Pining for Heather McHugh

Dan Chiasson

Winter 2019

The situation of the critic often depends on a kind of muteness in his subject, a refusal to speak other than “through the work.” Ideally, the author of one of the essential bodies of poems in contemporary American literature would never have thought about what she might have meant by those poems of hers, or how and why she made them. My words would be as light in the darkness, a revelation: the first wary, astonished steps outside the structure, built by her hand, brick-by-brick, that closed around her. Alas this advantage is canceled by Heather McHugh, a writer whose own criticism has meant so much to me, over the years, almost as much her poems; and whose poems are so fantastically responsive to themselves that they are their own truest and most reliable guides.  In interviews, as well, McHugh is unfailingly incisive and weirdly nonpossessive about her poems: grateful, as though they were given to her; curious, as though they were creatures in nature, their features wonderful and strange, perhaps a little comical; appreciative that they give evidence of the larger marvels, and that their adaptations, necessary for survival, manifest as beauty.

But not hers, exactly—and so, whose?

This is where it helps to greet a writer face-to-face, as we did last February in Sewanee. Or to behold her meeting others, as in a fine interview with Seattle Voices I watched while preparing to write these remarks (would one say “this morning” or “last week”?—a point about time I will return to in a moment, a point McHugh’s poems force us to confront). You can find the interview on YouTube: McHugh sits at a round table, amiably, winningly fielding her interviewer’s thoughtful questions, surprising herself by a choice of word or inflection, running down interpretive leads and then pivoting forcefully to some new possibility. A command performance, and, I suspect, nothing in it recycled from any prior formulation. (One of the challenges in writing about McHugh is that she brings a fresh attack to every poem–not that she doesn’t have “themes” and “preoccupations” and so on, but they’re forever being undermined by entirely novel actions of mind.) Here’s an exchange from the interview:

. . . The natural world is so rich with figures for responsiveness. The enormous whale screening huge volumes of water to get krill . . . plankton as the nourishment for the largest animal . . . there are so many things I resisted as a kid, among them the dimension of proportion that was imposed upon us by a sort of human chauvinism . . . it was just a quirk of where our eyes were stuck in our heads; everything, wavelengths of sound were just quirks of having two ears. We were just schmucks with two ears! Time drove me crazy. I couldn’t learn time. I was an idiot child by many standards: I just didn’t want them putting that imprint on my head . . .

The hardiness of this performance, its delight in its own robust “responsiveness” and riches of figure and phrase, recalls, to me, Emily Dickinson’s own little arias of introduction in her letters to Colonel Higginson. For Dickinson, as for McHugh, any thorough accounting a person might make of herself must include the history of her consciousness of her body in space and time; those moments she felt small, large, central or peripheral; when, in time, she felt herself to be ahead or behind, early or late. “My business is circumference,” Dickinson writes, suggesting how, often, she operates most economically at the farthest fringe of her senses. The cause, and also the consequence, of this talent for the faraway is also suggested in a letter to Higginson: “The mind is so near itself.” (McHugh’s version, from “20-200 on 747,” an early poem: “the here and now is clear, I mean, so we / can’t see it.”) This is the confusion of near and far, the estrangement or blurriness or deadness of the near compared to the supernatural vividness and clarity of the distant. In a letter, Dickinson writes of “springing to the window” where she “saw a caterpillar measure a leaf far down in the orchard.” She can “see” a thing too tiny and too far to see, paradoxically, precisely because it is circumferential, out on the edge of the apprehensible. And what is happening at the boundaries of her perception? The creature, “measuring” a leaf, is testing its own relationship to space, expanding, fractionally in our frame though enormously in its own, the bounds of the circle.

“Time drove me crazy. I couldn’t learn time,” McHugh tells her interviewer. Just so, Dickinson to Higginson: “I never knew how to tell the time by the clock until I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know.” How strange and marvelous and poignant of McHugh to make the confession in the past tense. A writer who misunderstands, or “cannot learn” time, or “the time by the clock,” is native to its deeper manifestations. The clock becomes, thereby, partly a vehicle for ironies. “At half-past three, a single bird,” Dickinson writes. Or, “The birds begun at four o’clock / their period for dawn”:

I could not count their Force —
Their Voices did expend
As Brook by Brook bestows itself
To multiply the Pond.

The individual voices flowing into the dawn chorus create it and are obliterated by it, like the brooks which, when they “bestow” themselves to the pond, join the pond, “multiply” the pond as an act of self-annihilation. Clock-time is useful as the steady backbeat against which nature’s improvisations gather speed and finesse and volume. The poet, like a pilot monitoring multiple gauges, notes the discrepancies and deviations from level: first bird at three-thirty, first bird at four, first bird at five. When I was a student at Amherst College in a squalid dorm room whose only perk was a view of Dickinson’s pines, I used to wait, very early in the spring, for these predictions, which are also, of course, recollections, to come true. If the first bird was at 3:30, it was sometime in late May. If you gather enough data, you see, you can rebuild the clock and the calendar that so many of McHugh’s poems, like Dickinson’s before her, deconstruct.

My point that McHugh, “the poet,” has written more succinctly and precisely about her poems, declaring her own debts even while capitalizing upon them, than I, currently “the critic,” ever could, is comical, in a way. When you look at that Seattle Voices interview, you’ll see the problem: McHugh’s voice, in poems, in essays, and in person, is both “in and out of the game,” as Whitman writes, a pundit and a player in a game where, in fact, the two roles cannot finally be distinguished. What is it like to be a professor? her interviewer asks. As usual, McHugh has already answered the question, in the opening of her essay on Dickinson:

Profession is, itself, a prison, unless or until it can say so (that is, investigate its own opposite—say, confession). The professor is trapped in the terms of her work, in the roots (i.e. the ends) of terms themselves. Subject and object change places in the first person, and, as William James so mercilessly put it, “The natural enemy of any subject is the Professor thereof.”

James likely did not intend, but McHugh does intend, the pun on “subject.” This is the standoff between expertise and wonder; clock time and bird time; the self organized around stable points of reference or regular patterns of recurrence (I’m married, I’m a parent, I’m this or that age, the following events have shaped me) and, finally, a more potent—indeed more dangerous—self diffused, extended, expanded at its fringe by a sentience operating like a drone, far from its operator.  Between the “imprint” of received assumptions and the riot of counterevidence coming in through our senses, is what McHugh calls, variously, “scintillance.” This contest is for me the defining feature of McHugh’s poems, and it makes her unique, impossible to categorize: she is a border that crosses itself, to lift a line from one of her poems. She is neither “confessional” nor “professional,” to steal her terms; her work is generally seen as “difficult,” which places her in a line of poets it also simultaneously distinguishes her very sharply from. (Any classification would, I think, have this effect; she is an outlier by instinct, moving reflexively away from habits she senses coalescing in the moment.) It is not a surprise that she finds in William James a compatriot, James who called himself “a zigzag sort of person,” moving into and out of positions, beliefs, and, painfully, moods.

Dan Chiasson is the author of five books, including, most recently, the poetry collection Bicentennial. He teaches at Wellesley College and reviews poetry for the New Yorker.

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