - Melville: "Cynic Tyrannies of Honest Kings"
The standout poem in Battle-Pieces is "The House-Top." It visualizes the New York Draft Riots. Unusual for Melville, it's written in blank verse, a flexible iambic pentameter.
We're on the roof of a New York house at night. Melville imagines the city's maddening summer heat. Then we see the rioters starting to move through the streets: "The Town is taken by its rats --ship-rats / And rats of the wharves."
The rats Melville had in mind were the city's white workers. Many of them were Irish immigrants. They opposed the war, but couldn't afford to buy their way out of the draft. In July 1863 they attacked the main draft office. This started three days of rioting. Much of their violence was directed against blacks, and against anyone considered sympathetic to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Melville thinks the rioters' brutality and racism represent a collapse into hidden savagery: "man rebounds whole aeons back in nature." Then the army arrives. Its methods are extreme. Violence is overwhelmed by even greater violence, "the midnight roll / Of black artillery."
The use of force speaks in a "code corroborating Calvin's creed" of innate human depravity. The code also justifies the "cynic tyrannies of honest kings," the conviction that despotism is the only realistic check on our natural tendencies toward cruelty and bloodshed. The poem detects the threat to democracy in the dictatorial powers that Lincoln and the North have exercised for the attack on the rioters.
Melville clearly believes the army did what was necessary. Yet he's less interested in passing judgment than in rendering the contradictions of a complicated event. He writes: "the Town, redeemed, / Gives thanks devout; nor being thankful, heeds / The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied." This faith "holds that Man is naturally good, / And – more -- is Nature's Roman, never to be scourged."
If the belief in human goodness is hollow, as the army's actions seem to show, the basis for democracy is endangered. Only the "cynic tyrannies of honest kings" will remain, and the great American experiment will fail. Fascism, Melville worries, is always waiting to pick up the slack in our convictions.
9 - McHugh: "Being Born"
McHugh's next book, The Father of the Predicaments, came out in 2001. McHugh explains the title early on: "The father of the predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being." The line comes from "Not a Prayer," a long poem on the last days of a cellist, one of McHugh's most valued friends and mentors -- background information that McHugh has volunteered. Yet the poem is less about death than about dying. The problems of being continue to run through our final hours, and burden those who are there for our end. The cellist, on her deathbed, mistakes a nurse for "someone her husband cheated with / a thousand years ago." McHugh notes: "It seems we have to die the way we lived. / The nurse departs, and love, / that history of strangleholds, / has left [the cellist] with / the likes of us."
Being is taken up explicitly again in some of the book's shorter poems. In one, a father figure haunts a girl's dreams. At the same time, in imagination or memory, the girl experiences the sexual side of being's predicament: "Outside / In the dark of the world, at the foot / Of the library steps, there lurked / A Mercury of rust, its cab half-lit." Inside this vehicle, the "Two worldly forms who huddled there / Knew what they meant." The girl seems aware of the couple as she moves through the library next to their car. Gradually she registers their significance, their forecast of the difficulties of existence, the problems her sexuality and her relationships will someday pose for her. "I had no business / With the things they knew," she says. "Nor did I feel myself / Drawn back through Circulation into Reference, / Until I saw how blue I had become, by virtue / Of its five TVs, their monitors abuzz with is's // Etymologies." Those monitors buzzing with being, with their etymologies of is, anticipate the girl's future. They wash her in the charged electric-blue light she will spend the rest of her life absorbing.
The problems of being include the problems of birth. In "For Raya," the idea of "being born" captivates McHugh: "Once we were born, and now / we are born." She feels "a lingering confusion at this / radical rewrite, the root retort, the claim / of presence to be lasting." Contemplating birth, she opens up some of the riddles in our most fundamental conjugation: "All it turns upon / is us -- the billions of us persons, / each an utmost, with a verb / to be -- for whom / the being born is passive / only grammatically."
10 - McHugh: "You'll Fill Me with Children"
"For Raya" demonstrates McHugh's offbeat gift for writing about what might be called questions of generation: birth, babies, children. McHugh comes at these topics from such oblique directions that their pattern has taken years to emerge.
