What she thought, but did say

Martin McClellan

April 28, 2016

You never stop reciting certain lines from certain poems. Whether battered into your head through schoolroom platforms, or the kind of reading every poetry lover experiences: reading, and then that heart-stopping feeling of your mind bending to the poet's will. The special effects in the movie Inception are familiar to the poetry lover, we feel that world spin every now and again.

And that spin turns into mantra, the quoted line a straight shot to a pattern of synaptic syntactic firing, a shorthand for the feeling: comfort, curiosity, wonder, regret.

Some of the lines that do this for me: from Bishop: "Love's the boy stood on the burning deck", from Oliver: "You do not have to be good", and then mostly the rest are a bunch of Heather McHugh lines, drawn largely from her book Hinge & Sign, a collection of her work from 1968-1993.

McHugh published many fine books of poetry after this (buy them all), but like an album that never grows old no matter how many times you listen, Hinge & Sign is a touch-stone for me, a marker of the kind of poetry that both speaks most to my sensibilities, and acts as a prototype wherein I am able to measure my reactions to other works against the reactions I had to these.

After evoking Rilke, the work starts with a humbling of the poetic spirit, in "What He Thought", a story poem that ends in silence. With this slice on the supporting cables of poetic scenery, she is upsetting any expectation one might have wandering in. There is no ardor for loftiness here, no come-hither-to-the-mountains-of-my-thoughts, no fucking belly fire. Just observation and questioning, about pain, about loss, about sex (lots of sex), about life, and about wonder.

McHugh is often a punchline poet. She cracks and spins words like you might a wooden egg made puzzle by a crafty jigsaw. Her rhythmic structure is tight, her internal rhymes never expected, but always on the beat.

"In Praise of Pain" is the work most etched into my surface, that first line something I still repeat to myself almost daily, some twenty years after first reading it.

A brilliance takes up residence in flaws —
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip's fault, sunlight where the nicked
glass angles, and affection where the eye
is least correctable, where arrows of
unquivered light are lodged, where someone
else's eyes have come to be concerned.

And that word, design! How could I not read into it, as a designer? As someone who found meaning in failure (all design spawns from rejecting the bad ideas you walk through to find the good). It evokes Beckett's "No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.", which I first learned through a portrait of Beckett done by Tom Phillips (who McHugh collaborated with). Those connections — bridges between coincidence and understanding — are planked by her lines. When I read her, I walk to places familiar on paths previously unnoticed.

So acceptance of failure and imperfection is one lesson of McHugh. Another is effort — best exemplified in a quote not from Hinge & Sign: "Using a synthesizer to imitate a violin is a waste of an opportunity." There is something about authenticity here; there is something about the labor of production. A parenthetical in "The Lyricist's Lament":

(We lyricists are like
to stay home typing up

the sub-groups of the lyric self, beloved
admiral of all our mirrors.)

A third is about presence and connection. If you're not in the world, if you're not engaged (the toddler on the airplane in "The Size of Spokane", how we feel desire in "My Shepherd", or that we'll always feel desire, in "Unguent": "Instead of angels / give us urges"). Perhaps this thought is best exemplified by the kicker in "Constructive":

Lover, beloved,
hope is command. Your hand

is given, when you take a hand."

The fourth lesson is about the pain of losing that connection. The end of "For a Good Man" suffices here:

I felt, I really
felt you; then

the multitudes were numbing.
Any knifewound now is every
one I had coming.

The poems can be obscure, in this volume, and I can't decide if this is wholly a power, wholly a flaw, or perhaps both at once. Like if the poems were that wooden egg, you have to open them, to pick at the pieces until the egg falls away. What I've found, after effort, is that when it does, inside you find yourself. Or, at least, you find a line that you will carry with you as a beacon to who you want to be.

The poem
is for something,
and the world is small.

Books in this review:
  • Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993
    by Heather McHugh
    March 19, 1994
    237 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound