Thursday, March 11, 2010

High Marks: Heather McHugh's Upgraded to Serious by Zara Raab

Upgraded to Serious by Heather McHugh

ISBN: 978-1-55659-306-2

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press

xi, 85 pp.

High Marks

McHugh’s first book, Dangers, published a decade after she entered Harvard at 17 to study with Robert Lowell, uses the virtuoso word play, double meanings, punning, the skillful use of syncopated rhythms and rhyming, the aphorisms, the satire, wit and brevity that epitomize her verse throughout her career, no matter the subject, though her subjects are usually prescient, pertinent to our lives, or both, and rarely conceited. In Dangers, she tackled the social-sexual-political issues of the 1970’s, with late Plath’s edginess (but not the confessional). In A World of Difference, her second book, she wrote,

. . . the poets,

who should have spoken for us, were busy

panning landscapes, gunning

their electrics, going

I I I I I .

[7, “Blue Streak”]

With The Father of the Predicaments (2001) and then Eyeshot (2004), finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, McHugh took her gutsiness a step further, urged in that title poem, “The Father of the Predicaments,” to look at the world even more squarely than ever. Her new one, Upgraded to Serious, has as its subject the survival of the planet and the nature of “god” in a random, senseless, and cruel universe. McHugh remains satiric, witty, rambunctious, but––perhaps adding Jon Stewart to Robert Lowell and John Berryman as interlocutor––she is also darkly comic on the pressing issues. As always, she is pointed and epigrammatic. This world, the one God “made as only/lonely gods would do” [79] troubles the poet when “cruelty is king” [32]; when battered monkeys perform tricks at knife point; when sour scholars pontificate on life and humanity; when bad poetry, “the terrible lit//graffiti” [31] afflicts us all. In this world, the poet thanks “no lucky stars for life: It wants to take a lover//limb from limb” [33].

“My whole work is to catch the word by surprise, sneaking up on language, sneaking up on the world as it lurks in words,” McHugh has said. Upgraded to Serious includes extended word plays served in McHugh’s characteristic syncopated rhythms, double and triple entendres, true and slant rhymes, and alliterations. Take “Space Bar,” a riff on computer keyboards, monitors, the writer’s life, and spacing out:

Line up behind the space bartender

Is the meaning of it all, the vessels

marked with letters, numbers,

signs. Beyond the flats

the monitor looms. . .

. . . .

. . . . I have killed

many happy hours here,

with my bare hands, as TV

passes for IV, among

the space cadets and dingbats. [36]

Several poems take a futuristic twist. In “The Gift,” the poet depicts a sci-fi scenario of parallel universes, “mirror-mesmerized,” with decidedly different outcomes for each. Upgraded to Serious is, after all, McHugh’s honest, witty assessment of how the planet is faring in the first decade of the new century. “Study under Fire” strikingly imagines a tree reciprocating the love a fire is showing it, and asks, just how blind are we to nature? She has no doubt our blindness to the planet will boomerang. In “Tree Farm,”

. . . . The evergreen has got

its hackles up, as otherwise it couldn’t mean to—

spreads its arms across the jamb, and will and will

and will not budge. That’s how a little grudge

can hake enormous premises: one minute

you are celebrating, and the next—

your Christmas a catastrophe,

your condo just a lean-to. [58]

Its theme is not large, but the simplicity and clarity of the poem “Domestique” recalls the British poet Philip Larkin. Cleaning up after her dogs, whom this MacArthur Fellow clearly adores, the poet writes,

It’s a dog’s life I myself must lead,

Day in, day out—with never a Sunday edition—

While they lie around on their couches like poets,

And study the human condition. [45]

Larkin, too, was a virtuoso at rhyme and meter, but he never sacrificed clarity of meaning to double meanings or word play, as McHugh sometimes does.

This reviewer, also a poet, tends to read other poets looking to see how she herself would put the matter at hand. McHugh’s are not the poems I would (or could!) write––for one thing, the constant wordplay, to my ear, distances the reader too much from the material. Even so, Upgraded to Serious is supremely engaging, intelligent, and instructive for this reader, herself in the process of upgrade from critical to serious.

Zara Raab;

Zara Raab’s poems and literary journalism have appeared (or will soon) in Flash, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and major newspapers such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Her Book of Gretel was published in spring 2010, Swimming the Eel will come out in 2011 from Robert David Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Many writerly activities have little to do with actual writing. Last wee, I went by invitation to be in the audience of a taping of two Bay Area poets for public access television (Channel 29). The poets were Don Brennan and Stephanie Manning. I set out about 3 o’clock to Mariposa Street, which at number 2727, houses an impressive array of video recording studios. There poet John Rhodes (in San Francisco, one in five are poets) was just setting up the microphone and video recording equipment, which he tested on Dan Brennan. Dan is not a young man. He must be 70 if a day. He is completely bald, with a kindly, chiseled face. His voice is distinctive with a slight twang, very slight, that I can’t quite place. At one time, he may have lived in the deep south. His work is colorful, vivid, witty, sometimes full of caricature, never studied or remote, never, never academic. I loved it. When the camera started to role, and John Rhodes introduced him, Brennan read a colorful riff of a love poem for his wife, who often accompanies him on his rounds of the poetry cafes and other venues. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, because I didn’t think–I’m quite sure–they didn’t want that on the sound track. After a break, Stephen Kopel, another San Francisco poet, introduced Stephanie Manning. Stephanie, a whole foot taller than Brennan with a mane of dark hair, also has a chisele face. Her father was an opera singer. Manning works in Davis and lives in Berkeley and writes most of her poems on the train in between. She read with energy and conviction and moral integrity about the C&H factory in Carquinez, about the train station in Oakland, the vast delta stretching up the Carquinez Straits, and much else. I was put in mind of Carl Sandburg writing about Chicago. As we were stacking the chairs afterward, Rhodes asked me if I wanted to read a poem or two for Clara Hsu’s poetry website. So I did. I was more unnerved than I thought I would be by the camera. And then it was time to go home. What did I do of a writerly nature up to 3 o’clock you might ask. I sent three poems to a collective of writers in the Foothills that had asked for submissions to their anthology by poets of their ilk. As most of my work has its roots in that country and the country to the west in Mendocino County, I responded. And I sent a manuscript of poems to a small press in the Northeast. And I critiques a poem by my poet friend Susan Cohen in Berkeley, and she critiqued one by me, as we often do, by email (and sometimes in person, but that’s not too likely now with the bridge out). More tomorrow on a old writer’s life.