Yet they've been part of her verse from the beginning. Dangers describes how "your planned child and your grand- / mother rise as a sound / and single sweetness in the aural / shell you carry from amphibian history." In A World of Difference, a woman thinks: "You'll fill me / with children, make me grave. I say yes, / let's get down to it, let the darker things be saved." The man in "Kindling" wants to make his lover pregnant "tonight, this minute." The woman finds the possibility disturbing yet enticing, as potentially all-consuming as a fireplace "feverish for wood." Linking up with this ambivalence, "What the Old Women See" introduces a baby whose "heavy head keeps tipping over" while four boys fight in an alley, "three on one." The poem hints that the boys -- three bullies and their target who "won't give up" -- will become the old men playing cards in the park and "forgetting / the wives in their dark apartments." Still, the lure or allure of parenthood remains. "Retired Schoolteacher" finds a woman sleeping and trying to remember "an animal," a starfish that might be the baby she expected when she was young. "It is much too late for children," she muses. "That sinks in."
It's with Hinge & Sign, though, that the generation issue, the issue of issue, comes into its own. Here McHugh considers children from the perspective of nonparents, the voices of women who haven't become mothers. These voices -- separate individuals or separate slices of the same individual -- are transfixed by the kids they encounter. They feel their way into the children's lives, through a combination of scrutiny and protectiveness.
"The Size of Spokane" follows a toddler, "a homely little pale and headlong / stumbler" moving down an airplane aisle. He runs "back and forth / across a sunblazed circle on / the carpet -- something brilliant, fallen / from a porthole." A passenger studies him from her seat. It occurs to her that "everyone was / sunstruck once, and set adrift. / Have we forgotten how / astonishing this is?" Then she takes off into a vision of the toddler's future, channeled by her on-flight viewing of Lethal Weapon 3: "In a flash / the baby's old; Mel Gibson's hundredth comeback seems / less clever; all his chases and embraces / narrow down, while we / fly on (in our / plain radiance of vehicle) // toward what cannot stay small forever."
"Better or Worse" starts with a woman watching kindergarteners pass her porch. "I wasn't meant // to grab them, ever," she notes, and adds: "my lot was not / to have them, in the flesh." She wonders if it's "better or worse to let / their lovability go by untouched, and just / watch over their river of ever-braiding relations." Their sense of promise startles her. But from her position "they were one whole baby-rush toward / a target, toward the law / of targets, fledge / in the wake of an arrowhead; // a bull's-eye bloomed, a red / eight-sided sign." The poem ends grimly: "What / did I wish them? Nothing I foresaw."
Both "The Size of Spokane" and "Better or Worse" enlarge on work that Hinge & Sign preserves from McHugh's earlier volumes, poems like "Point of Origin" from her collection To the Quick. And it's surely no accident that the final Hinge & Sign poem connects childbirth directly to one of McHugh's other obsessions, death. Originally written for the 1988 volume Shades, "From 20,000 Feet" again seats us aboard an airplane. A flyer dwells on death as she coasts along the clouds. Yet she tempers her thoughts with the most optimistic notion of surviving our end that McHugh has ever conceded. "The foetus, // expert at attachment, / didn't dream that / cramped canal would open // into sound and light and love -- / it clung. It didn't care. The future, / looked like death to it, from there."
11 - Melville: Clarel
As "The House-Top" demonstrates, blank verse might have let Melville fold some of the virtues of his prose into his poetry. But Clarel, the giant poem he wrote from 1867 to 1876, is done in rhyming iambic tetrameter. Every page is timid, sluggish, unsure of its voice: "'Twas then when Celio was lanced / By novel doubt, the encounter chanced / In Gihon, as recited late, / And at a time when Clarel too, / On his part, felt the grievous weight / Of those demoniacs in view."
Melville hasn't really designed Clarel to be read. He just wants to be left alone with his pet theological interests. Yet he also seems to hope that his new mildness and aesthetic conservatism will regain him the respect of the critics who had ignored or rejected him since Moby Dick. Even more than Pierre, Clarel is wrecked by compromise. Melville has made the book plodding and mundanely philosophical. He lacks the confidence to release the flamboyance of his genius, but still wants to create the impression that he's a serious writer. It's depressing to see.
