Risky Business: Accidental Encounters in Heather McHugh's Poems.
Both Mentz and Connolly suggest that the way we imagine our participation in the world affects what we are able to "achieve," though neither envisions "achievement" as reflecting our power or importance. That is, imagining either our own potential mastery of the world or the divinity's mastery of it on our behalf, blinds us to uncountable crosscurrents in systems that evolve and shift, both those systems of which we are part, and those that affect us remotely and unpredictably. When we refuse to recognize that a world of plural processes cannot be made fully subject to our control, and that unintended consequences flow from even the most intentional acts, we forfeit the responsiveness that might allow us to maneuver among processes that exceed us.
The fantasy of secular mastery reinforces the assumption that we can master language, and that we do so for instrumental purposes. We expect to fully control how our words are understood, and to represent a world outside of language with essential transparency. In our quotidian language use we are thus embarrassed by unintended puns or occasional rhymes, patternings that suggest that language itself is a system whose history and ongoing self-organization extend beyond our specific communicative intentions. Coming to realize and appreciate that excess can be an exercise in buoyancy--an experience of how our words' shifting implications open up new possibilities as they encounter the crosscurrents of systems that lie beyond us. Attuned to that encounter, poets (like actors and thinkers working in other discourses and in other ways) can contribute to the remaking of imagination (see Keller 2012: 583).
The notion that poetry may foreground the materiality of language, calling into question meaning's stability and the transparency of representation is not, of course, new to criticism, nor is exploration of these dimensions new to poetry. Indeed, a number of critics have identified such cross-currents as defining poetic language as such (Biasing 2007; Culler 2015, 10-33, 49-77; Kristeva 1980). Heather McHugh's work is, however, particularly notable for foregrounding a poetics of accidental encounter and elaboration. As puns are made possible by adventitious homonyms, which emerge from unrelated etymological developments, so in any poem sound values and writerly and readerly associations and experiences collide and affect each other. McHugh foregrounds such collisions. More than that, she makes something of them--elaborates the ways they carry the poem's meanings beyond any original intention. And because these collisions are unpredictable, following no consistent logic, her texts are loci of singularity and surprise; they are among those which, in Attridge's (2004: 82-83) terms, baffle full explanation on the part of critics. Readers and critics of her poems thus move in the confluence of systems that affect one another but that cannot reduce to a unity, or yield a transparent meaning.
A McHugh poem may catch conventional usage in the act of trying to corral meaning, or it may gesture toward startlingly plural discursive possibilities; in either case, her poems resist plain statement, moving instead by "the whole sensitive discipline of verbal construction and attention to pattern" (McHugh 2002: 183). Analyzing Wordsworth's rhetoric, she writes: "Some amazing lexical and syntactic slippages occur near words that, in themselves, can mean two things at once" (173). Puns, homophones, and sound associations, and their effects in complicating syntax, are crucial to her own poetics, as is the whole notion of desirable slippage, of the surrender that multiplies possibilities. As Langdon Hammer (2006: 42) notes, in ironic understatement, McHugh "doesn't want to nail meaning down."
McHugh's poems thus bear the mark of a sensibility that, as she says, "listen[s] to language before I make it listen to me" (HS xiv-xv). (1) This is true early and late, though perhaps the rhetorical patterning in her poems has intensified in the course of her career, moving her language, and our attention, increasingly to crucial slippages by means of figure and cliche, cadence and internal rhyme, paronomasia and etymology, alliteration and antiphrasis. (2) The accidental encounter between writer and reader that McHugh sometimes represents and often instigates may produce something new: unexpected laughter, an odd insight, a new reading. Or the encounter may be missed. The reader must negotiate plural systems of sound and meaning, plural histories, cross-cutting systems of association. The outcome is not foreordained. At its best,
such a negotiation can offer an experience not of mastery--discursive mastery is called into question at every turn--but of the buoyancy or vitality that characterizes our best response to the world of plural forces we inhabit.
Elegy is traditionally poetry's own moment of discursive mastery, death "the trigger," William Empson suggests, "of the literary man's biggest gun" (quoted in Schenk 1986: 15). In an influential study of the conventions of English elegy, Peter Sacks (1985: 6) has argued that elegies are traditionally structured so as to accomplish what Freud identifies as "the healthy work of mourning." A crucial step in this process is "a withdrawal of affection from the lost object and a subsequent reattachment of affection to some substitute for that object." Thus, for example, after grieving and raging, the poetic speaker in Milton's "Lycidas" arrives at the following consolation:
Now Lycidas, the Shepherds weep no more; Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore, In thy large recompense, and shalt be good To all that wander in that perilous flood.
(quoted in Sacks 1985: 114)
Lycidas, lost to death, is re-found in the elegy as "the Genius of the shore." Ultimately the substitute that consoles is the elegy itself, either in the power of its poetic speaker's language or the speaker's immutable memory of the departed person's voice and song (see Sacks 1985: 216; 297-98). As R. Clifton Spargo (2004: 147) suggests, the elegist's song must persuade mourners that it "succeeds as a fulfillment and replacement of the other's absent voice."
