Thursday, November 16, 2006

Heather McHugh


Who's on my mind today? Heather McHugh.

I was just rereading HINGE & SIGN by Heather and I was amazed at the main levels each poem works on. She is a master at wordplay and double and triple meanings on a line.

One of my favorite openings is to her poem, "Mind." (page 128)

A man looks at his watch to see
if he's hungry. Yes, it's eight,

***Just two lines, no fancy words, but her ability to see--no, to remember, the multiple meanings of words is wonderful. As in the first line, the word "watch" is both a noun and a verb. In this case, it's a noun, but look how in her first line of eight words, three of them have to do with vision: looks, watch, see.

The line reminded me of the strange (and not quite PC) sayings I heard around my house growing up-- I see, said the blind man. (The full Wellerism is: "I see, said the blind man, to his deaf dog, and he picked up his hammer and saw.") McHugh is one of those poets who returns the magic to language that we lose as we get older. As children, we are so aware of words as we are trying to decipher the world around us that we actually listen to what is being said and are quite aware of the literal meanings of each word.

Another sentence from that same poem is:

At school/his days are numbered. He makes a felt /calendar.


A favorite poem of mine by Heather McHugh

The Size of Spokane

The baby isn't cute. In fact he's
a homely little pale and headlong
stumbler. Still, he's one
of us-the human beings
stuck on flight 295 (Chicago to Spokane);
and when he passes my seat twice
at full tilt this then that direction,
I look down from Lethal Weapon 3 to see
just why. He's

running back and forth
across a sunblazed circle on
the carpet-something brilliant, fallen
from a porthole. So! it's light
amazing him, it's only light, despite
some three and one
half hundred
people, propped in rows
for him to wonder at; it's light
he can't get over, light he can't
investigate enough, however many
zones he runs across it,
flickering himself.

The umpteenth time
I see him coming, I've had
just about enough; but then
he notices me noticing and stops-
one fat hand on my armrest-to
inspect the oddities of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some people cannot walk.
But everyone was
sunstruck once, and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how

astonishing this is? so practiced all our senses
we cannot imagine them? foreseen instead of seeing
all the all there is? Each spectral port,
each human eye

is shot through with a hole, and everything we know
goes in there, where it feeds a blaze. 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.

-Heather McHugh, from Hinge and Sign (Wesleyan University Press).


  1. I very recently had an opportunity to hear Heather read in Kansas City for the Midwest Poet Series at Rockhurst University. I generally make that series but I had a particularly taxing day and passed on it. Guess who’s disappointed now?

  2. I heard her at the Skagit River Poetry Festival and she was fantastic.

    I've skipped poets and later regretted it as well. Ted Kooser was one in our series that I missed because I was feeling tired that day. Oops.


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