12 - McHugh: "Branded by Eye on Brainpan"
Eyeshot, McHugh's 2004 collection, moves from the problems of being to the related problems of awareness: what we see, sense, interpret.
"The mind," she says, "is made / to discipline the eye so that the eye / can aim the mind." Eyeshot is the word for our self-possessed perceptions: "The truck's own / motion in the midnight drove, / by pointillistic billions, into eyeshot, sycophants the host was both attracting and attracted to." Lightning strikes: "In a flash, in pure detail, mind-boggling / miles unfurl, each inch of the endless world (out of no mere mean- / whiled sense of time) is branded by eye on / brainpan."
The lightning reveals too much for us to take in. Our perceptions overwhelm us. They defeat anyone who wants to control their abundance: "But let the minders (screwed in their / stead, bolted in their sleep) be / by the vault's live deep / revolted." A flood, in turn, forces us to see what we would rather not come to know. It carries "the shine-slide" of objects caught in the waters toward a "mob of suds, mud / in your eye." The gleam of things washes away. "Downline," the flood-watcher concludes, "it's not / our substance pours away: it is our shine."
Flipping this around, another poem complains about finding too much color, about being "shot to green-red smithereens" by the "looks things level at my eye." A photographer rides in a car with the shutter open on her camera. She passes through "coordinates of windowsash and intersection," sees "the molten car-flow, human hurry." She reflects: "The fixed and flowing / indistinct, the world might not be lovable. And yet -- and yet -- // and yet we love."
13 - McHugh: "If God Is Man"
Eyeshot's fascination with consciousness includes a fascination with our understanding of religion. If McHugh is an atheist, she's an atheist who can't stop arguing with God. She seems to consider him a useful fiction. Explicitly male and fatherly, he compels her curiosity. He also serves as a victim and perpetrator of the forces or delusions we've created with language. This God might be all word, Logos Ltd., and being all word isn't all good.
"Meaning Business," from A World of Difference, makes an early pass at the word of God or the God of word. In the beginning, "God romped in a fit of glee, apropos / of nothing." Then language took hold: "The writers, meaning business, / came calling him names." In later collections, McHugh toys with a variety of tacks toward loosening God from the words of the past. A poem in To the Quick proposes: "The whole // idea of love was not to fall. / And neither was the whole idea of God. We put him well / above ourselves, because we meant, / in time, to measure up." According to "Big Ideas Among Earthlings," any sighting of God, or of gods, might require a microscope more than a telescope. "You look // about, above, for lords and kings. But given / what we know of strangeness, given what we know of charm, / perhaps the god is small, not big, / who keeps us from harm." In Shades, a woman finds God in a Eucharistic blowjob: "I open up / my mouth and find / you've filled it full / of flesh. I mean // you made me feel / the way I feel / so words would not / be proud. I know. / You made men so I'd kneel." More generally, "Spilled" wonders if everything said in every room on Earth "might add up to a single animal's / identifying cry." The cry might then form a message to "a God" who offers "bright synaesthesias of sympathy."
The religious poems from Hinge & Sign continue to display a knowingly provocative interest in God's perceived masculinity: "if God is man / I fear I fell -- I mean / I feel -- for him." In addition, the hard-edged compassion behind McHugh's wicked sense of humor comes clear in "The Woman Who Laughed at Calvary." The woman laughs at Christ on the cross because no words will do. "I saw what good // comes to," she says. "I saw the figure / human being cuts, upon its frame." Her laughter is a cry: "For the heart // is a muscle, where cruelty's humored. / The tooth of moral rectitude's / a fang. What I gave // at the sight of him there // was up. What I got / of humanity there / was the hang."
By the time of Eyeshot, McHugh's God is partly dissolved in "the two significant suspicions: / on the one hand that in the scheme of things we matter / marvelously little; on the other, that we are // the scheme of things." Raising a third suspicion, "Song for a Mountain Climber" says we might want a God who is indifferent rather than a God who loves us. Love's foolishness and unpredictability should give us pause: "The thought that God / might care for us is / terrifying." The theme returns in a poem that probes God's oversight of the world. "We need a breeze, // we get a gust. We need a love, you give / a damn: a surface lust." Everything is "woe, woe, woe your boat," and the poem cuts short the nursery rhyme's last line to ask what the hell God is doing: "Life is just -- // is what? -- is just?"