As Spargo also points out, however, while this consolatory substitution neatly serves both the imperative of getting on with life and "the functional autonomy of the self in culture" (19), it may also sacrifice intimations of the otherness of the person lost (27). To the extent that the lost person's voice can effectively be subsumed in the speaker's, or that the survivor can be consoled by a symbolic substitute, the singularity of the lost person is effaced. Mastering loss in this way thus comes at the cost of apprehending those "unknowable, surprising" aspects of the lost person (130). (3)
Such mastery, McHugh's poems suggest, is no consolation. In three elegies in The Father of the Predicaments (1999)--"Not a Prayer," "For Raya," and "Wise Ease"--the speaker mourns precisely those unpredictable encounters that can never be recuperated or mastered. Relation to the loved other transpires, it appears, in tentative readings and unexpected responses, exchanges whose surprise is heightened by the peculiar histories, points of view, and sonic patterning encoded in language itself. A hopeful and fallible process, this neither produces full understanding nor safeguards monumentalized memory as its own symbolic substitute. The loss of the beloved friend as interlocutor, as these poems address it, is thus peculiarly irrecuperable.
The three elegies appear to address the death of a loved older friend, whom reviewers identify as cellist Raya Garbousova, a close friend of McHugh (see Kingfisher 2002: 12; Turchi 2001: 215). "Not a Prayer" draws its epigraph from the book of Revelations: "She is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of a serpent" (12:14). (4) "Times," here, sounds specific and discontinuous, and thus distinct from "time" as a universal sequence in which all things may be located in orderly relations of before and after. Beyond its epigraph, this poem invokes times that are specific to processes, marking their duration and peculiar evolution. Precisely because these times don't melt seamlessly into universal clock-time, they don't afford the mastery a universal vantage point assumes. But more than that, verbal exchanges with the dying woman seem essentially implicated in particular processes and their times; they are not presented as transcendent symbolic statements saved from the wreckage of death. (5) The poem thus poses a mode of reading that refuses the symbolic power assumed for conventional elegy.
This poem, which will end with the loss to memory of a crucial exchange, begins with confusions of time, confusions highlighted by double meanings. The connotations of "We sleep inside a bullet" extend from high-speed travel to mortal obliviousness, and the poem's initial puns are flatly antithetical:
The sun's a red-eye, and the earth a fast blue rushing underneath.
The lines economically suggest the speaker's disorientation, her unmooring in time and space. The sun may look like a red eye, may make the speaker's eyes red, or may remind the speaker of a son's eye red from weeping, but a red-eye conventionally refers to a night flight. Accompanying this abrupt confusion of night and day is a confusion of earth and sky, up and down. The earth may be fast either in the sense of "fixed firmly in place" or in the sense of "speedy," but the blue rushing underneath suggests the sky, as though the speaker were traveling on her head. (6) Figuring the speaker's spatial and temporal unmooring, these lines also exemplify how, as we strain to "understand," language will have its say, drawing in its own history of meanings and connotations, which we must negotiate. Here, "to understand," stand under, unpredictably means to brace the friend's chin to "keep a speaking place from gaping."
The third section, sounding casually oxymoronic, continues to dramatize the confusion of times, most poignantly in "livelong": "Throughout the daylong night, the nightlong day, the livelong time that's left, we mean to be her mates" (FP 3). The "live" in livelong has a different root (leubh) than does "living," one that means "care" or "love." Livelong (meaning "whole") is thus derived from something like carelong. (7) But it sounds like living-long--as long as living--and calls attention to the truncated future tense shared by the dying woman and the watcher. The temporal shape of the process in which they are engaged is entirely different from the universal container-time usually (and grammatically) assumed to stretch indefinitely into past and future.
The sixth section begins:
Who tells the time? A calibration's on the shelf, syringe her husband wouldn't give her. She is not in pain, he says, and he's the doctor. (4-5)
By this point, time is fraught with so much uncertainty that the section's first line reverberates beyond any casual meaning. Since "tells" can mean "recounts" or "discerns," that question may be "Who can recount the particular time of this dying?" or "Whose 'time' should be told?" But it might also be "Who discerns the time, especially the time of the dying woman?" In the second line, "calibration" at first seems to refer to a clock, but in line 3, (as time moves along) it is revealed as a syringe of morphine, a measure of the intense, enduring, evolving time of pain. As the stanza unfolds, the notion of "keeping time" is similarly ambiguous: "but time is going / to be unkept. It has / to tell itself." A timekeeper monitors correct time, but keeping time can also mean maintaining tempo or rhythm in music; the first pertains to clock-time, the second to the rhythms specific to a local, developing process--a process to which neither clock-time nor an authoritative narrative point of view can be adequate.
