Friday, April 30, 2010

Heather McHugh

Wednesday night, the Poetry Society hosted a conversation with the brainy poet, Heather McHugh.  The evening was billed as a

Heather McHugh, with Robert N. Casper

A reading and conversation in an intimate format.

Robert Casper introduced the poet as a former teacher of his, and it was clear how much respect and awe and admiration he had for her.  However, when he asked her to start the evening with a reading, she was expecting conversation, and her post-it note laden notes on topics showed that she was prepared for an interview more than for a poetry reading.

McHugh was good-natured and even joyous throughout her remarks, which were many and beautifully spoken in perfect English about what has meaning to her in her writing.  " I write in order to find what I mean," she said at one point.  She read the poem that was provided for those of us who did not come with books in hand, "Fastener,"


One as is as another as.
One with is with another with;

one against's against all others and one of
of all the ofs on earth feels chosen.  So the man

can't help his fastening on many
(since the likes of him like

look-alikes)...When the star-shower crosses
the carnival sky, then the blues of the crowd

try to glisten, to match it; and the two
who work late in the butcher-house touch,

reaching just the same moment
for glue and for hatchet.

When I heard her read it it made sense.   Reading it on the page I struggle with the meaning and the sounds crashing into each other.    Those first four lines trip me up with their use of conjunctions and prepositions as nouns.  But McHugh's playfulness and lightness of touch made it all clear.  She was almost apologetic about how she got expressive after the first four lines, as if it were the weakness in her writing, when in fact it is the part that I like best.

She was very at ease riffing on ideas, pulling snatches of poems by Emily Dickinson out of her fecund brain by heart, and she quoted Borges, and Wittgenstein ("Our lives are endless precisely in the ways our visual lives are endless.")

Here is what I remember:

--We live in our senses.  All five senses have verbs that can be used either in the transitive or intransitive case.

--It is important to entertain both sides of every question, consider opposites, to not just go for the knee jerk response or emotional simplicity of things.  Dare to be complex.

--The root of skepticism is in looking. 

There is a beautiful more accessible poem on the website,

What He Thought. 

For Fabbio Doplicher
We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious
"cheap date" (no explanation lessened
this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome 
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty, 

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died, 
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--

(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.

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