14 - McHugh: "The Chicken in its Place"
Language's forgery of God is, for McHugh, similar to language's forgery of nature. McHugh is seldom described as a nature poet. She lacks the static pastoral slant that makes much nature poetry so hard to read. Yet her collections burst with dogs and rocks, seals and trees, bees and snow, chimps and mountains and roses.
She wants to startle us into rethinking nature, apart from our presumptions. "The chicken in its coop," she says, "the chicken in its roasting pan, the chicken / in its place, I mean, with ruffles / of parsley at its ankles, doesn't seem / indecent." Impishly, she brings us to attention: "you sit [the chicken] up / on the edge of a table and / cross its legs and look: / it's naked."
She picks at our relationship with nature, and at our urge to deny or dictate that relationship. "They love us, don't they, louse and gadfly, / centipede and roach?" she asks. "Our habits are their habits, // and our waste their luxuries." They even have a dimension of good citizenship: "Their host is not // beneath them yet -- and yet he's not dependably / above. That is the one American // condition of the love." Note that first "yet," slyly following "beneath," and you can see why McHugh's nature writing is in a class of its own.
15 - Melville: "Billy in the Darbies"
Melville was a Custom House inspector for nearly twenty years. He started in 1866, the year he published Battle-Pieces. He then retired in 1885. After this, he brought out two privately printed poetry collections. John Marr and Other Sailors, the 1888 collection, is salty with sea-slang and shipboard histories. Timoleon, the 1891 collection, consists of old and new poems, none especially good.
Four months after the book's appearance, Melville died, but not before his poetry carried him toward one last great work of fiction. Probably in 1886, Melville wrote the first draft of the poem "Billy in the Darbies." The poem gave rise to Billy Budd, finished but unpublished at the time of his death.
"Billy in the Darbies" is part soliloquy, part expanded sea-chantey, like a number of the poems in John Marr. Billy is a sailor waiting to be hanged. He doesn't much resemble the Billy of the novel, but Melville makes this inconsistency part of the narrative. The poem ends the book. Supposedly it's been written by another sailor. It tells the seaborne myth of Billy, the tale which spreads among the crew after his death. It also serves as a counterweight to the equally inaccurate newspaper story that appears in an official naval chronicle.
In the poem, Billy divines his finish with eerie immediacy: "Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep. / I feel it stealing now." He even foresees the way his body will roll as he sinks to the bottom. "I am sleepy," he says, "and the oozy weeds about me twist."
16 - McHugh: "Faster Than the Speeding Hearse"
Death is also coming in Heather McHugh's 2009 collection, Upgraded to Serious. The motion of life now hurtles toward "a nowhere // faster than the newsflash, / faster than the speeding hearse." The deaths of our loved ones rush us to meet our own conclusion: "We wish we could, ourselves, slow down. Instead / we get on with the show. Rehearse / means Quick now, bring those big // black limos back around."
Nothing will hold still. Even the past is crowded out by our continuing day-to-day impressions. Our memories "flew / from every stronghold // and immediacy staked its claims -- / in featherdusting wind, in watercolored name." As in Hardy's "Friends Beyond," the dead talk to us: "One step and we // went meters; seven more, and we became / pure haste: fastheaded, leaving all / steadfastness behind, all tendencies / of centuries toward // the halted hallways, marble men."
Upgraded to Serious reminds us how well McHugh has written on death throughout her career. "Elevated," from A World of Difference, pictures the world stirring around a corpse. It's the same note Hawthorne sounded in The House of the Seven Gables with the upright, seated death of Judge Pyncheon. "The woman no one knows is dead is still / in the chair by the bedroom plant," McHugh writes. "Stripes advance from the blind / to her lap, slower than the human eye can see." In "New Glasses," someone stares at her face in the mirror. She finds her future corpse: "Deadeye in your new glasses / you see the red they speak of. / Now you have your mother's hair, / how she looked as she lay in the box."
