A Poet Whose Calling Is Doubt Celebrates Language’s Uncertainty

A Poet Whose Calling Is Doubt Celebrates Language’s Uncertainty

A Poet Whose Calling Is Doubt Celebrates Language’s Uncertainty

A Poet Whose Calling Is Doubt Celebrates Language’s Uncertainty

McHugh knows that eccentricity can make for great storytelling — better even if it’s infused with irony. Take, for example, “Stick,” a poem about Jean-Baptiste Lully, the 17th-century inventor of the conductor’s baton. Lully stabbed himself in the toe with his own invention while conducting the “Te Deum” and consequently died of gangrene: “High-handedness is what / The mass holds dear, but poets love / Your sacrificial foot.” This is a poem from the collection (there are several) in which an obscure anecdote is used for didactic purposes. The “conducted sacrifice” becomes an allegory about obsession and its costs. The conductor is so immersed in what he’s doing that he hits upon something unintended: his toe. The wound opens, the point of pain spreads and, in turn, overtakes the body. One of the lessons (“We owe you extra-dearly for the pointer”) is that the wounds we ignore, both physical and emotional, are the ones that can turn deadly.

Bringing her off-kilter sensibility to environmental crisis, she recounts yet another story of ironic sacrifice. Scientists dredging for clams off the coast of Iceland were researching how climate change was affecting them. The shell rings of one of the clams they dissected revealed that it might have been 700 years old. “In other words,” McHugh writes, “they learned they’d killed / the oldest animal on earth.” In another poem, one city breaks up with another because it “became / A cleanup site,” which is to say, a dump. Only in this book will you find a palindrome (“dog-god”) asking another palindrome an existential question: “Do geese see god?”

McHugh has earned multiple awards for her work, including the MacArthur fellowship, which she won in 2009. She used the grant to set up a nonprofit organization called Caregifted, which gives time and space to caregivers of the severely disabled. Her experiences with disability, death and disease become frequent subjects in the book. With titles like “Shape Up, Says Doctor Death” and “Everybody Has a Fatal Disease,” not to mention the darkly comical portmanteau word “cremaindered,” she exhibits gallows humor. Puns overflow (“life/death: / are you insured? / It’s mutual”) in an attempt to capture life’s dwindling. Sometimes the surplus can feel distracting, but she also approaches these issues with mordant, feminist wit and moving sentiment. In a poem about a friend with cancer she writes, “once my friend had been informed / her tumors would be Terminal, / her husband up and took / a trip to Paris, with a pal.” One terminal (the tumor) leads to another (the airport). During the friend’s last chemo treatment, right before she dies, she tells McHugh, “Now I’ve felt everything feelable.”

What I admire most about this collection is that McHugh demonstrates her genius with language in a non-elitist way. She is relatable, never writing from the lofty heights of the mountain, but walking alongside us, inviting us to play, to puzzle out the strangeness of language with her. “Marriages of words,” McHugh says, consist of “Remarking something measureless.” Words both comment on (remark) and revise (re-mark) our understanding of the world. In creating a kind of word turbulence, trembles in the fabric of language, she shakes us into a new zone of attention. Unwilling to offer up clichéd ideas about anything (“my calling’s / doubt; my idea of a curse / is certainty”), McHugh invites us to question what we think we know; her poems teach us to look again and beckon us to find the enigmatic wisdom in the messy highs and lows of living. “Seeing isn’t believing,” she said in a 2005 interview with Matthea Harvey, “seeing is registering the unbelievable — which is everywhere. And so words fail us; just exactly how and when and where they do is dazzling evidence.”


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