Time, it appears, tells itself in the evolution of Raya's condition. Section 10 begins: "The days of oi-oi-oi have passed / into the days of oh ..." Shifting syllables fill the unmarked hours, until
for some one hundred minutes more she made an of that sounded something like an awe--but with a hitch. Awe plus a gasp, a flutter, fell. For hours it was awful awful awful. (Who knows if, and at what price, she tried to tell us something with that extra syllable? Or was it just the lung mechanic's mockery? How tell a word from senselessness, a grown-up from his homonym?) (7)
Here, time is kept by the modulation of the dying woman's syllables, the shift from "awe" to "awful." From this process there emerges the triple question that is the stuff of poetry, but here has arrived with an anguished urgency: do her sounds mean, and, if so, what do they mean, and how will we ever know?
In its shaping of time to this very particular process of dying, the poem is haunted by persistent reminders of the truncated future tense. In the ninth section, the poem's speaker offers "a species of muffling song: 'Don't worry, everything will be OK, everything will be OK.'" But "OK" is not the word to which the dying friend responds: "She wets her lips. She's saying something. // 'Everything,' she says" (6). "Will be" disappears, dissolved by the process of dying, leaving only an ambiguous "everything." But the speaker and the dying woman have little time to negotiate the difference of times, to make meaning in relation to them, and the poem will overtly claim that no guarantor, no divine recorder, will supply that meaning. In another passage, the dying woman's husband "holds that arm down for the rest of her life, which is the rest of her night" (8). In ordinary use, "the rest of her life" sounds indefinite, an ever-after; abruptly curtailed, it inflects all the poem's meanings. The second "rest" draws in the dubious relation between death and rest, and, once again, unrelated word histories produce a phoneme, rest, which means both remainder and repose. Can we make something of that? We can, but only in negotiation with plural existing histories, of words and of associations. A language that functioned merely as the transparent medium of preexisting meanings could not have produced this conjunction.
Indeed, the notion that our meanings neither precede nor necessarily outlast our readings is central to this poem, thematically, rhetorically, and painfully. Repeatedly, the speaker anguishes over the adequacy of her readings, as if any inadequacy would be irrecuperable. In the eighth section, she comments on her own transliteration of the dying woman's faltering:
[Full of finished? is that last word AFTER the ellipsis? should it be attached to how, instead of what, she meant? ...
The editorial quandary is in no way trivial. Indeed, that our local meaning and readings are in fact untranscendent and unguaranteed is a focus toward which the poem gathers:
This bracket is the writer's. Who are you? are you? are you?]
Similarly, a note copied in the dying woman's hand insists on the risk of translating meanings from one discourse to another. "The musician // who struggles with words," it warns,
in order to translate musical meaning into non-musical language does so at his or her own peril. (14)
At the poem's end, the speaker evokes a specific, unrepeatable time of the kind that requires reading in the first place, and out of which emerges risky human versions of language, love, and loss:
Wheelchair parked by the piano, one hand on my arm, confidingly (for we are quite alone): "You know, you know, you know . . ." and then-- (without a single balk or reservation) she begins to hum a tune-- ... a piece I do indeed know well, I even hum a while along. But what I know I know by love, and not by heart's remoter rote: I know its course, and not its name-- and without that, and without her, or anybody else to be my witness, because God apparently is not--and if he were, he would not help us, because God (as Cioran says) can't read-- and lacking first the name and now the sound as well--because for me a sound's a time and time's an unrecoverable flow-- because of all of that, and more, I can't begin to tell you......... .......................... what did she mean? (17-18)
The very discontinuities or collisions that necessitate reading--those between sound and sense, and among unrelated histories, points of view, disciplinary systems, and associations--are antithetical to the God we conceive of as knowing all time and all meaning. Here, God's is the mind to which a universal containing Time and a universal containing Meaning would correspond, the perfectly transparent mind, which no genuine plurality could survive. But, as the speaker has it, a God who does not read won't help us. Ideal transparency cannot accommodate this plural world, the world of the speaker's actual, if risky, exchanges with Raya. In fact, as the poem's last lines suggest, the exchanges and readings sparked by difference and discontinuity appear not as limitations to be transcended but as the very substance of what is lost:
For what she sang that time of times no soul remembers to foresee. (18)
Just as the musician's singing is lost to memory, these lines disturb elegaic, or any, mastery, both cognitively and emotionally. One who could remember to foresee would have to occupy a bird's- or god's-eye view of a timeline on which all times exist simultaneously. To do that would be to omit the actual moment of her singing, the local, specific time this poem refuses to transcend, even in the face of irrecuperable loss. The ephemeral moment lost to memory is set against Plato's notion that every "soul" is born with knowledge of unchangeable truth of which it only needs to be reminded. Here, that is, no timeless ideal truth can console the speaker for the loss of Raya's moment of singing. If this poem may be read as positing, by means of its unruly wordplay, a kind of analogy between the uncertainties of the relation of text to reader and the hopeful and essential uncertainties of the lost relationship, that is the closest it can come to offering elegiac transcendence.