McHugh comes to fuller terms with death in The Father of the Predicaments. She studies the cellist's lifeless face. "The head is calm. It has, for once in seven decades, / no more mask of lipstick and mascara. Now I see: / she's beautiful. Each eyebrow exquisite, / and every lash." A haunting nod to the generation poems seals the vision: "Her mother must have felt / precisely this objective an affection, when her own / long day and night of laboring were over."
"The Looker," the poem that concludes Eyeshot, switches to the viewpoint of the corpse itself. A woman describes her cadaver to someone she used to know, seemingly a former lover: "I was as dead as I could be, and you / weren't there." Others hold a mirror up to her face. They want to see if her breath will cloud the glass. "I was a looker at last," she says, "head back, mouth wide / as in a heat or holler." Her tone is deadpan. "I always looked my best astonished," she claims. "With a nose as close to chin / as this, what aesthete would be caught dead with / her mouth shut?" The last lines are both tender and uncanny: "Don't fear to look. Don't look / to stay. Given the almost-clear, the near- / unclouded glass, I did what you / weren't there to do. // I took my breath away."
17 - McHugh: "When Cruelty is King"
In Eyeshot, McHugh still believes in love: love for people, animals, the world. The unlikely and troubling complexity of love has always been the main force resisting her pessimism. Dismayingly, many of the poems in Upgraded to Serious pull even love out from under us.
The voices here often feel isolated in their grimness. "Postcocious" updates the generation poems. The adult watcher is not merely separate from the children she sees but shaken by her inability to share their excitement. They're always bubbling over "at a glimpse / of yellow truck, singing out at every / dog or lollipop -- a drop / of hat will do -- hell, waking up / induces peals of laughter!" She has lost her bond with them: "It's clear / to them what living's for. // It isn't clear to me." Worse, she doesn't believe she can recapture the link to their enthusiasm. "Given / time's best gift, I'm always / scheming to return it. / As for the language / of the love of life -- // when did my soul unlearn it?"
Instead of love, we're left with regret. We also encounter a sharpened awareness of cruelty and raw practicalities. Procreation is a bloody business: "the daughter of the programmer / has got her period. It's all about wetware at last, // and wetware lives in meatspace." A grandmother recalls the messy, destructive sexual attractions that led to her becoming a parent. "The patterns ought to favor / children's best protection -- not // one parent hardened and one hurt; one predator, one weak," she tells us. "But nurturance / appeared to have no part // in our old fastest appetites -- our grappling hooks / and eye-meats." She faces the injuries she both received and delivered in her pursuit of life: "Well, a mortally afflicted tree / will scatter seed. That's nature's way // of furthering its own kind."
Indeed, this is the first McHugh collection to make the cruelty of nature as vivid as the cruelty of human thought and human action. A wanderer through the heartlands keeps up her hope "at every everloving turn. / Every turn, that is, except // the wickedest: when cruelty / comes cackling from its crackhouses in nature." Crows, for instance, "gang up as well, with bloody beaks and / malice and intent, bedeviling some half-defeathered / brother to his death." The wanderer feels the harm these sights do to her. "The heart," she says, "must bear it all, apparently, or burn, or dim, as / claw on claw the creatures in the tank / go scrambling to outclimb the creature crush." The world, she fears, is ready to torture those who love it: "On days like that, when cruelty is king, / and sun in swill appears to swim, I thank / no lucky stars for life: It wants to take a lover // limb from limb."
Yet the vitality of these poems exposes the callowness of any claim that McHugh has lost "the language / of the love of life." She cuts into desolation because she wants to repair our clogged and damaged emotions: a poet's version of open-heart surgery. "I can't regret the spank of life," she writes, "its sparkling more-or-less." She still suspects that all our suffering and foolishness must have their place in the universe. In "Who Needs It," she wonders: "But what's // the message of our massing, / past these minuscules of parts?" Do our experiences "go on for light-years, and convulse // the quietudes of heaven? Wake some star-shells? Stir some dulse?" Her answer helps explain her lifelong passion for movement, her addiction to all our restless motions. "My guess is yes," she says, "since endlessness // needs us to take its pulse."