Heather McHugh Essay - Critical Essays


Heather McHugh, editor of the spring, 2001, issue of Ploughshares, noted that writers whose work she had selected for publication shared with her an “admitted taste for matters rhetorical and grammatical.” Indeed, a love of puns, double or multiple meanings, and well-turned phrases emerges from her poetry like heat waves from hot asphalt. Unlike heat waves, however, her rhetorical flourishes clarify rather than distort, or at least clarify the nature of the distorted realities that imperfect vision cannot help relaying. Unlike highways shimmering in the heat, her poems are not flat. They rise to meet big subjects and kneel to scrutinize small ones, often in the same poem, sometimes in the same line. Her understanding of the intricacies of grammar is what makes it possible not only to pull off such performances but also to do so with a tone that sounds detached but that is actually vitally attached to the intersections of word, sight, and thought hidden just beneath the surface of common speech.


The challenge of seeing, as William Blake wrote, “not with but through the eye” is the subject of the poems in Dangers (even of the few that do not contain the word “eye”). For the speaker in “Spectacles,” the mere act of watching a bicycling paperboy through a windowpane distorts a quotidian image, “warp[ing]” his tracks into ominous signs, the significance of which she cannot decipher. Her inability to solve the riddle they pose leads her to label her vision “uncorrected.”

The window as a metaphor for the eye becomes in “Orbit” an eye as a metaphor for a window. A “woman with one glass eye” perceives both that “the world/ is breakable” and that the divided nature of her vision is but one more manifestation of a division that runs through every element of her life. The realities on either side of the fissure prove more difficult to reconcile than opposites. Her distorted vision renders the face of the man with whom she goes to bed at day’s end capable only of “sink[ing]” or “swim[ming].” The “sink” retains its connotations of drowning. The “swim,” however, connotes not survival but lack of focus, a lack of focus whose undulating nature will cause seasickness in anyone who looks at it too long.

The taking of clichés and forcing the reader to see them afresh—to see them as containing barbed alternate meanings—is perhaps the most singular trait of McHugh’s poetry. That phrases so shopworn and so capable of revealing unpleasant truths make up the larger part of people’s public and private discourse reveals both the precarious nature of communication and the inevitability of its revealing more about those who...

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