Such risky reading must contend with the proclivity to read in a way that minimizes change, loss, and uncertainty, that reifies and monumentalizes the slippery processes in which we are implicated. "For Raya," a second poem that appears to address Raya Garbousova's death, foregrounds this tendency as it explores what we can say for the dead--either in their honor or on their behalf. It does this partly by reading the implications of perfect and imperfect verb tenses--the closure performed by one, and the processual character of the other. The poem begins:
We were presumed from humus, then exhumed; we were the human kind, dirt always clung to us. (FP 33)
The verb tense here is imperfect, the tense of ongoing past action, as unfinished as the human kind of being, still emerging from dirt. And the lines also foreground plural uncoordinated systems within language, bearing divergent suggestions. While humus, exhume, and human, deriving from the same root, are indeed bound together within an etymological history of earthiness, the "sume" in presume derives from a different root and emerges from an entirely different history. In the lines' play of assonance, then, cognates echo each other, and "presumed" is ironically highlighted.
In an apparent effort to articulate Raya's state, the poem moves to an examination of the perfect tense:
Nor for example is "We died" exactly the negation of "we lived"-- once said, they turn alike to lies: they can't be said to be true.
The two phrases, far from negating each other, turn alike in meaning: since the perfect tense denotes an action completed, to say "we lived" implies, in fact, that we have died. In the saying, the two phrases thus turn alike, and also turn, alike, to lies: since there is no position from which a speaker can say them, "they can't / be said to be true." These two perfect-tense statements can't lose their likeness to other statements, namely that a statement as such implies a speaker; in that sense, too, they turn a like(ness) to lies. This is not cleverness. The grammatical subject is misleadingly deathless, but speakers die; however masterfully grammar separates the "I" from its objects, the speaker can never be finished, complete, while she still speaks.
The poem continues to explore "the claim / of presence to be lasting," subtly registered in the shift of "born" from imperfect indicative to past participle: "Once we were born, and now / we are born." As a passive imperfect construction, "once we were born" suggests that we were carried, endured, birthed, brought forth by another body; as a participial one, "now / we are born" simply describes our state, our existence. In the second construction, that is, we are abstracted from our being brought forth--from our emergence at a given moment from a mother's body--thus implicitly denying that dirt clings to us or that our bearing was a verb that implicated two. Much as we try to read ourselves into permanence, stand clear, sum up, "no word can clear itself." But then (and following a "but"), the speaker hazards, in the perfect tense, the very statements which, appearing earlier in scare quotes, can't be said to be true:
But I have lived and I have died: such language must be torn by its roots from someone else's ventricles of throat: she could not speak. (34)
The speaker appears to be making "for Raya" the statements that, she has shown, Raya is in no position to make for herself. For purposes of elegiac consolation, they might both be read not as meaning "I died" but "I lived"--as, that is, implying a wholeness or completion in the lost life. But such language, so read, is "torn by its roots" from a living, imperfect body. The poem has thus passed through critical reflection to an emotional statement that underscores its own impossibility; imperfect as a statement, although perfect in tense, it demands to be read. Interestingly, "live" derives from a root that means "to stick, adhere." In that light, we can read "living" as the imperfect process of sticking. Even an elegiac poem remains sticky, implicated, always in process.
In "Wise Ease," a third elegy in The Father of the Predicaments, the end of life appears as the end of an alphabet, the end of letters in their recombinant possibilities. Where traditional elegy works to achieve a permanent symbolic meaning as consolation for loss, in this poem opportunities to make meaning are precisely what is lost in the death of a loved interlocutor. Here the loss of the person is figured as the loss of the person's eyes--the loss, that is, of responsive reciprocality--and thus the person is missed as a reader. The poem's lament is thus for the interruption of a process always imperfect, always unfinished.
"Wise Ease," a title that describes the Socratic response to death, also invokes the end of letters, "YZs." The homonym, in turn, alludes to the end of the poem: "The very thought, // (a double-you X'd out) / to death is kissed...." (ellipsis in original). Death here is figured as the end of an alphabet, the closing down of its limitless permutations of sense and nonsense. Once again, the speaker's language is composed of plural, uncoordinated systems, each of which freights words and expressions with its own history and meanings. Western philosophical history affirms the wisdom of Socrates's ease in the face of death, but here, attending to the nonsensical play of sound, we also hear "Now I know my XYZs."
Just as the poem alerts us to the ineradicable accidents of language, it attends to the experience left unaccounted for in the systems of clock and calendar time. This involves several contradictions pertaining to "missing" and memory:
In real told time (in subdivided sum) I am your keeper--but in one whole kingdom come I am the kept. (FP 44)
In the subdivided sum of the speaker's lifetime--the remaining fraction, during which the addressee is dead--she is the keeper of memory, the one required, perhaps, to give an account. But "subdivided sum" is juxtaposed to "one whole"--a whole in the optative mood ("thy kingdom come"), desired but implicitly unachieved. The speaker's life considered as a chopped-up timeline is set against her life as a developing process and unachieved whole. From the latter as yet unaccomplished point of view, the speaker is--is already--the one provided for, "the kept."
Though the addressee persists in memory, memory does not provide a symbolic substitute.
Missing you're not-- although you went and took my breath--but oh by every hook an eye is missed. The very thought (a double-you X'd out) to death is kissed ...
