McHugh, Heather

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McHUGH, Heather

Nationality: American. Born: California, 20 August 1948. Education: Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965–69, B.A. 1970; Denver University, M.A. 1972. Family: Married in 1968 (divorced); 2) Niko Boris in 1987. Career: Visiting lecturer, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1971–72; poet-in-residence, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1974–76; assistant, then associate professor of English, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1976–84. Since 1984 Milliman writer-in-residence, University of Washington, Seattle. Visiting professor, Warren Wilson College, M.F.A. Program for Writers, Swannanoa, North Carolina, 1980–85, Columbia University, New York, 1980 and 1981, and University of California, Irvine, 1982; Holloway Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1987; Coal-Royalty Chair, University of Alabama, 1991; Elliston Poet, University of Cincinnati, 1992; visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1994, and University of Iowa, 1991, 1995. Member, Board of Directors, Associated Writing Programs, 1981–83, and Literature Panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1983–86. Awards: Academy of American Poets prize, 1972; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1973, 1974, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974, 1981; Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series award, 1977; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1980; Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, 1984; Guggenheim fellowship, 1989; finalist, National Book award, 1994. Address: Department of English, Box 354330, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195–4330, U.S.A.



Dangers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

A World of Difference. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

To the Quick. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Shades. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968–1993. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

The Father of the Predicaments. Midletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1999.


Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Translator, D'aprés tout: Poems, by Jean Follain. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Translator, with Niko Boris, Because the Sea Is Black: Poems of Blaga Dimitrova. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

Translator, with Nikolai Papov, 101 Poems by Paul Ceran. Middle- town, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 2000.


Critical Studies: By Mary Karr, in Harvard Book Review (Cam- bridge, Massachusetts), 5 & 6, summer & fall, 1987; ''Poetry Chronicle. Four Salvers Salvaging: New Work by Voigt, Olds, Dove, and McHugh'' by Peter Harris, in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville), 64, spring 1988; ''Killing Joke'' by Joshua Weiner, in The Threepenny Review (Berkeley, California), spring 1989; ''COMMENT: No Perimeters'' by Marianne Boruch, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), March/April 1989; by Joshua Clover in Colorado Review (Fort Collins), spring 1994; ''Among the Wordstruck: A Review of the Poems of John Ashbery and Heather McHugh'' by Linda Gregerson, in New York Times Book Review (New York), 23 October 1994; by Marion K. Stocking, in Beloit Review, fall 1994; ''Brokenglish'' by John Palatella, in Denver Quarterly, 31(1), summer 1996.

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Heather McHugh took Browning's line ''Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things'' as the epigraph of Dangers, in which she contrives to ''drive / together argument and matter till you know / not what the matter is but how it shouts.'' Even though she sounds solitary and defiant, choosing ''the artifice of hate'' through which ''the face / refuses to shine,'' she seeks to know, and thus sustain, connections. For her ''the sweetness / is of paradox.'' In the nine small dramas of singleness and interaction that comprise the book's middle, the characters are always endangered, always persistent. The coast, where water can threaten, is her favorite vehicle to show that, even though life comprises ''little / gross and no net / worth,'' ''you know you can't / live anywhere else.''

McHugh's interest in A World of Difference is less social than spiritual. She assigns herself responsibility for comprehending. She repudiates confessionalism, caricaturing such writers as ''gunning / their electrics, going / IIIII,'' and insists that ''vision isn't insight, / buried at last in the first / person's eyes.'' She accepts a world in which ''the form of life / is a motion'' and color is the frequency and not the object.'' In such a context human importance is dubious. Take the lovers in ''When the Future Is Black,'' who regard themselves as only a presence ''designed to keep / / the past and future from forever / meeting.'' Although we like to insist that ''we make / a world of difference,'' McHugh craves selfless transcendence. Unlike those who would name—that is, possess—God and try to ''read / themselves / into his will'' (note the pun), she wants to forget ''all names / / for worship'' and ''our history of longing'' and be God's ''great blue breath, / his ghost and only song.''

A formidable task, presumptuous perhaps, even inviting madness, but she maintains vigilance, scouring her language for misleading and distracting meaning. ''Always I have to resist / the language I have / to love,'' she says in ''Like.'' But unlike the discursive, frequently rhymed and metrical poems of Dangers, the spareness and eccentricity of A World of Difference produce remarkable clarity. ''Language Lesson, 1976,'' for instance, after seeming to satirize sayings like ''hold the relish'' (meaning ''forget'' it) and ''love'' (meaning, in tennis, ''nothing''), becomes a powerful love lyric:

   I'm saying go so far
the customs are untold,
make nothing without words
and let me be
the one you never hold.

Personal crises enter the poems of McHugh's third and fourth books. ''I / / have lost my certainty,'' she writers in To the Quick, ''and spent my spirit in a waste / of one romance.'' Likewise, in Shades she rebounds from the death of a friend from AIDS. ''Day and die are cast together,'' yet she remains affirmative: ''It's not / when, what or how we are / that makes one wonder / without end. It's that.''

The fundamental problem renews itself: ''The ends / of life are rich, it's only / explanation that grows poor . . .'' Poetry, McHugh declares in Broken English, ''does not give itself as evidence, as inscription.'' Rather, ''it is the place that suffers inscription. It bears the mark or scar of what was seen and what was grasped.'' A remarkable consistency—of vision and language— marks her entire work. Through language echoing Joyce, cummings, Berryman, and most of all Beckett, her tenacity of thought approaches radical watching.

The poems newly collected in Hinge & Sign contain riveting examples. In ''Circus'' ''the elephant on pain / / of punishment, five times upon / the shovels of its toenails, kneels for peanuts.'' By observing the pauses, construing phrases in each phase of their gathering, one finds the nuances of McHugh's vision. Paradoxically, while suggestions are multiple, the syntax plays with certainty. ''Does darkness fail?'' she asks in ''Scenes from a Death''; ''or does the moviehouse of our mentality / just open . . . ?''

This persistence to know and express precisely does not fail McHugh, even when she is confronted, as in The Father of the Predicaments, with the agonizing death of a loved one and the end of her second marriage. In the long collage poem ''Not a Prayer'' she disrupts chronology in an effort to present the disorienting final days in the life of her mother-in-law. This project requires a new modulation of language—some passages as raw as a journal entry, others as dramatic as a carefully shaped story, and poetry in various cadences and formats. A remarkable fusion emerges: the portrayal of persons in physical and emotional extremity and a meditation on the inadequacy of language.

For all of McHugh's intelligence and inventiveness, one may be most struck by her courage. Defiant or sympathetic, pained or joyous, she has the intuition and wit—the emotional equilibrium—to face the full mystery of experience. She can examine, for example, hilarity (see ''Past All Understanding'') or admit that love may be a ''history of strangleholds.'' She may have mellowed since Danger, at least toward individuals, but she does not compromise her art. In ''Not a Prayer'' she remembers that ''the father of the predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being.'' In the title poem, however, the father is a merciless mentor who ''train[s] us in the virtues we most lacked'' and requires that she

. . . return his stare
Correctly, without fear. Unless I could,
Unblinking, more and more incline
Toward a deep unblinkingness of his,
He would not let me rest.

—Jay S. Paul