However breathtaking the addressee was, however breathtakingly she went, however breathless she left the speaker, she is not missing from memory; she is, however, missed. Among the many meanings of "hook" is "a short angled or curved line on a letter" (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. "hook"), and if such hooks are missing eyes, writing is missing reading, potential connections are left flapping. Perhaps, then, the "double-you X'd out" can be read as two eyes X'd out--both a cartoon representation of death and an epistolary representation of kisses. The poem thus ends in a confluence of suggestions: of eyes kissed closed in death, and of the irrecuperable loss of an entire alphabet's potential for generating meaning.
In The Father of the Predicaments, then, McHugh's elegies do not work to underwrite "the claim / of presence to be lasting." Far from mastering loss, the poems attend to what in it is least recoverable: the unpredictable encounter and exchange with the mortal beloved. Such exchange, the poems suggest--between this speaker and addressee, as between writer and reader--is the very means of meaning but is not, itself, guaranteed against loss or inconsequence. Indeed, human meanings are transparently constituted neither in the mind of God nor in the elegy but emerge, when they do, in ongoing, errant acts of reading. And the poems foreground the conditions of genuine plurality in which we read, negotiating among the various points of view, histories, associations, and systems by which language functions.
Pursuing the Accidents
If the circumstances in which elegies are composed and read highlight with particular anguish the limits of poetic power, the whole range of McHugh's work invites readers to make meaning in conditions of participatory nonmastery, in the crosscurrents of linguistic histories, sound values, and proliferating associations. What feels like the nearly insuperable difficulty of some of her poems may thus reflect the reader's own determination to find in them not the exigencies and generative accidents of reading but the precise realization of preexisting intentions--the writer's to mean and the reader's to discover that meaning. Reading thus, we are apt to miss the gleeful multiplication of possibilities, or the demonstrations of their extinction in conventional expression, or the embodiment of their rapid and unpredictable transformations. Reading for a writer's or reader's intention, we are likely to miss the third thing: language having its say, as a system, as systems, and as histories.
"Both Sides Snipe at the Holy Ghost," from Upgraded to Serious (2009), concerns precisely the third thing, the tertium quid. Beginning with an encompassing "Both Sides," it winds up with what such a binary excludes: "tertium quid, rarest of birds ... singing thirds." The "rare bird," "rara avis," has a history: in Juvenal's (2004: 249) Satires, he asks, "She can be more virginal than any of the Sabine women ...--a rare bird on this earth, exactly like a black swan--but who can stand a wife who is perfection itself?" That the "wife who is perfection itself" would paradoxically be intolerable dramatizes the good wife as unclassifiable, a rare bird. Indeed, the "tertium quid" of the poem's conclusion is precisely the unclassifiable, "something that cannot be classified into either of two groups considered exhaustive (see American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. "tertium quid" [emphasis added]). To the reader's initial confusion in this poem, rare and common birds proliferate as homonyms, figures, and puns, as though the metaphoric invocation of one rare bird had loosed an avalanche of avian association. Equally startling are the paradoxes and exploded binaries that pop up in the poem's figures, homonyms, and puns, as though its language were celebrating its own urge to undo our logics.
The evocation of the tertium quid at the end of the poem sends us back to its puzzling title, and to registering that the Holy Ghost is the Trinity's third person. And if God the Father is spirit, and God the Son is incarnation, the Holy Ghost, a third thing that is also a bird, is an emanation of Spirit manifest as a dove. With the rara avis now twice brought to mind, a reader begins to notice birds everywhere. A snipe appears in the title as a pun; Jesus's "joke rifle" in line 1, itself perhaps borne of an alliterative impulse, (8) suddenly reminds us that the riflebird is a variety of the bird of paradise; "cockiness" there suggests a rooster; in lines 16 and 17, the sheer density of paragrams might tempt us to see "egret" in "regret"; there are nestlings in line 18; and, again, an avian tertium quid "sings thirds" in the final line. With this wild proliferation of birds in language's sounds, shapes, and history, the poem vividly confronts us with the ways that we shape our meanings in language already loaded with accidental associations. And to the notion of tertium quid as disturber of binaries, this excess perhaps introduces a note of hilarity: in this poem, the "third thing" is suddenly the fourth, the fifth, the sixth thing. The distracting proliferation may itself generate readings--maybe "tertium quid" itself obscures the true, and mad, plurality of discursive possibilities?--but the poem's birds retain the air of accident. At most, readers are invited to make something--their own readings--of them.
As birds are far from rare in this poem, so also are binary pairs, although they tend to wander from their apparent opposition. The proximity of the title's implied dove to line one's rifle[bird] suggests a conciliatory / aggressive binary that is simultaneously undone by the fact that the riflebird is a variety of bird of paradise:
Jesus with a joke rifle. Cockiness before the cannonade. Do we feel better after? Feel which way? (US 67)
"Before" and "after" are uncertainly related. "Before" can mean "in the face of" as well as "earlier"; the possible intrusion of spatial meanings into the temporal binary may issue in the fourth line's "which way?"
Further setting up and then troubling binaries, the second and third stanzas inflect laughter with aggressiveness ("discharge / so many rounds"; "friendly fire"). Like "Jesus with a joke rifle," "friendly fire" marries opposites, but binaries are even more surprisingly undermined by "ridden" and "riddled," words that share most of their letters: "Are we not ridden with it--riddled with it-- / friendly fire?" Someone "ridden" is dominated or obsessed, although "rid" sounding in the first syllable suggests the opposite. "Riddled" also unites two very different meanings emerging from two very different histories. In the sense of being covered with holes, "riddled" derives from krei, meaning "to sieve," (to discriminate, distinguish), while in the sense of having enigmas proposed to one, it derives from ar, to fit together. Thus friendly fire might playfully be said both to perforate us and to solicit our mending (our fitting together). The same syllables, deriving from different roots and developed through different histories, produce disparate meanings, meanings that multiply further when "ridden" and "riddled" are read, as the line positions them, in apposition. This extravagant blurring of opposites may be confusing, but, the poem suggests, "the all-or-nothings / kill you after all."
In line 18, the poem's attempt to undo binaries comes to the surface woven with the thread of avian associations: "let's lure the nestlings back, what do you say? / Not blast each second thing to smithereens." In the choice offered by these two lines, the "nestlings" are already associated with the third thing ("not blast[ing| each second thing ...") Luring them back may indicate a wish to make ample room for threads of association that exceed intentions or confuse the lines of opposition. If they are not lured back,
... active or passive, wired or winging ("live" or live) something escapes us--tertium quid, rarest of birds: (67)
Despite the "either-or" construction, binaries come undone again in this passage. As they alliterate, "wired" and "winging" sound related, however much they figure opposition. Because Audubon killed birds to paint them, and wired them into natural poses, "wired / or winging" may be read as figuring "dead or alive," the original exhaustive opposition. It may, on the other hand, figure "appearing to be alive or being alive," or "appearing to be natural or being natural," neither of which are exhaustive alternatives. Under examination, the binary opposition begins to blur. "Live" or live blurs things further: "live" may suggest live ammunition, which is neither the opposite of, nor consistent with, "live"; or it may evoke the shooting "live" of a broadcast event, which, however "live," is still shot (framed, reduced). And of course, with the same syllable (live) on either side of an "or," the blurring is complete.
The closing lines of this poem, whose language so resists any impulse to master it, are oddly beautiful:
tertium quid, rarest of birds: our buckshot evanescence. There it is!--in every fray of oppositions, singing thirds.
In "our buckshot evanescence" we might see the fleeting image of game disappearing before our shotguns, or perhaps the buckshot itself disappearing into the air: either way, the tertium quid evades being nailed by our aggressive oppositions. And "there it is!" points toward the vanishing moment, the moment when the rare bird, the destroyer of binaries, can be heard to sing.
Although exhaustive binaries seem to promise mastery, and the drift to plurality might feel disturbingly irresolute, "Both Sides" offers in that fray of oppositions a glimpse of possibility. With its proliferation of unpredictable meanings, it gestures toward the fugitive, surprising moment not quite containable in our discursive schemes. That moment is the subject, too, of "Voicebox," appearing in Eyeshot (2003), though in this poem the focus is more fully on how the generative accident or fruitful misreading is routinely avoided or obscured--on how the encounter is missed. Embodying failed strategies of containment and evasion, the poem manifests the resulting depletion of possibility. As it defeats readerly ambitions of mastery, it suggests how it is by those very ambitions that possibility is arrested.
The premise of conventional reading practices, that a poem is a structure that contains meaning, is encoded in the poem's title. An informal term for the larynx, "voicebox" figures what is a hollow structure crucial to the production of voice as a structure containing a voice, and, indeed, the poem does appear boxlike, roughly as wide as it is tall. It begins and ends, however, with unrecoverable moments, blanks that stay blank, as did the moment of Raya's singing in "Not a Prayer." It begins with a moment, blank but potentially fruitful, that is, or is akin to, the moment of trying to remember: "In a moment one looks up, unable to remember. / In a month the nomenclatures overcoat the number" (E 40). It ends:
Must we exist In pro and retrospect? Arrive again at this Enormous minute? Evermore be made to miss The last words in it?
Here, just as "the last words" of "this / Enormous minute" are explicitly missed, structurally the last words of the poem are missing too, its rhyming couplets trailing off in a final half-line. The content implied by the title's "box" seems to have leaked out.
Between its two missed moments, the poem develops a small narrative in couplets, both forms seeming to promise orderly development and closure. Similarly, existing "in pro and retrospect," whatever its drawbacks, appears to offer a God's-eye view of an imagined timeline. But the promise of an overview may obscure the shifts and shadings of process. As Henri Bergson memorably argued, in order to establish a timeline (or punctual clock-time), moments or states must be imagined as distinct from one another, not as overlapping, melting together, or mutually evolving ( 2001: 91-103). The very orderliness of our pro- and retrospection, that is, may obscure emergent, interimplicated states, recursive movements, and intermittencies--or, in the terms of this poem, deafen us to close calls and far cries. And an overcoat of conventional categories may obscure fecund accidents.
Accidental fecundity is the poem's governing figure. But the fecund moment is at stake largely in relation to the wildly various time scales that obscure it. In the first couplet, the moment is overcoated by calendar time. The second juxtaposes, in rapid succession, time flying, historical time, and time dragging: "The rest of us must wait / an eon to retire." (9) This "eon" appears to be measured in degrees Fahrenheit, suggesting the punctual timing of the generative moment, whether to assure its occurrence or to evade it. Correcting lexical or reproductive error "takes forever"; we exist, as noted, "in pro and retrospect." While the busyness of criss-crossing timelines might itself seem to enact an evasion, the hopeful accident unexpectedly shows through in cliches gone rogue:
The legend comes to life: I thought he'd kicked the book O moons ago. (I'd missed a period, our love was late, looks Fell to me from that full pail.) (E 40)
Just as "the legend comes to life" is a cliche describing the transcendence of cliche, "kick the bucket" is mobilized to express its opposite. That is, something comes to life by kicking the book, the locus of legend, while the bucket remains "that full pail," life unspilled. Is it the legend of the Fahrenheit scale that has "come to life"? Or if the "period" the speaker has missed is a textual matter--a full stop or periodic sentence or narrative interval--is it in this "misreading" that "the legend comes to life?" In the face of such uncertainty, lines 7-8 resort to a foreclosing authority, a stance dramatized in "one cannot overstate." "Operat[ing] / Face-first," whether the "face" refers to clockface, typeface, or human face, suggests a too-brisk and superficial "overcoating" of an accident that is thus obscured.
In lines 9 and 10 such certainty collapses. The clauses don't add up to a sentence, though they may suggest a periodic sentence without its period: "Cells the size of fists; / Close calls in restrooms; far cries in caves." Without a verb, the lines don't stably contain their meaning, however much they gesture toward enclosures like restrooms, caves, and, especially, those "cells the size of fists" that appear to so implicate the speaker. Each of the human body's "holding cells" is conventionally described in terms of fist size: heart and uterus are "the size of your fist," and the brain is the size of "two clenched fists." What any of these purports to contain remains elusive, but the calls and cries, uncontained by syntax, may bring to mind the "last words" gone missing at the poem's ending. "Close calls" suggests both intimacy and risk; "far cries," both distance and unbridgeable difference. In both phrases we hear a speaker haunted by accident, distance, and difference, not one confidently in charge of her meanings, of the "contents" of voicebox or poem. But to the extent that the speaker is occupied with strategies of containment--nomenclatures, cliches, prospective and retrospective views, timelines, corrections, even, at times, complete sentences--she, and we, miss close calls, far cries, and last words, evanescent and plural voices. The masterable sequence misses, coats over, the enormous minute and its plural, interimplicated possibilities.
An enormous moment is at stake, too, in "Some Kind of Pine," from Hinge & Sign (1994). The poem begins by describing a statue representing the transformation of Apollo and Daphne, commenting that the statue's "maker's a remarker, casting animal as vegetable and then / their motions turn to mineral, their moments into monument" (27)--magically paragrammatic lines in which "make," "mark," "motions," "moments," and "monument" shade into one another. That these words seem to transform into one another with an Ovidian energy of their own calls attention to their shared and separate histories and accrued meanings. Motion and moment, for example, appear to be cognate, heightening the incongruity of freezing moments into monument. The speaker implicates words themselves in this paralyzing effect ("numbed space, named time"), while word histories invite us to imagine moments as vectors of motion they cannot contain.
So imagined, moments are both enormous and elusive. "Right now, as I write 'now,'" section 3 begins, calling attention both to linguistic accident and to the elusiveness of the moment in which all process is unfolding--to the ways the moment resists stasis. Right now, the speaker claims, "The conifers outside confer / a ringing down on everything." Once again possible meanings multiply. Sheer sound may have drawn "confer" into the orbit of the conifers, so that they might be in conference with each other, or they might be conferring something--their principle of growth in rings, perhaps, or a merciful ending, a ringing down of the curtain. Or a sign: "I stand // at planet speed, struck dumb / before such patiences as these," the speaker reflects, and, she concludes, they "pour"
into the sky. That's what they're standing for: for standing fast. They are a sign we shall not overcome, except in undergoing more ... (28; ellipsis in the original)
Pouring upward, the trees are standing fast, fixed firmly in place--indeed, "tree" derives from a root meaning "steadfast"--though "fast" also suggests rapid movement. Seeming most steadfast, the conifers pour themselves into the ungrounded.
In the final lines, "overcome" and "undergo" magically invoke process by reversing their component words. The conifers, it appears, have moved the speaker "from so many thousands of / words (numbed space, named time) ..." to "undergoing more." If undergoing is the reverse of mastering or "overcoming," this poem--and the experience of reading McHugh's poems generally--is nonetheless enlivened by just such undergoing. Relinquishing monumental meaning opens reading to surprise, to excesses of meaning, and to the wayward effects of sound.
"Poetry isn't made to make you forget the insecurity of its status, or our own" (BE 2), McHugh writes, and so, like that of other poetic innovators, her work requires, and requites, unconventional ways of reading. Inviting us to swap the solace of monumental meaning for the chance and risk of accidental encounters and their unpredictable elaboration, her poems embrace discontinuity and difference as the conditions of reading--not least the discontinuities in an historical and evolving language itself. In such reading, arguably more is at stake than a lively response to what is aleatory and unruly in poems. If, as Connolly argues, we must learn to respond more vitally to systems and processes that exceed us, the invitation to engage with the unpredictable, wherever issued, may offer an important corrective to our imagination of mastery (Keller 2012: 583). It may, that is, aid us in imagining precisely the insecurity of our status, our inability to reduce to our own fixed terms those processes that we nevertheless affect and that affect us. If realizing this guarantees nothing, still, it may foster new possibilities of response--to the poem, and to the open systems beyond.
I would like to thank the editors of Twentieth-Century Literature for their thoughtful suggestions, insight, and patience.
Claudia Ingram is professor of English at the University of Redlands. She studies twentieth-century and contemporary poets and is currently researching twenty-first-century poetic collaborations.
(1.) I concentrate here on poems from the latter half of McHugh's career. Excerpts from the poems are reprinted with permission from Wesleyan University Press: "Some Kind of Pine," from Hinge & Sign ([C] 1994 by Heather McHugh); "Not a Prayer," "For Raya," and "Wise Ease," from The Father of the Predicaments ([C] 1999 by Heather McHugh); and "Voicebox," from Eyeshot ([C] 2003 by Heather McHugh). Lines from "Both Sides Snipe at the Holy Ghost" (Upgraded to Serious, [C] 2009) are reprinted with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
(2.) In 1989, Richard Jackson published a review of five new books, one of which was McHugh's third book, To the Quick, a review he titled "Presenting the Real Language Poets." Although none of the poets he reviewed identified themselves with that movement, it's an understandable association. Certainly, like the Language Poets, McHugh focuses attention on the linguistic production of meaning and the speaker. But the deconstructive is only one of her practices. As I've noted, she uses language--the material of words--to suggest or gesture toward what language can't fully contain, celebrating the mysteries and gifts of her means (see, for example, "Spill of Howl," in The Father of the Predicaments). To the extent that her writing is informed by philosophy or theory, McHugh habitually makes fun of those systems (see 1988: 3-4; FP 75-76). And it's difficult, in any event, to imagine a poet who so frequently suggests the limitations of taxonomies and categories affiliating herself with any movement (see Harvey 2005: 1; and Chiasson 2019: 70).
(3.) Poets and critics have found many other grounds to resist the paradigms of substitution and consolation, including ambivalence about the lost person (Ramazani 1994: 225-54, 293-322), refusal to be reconciled to political deaths or deaths produced on a mass scale (Rae 2007: 18-19), and unwillingness simply to elide the abjection of the dying body (Gilbert 2010: 369-72). Diana Fuss (2013: 4), on the other hand, while noting the varieties of resistant mourning enacted in elegies, emphasizes the genre's traditional power to console.
(4.) "Not a Prayer" is a fifteen-page poem, divided into twenty-nine unnumbered sections. Most sections, in turn, comprise several stanzas or subparagraphs.
(5.) McHugh's poem dramatizes an experience of time as duration, an experience usually obscured by an overlay of punctual clock-time. William Connolly draws on Henri Bergson's use of "duration" to describe the experience of heterogeneous temporal processes, whose interacting states mutate, evolve, endure, transform (2011: 71-72). "Clock time," on the other hand, focuses our attention on the sequencing of discrete states and on simultaneities between moments of discrete sequences. Connolly suggests that a punctual and exclusive attention to clock-time may render us less attuned to the intensities of processes whose times are shaped by their endurance and evolution (72). This poem implies that the difference in our times must be navigated in the always chancy process of reading each other.
(6.) In his "Meridian" speech, Paul Celan (1986: 46) points out that "a man who walks on his head sees the sky below, as an abyss." Together with Nikolai Popov, McHugh has published translations of 101 of Celan's poems, and so her familiarity with his oeuvre may be presumed (see Celan 2000). If she alludes here to a Celanian image of ungroundedness, we are reminded of just how unsponsored is the language that seeks to encounter a mortal other.
(7.) McHugh's sensitivity to word histories, everywhere evident, is deployed with particular panache in "Etymological Dirge" (FP 77). Histories of particular words discussed herein are drawn from entries in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, and, where relevant, from its "Appendix I: Indo-European Roots."
(8.) In her complex and subtle argument about the tension between the materiality of poetic language and its symbolic meanings, Biasing (2007: 28) suggests that "sounds recall and call forth other sounds, repeating and reproducing themselves with a kind of impulsion that questions the agency of the speaker ... if not [of] the poet."
(9.) Might the speaker have lengthened her evening by reading Christina Rosetti? The poem's second couplet, "Time's to fly and kings to fall. The rest of us must wait / An eon to retire" may recall Rosetti's juxtaposition of time scales in Time Flies (1886).
Attridge, Derek. 2004. The Singularity of Literature. London: Routledge.
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Chiasson, Dan, 2019."Pining for Heather McHugh." Sewanee Review 127, no. 3: 66-77.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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