Heather McHugh is the only writer in America who loved nuns — or so she thinks.
Since writing her last book, Upgraded to Serious, McHugh, former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, has divorced, retired and moved house several times. Her house caught fire in a snowstorm and several friends died.
Now she’s on ‘the upper end’ of 70, and in this collection she wants to show readers what it’s like to be in her seventies: ‘When time is running out’ and ‘your vitreous comes off,/’ first in one eye then/a few weeks later in the other…”; and your dying friend says, “Now I’ve felt it all” (which McHugh says is poetry).
By Heather McHugh
104 pages; Copper Canyon press; 2020
muddy matterhorn is a swan song in which McHugh recalls old friends and nods to death as well as worries about his approach. She remembers her youth and the nuns who taught her at school. She thinks of her parents and their arguments, remembers her ex-husband and her mother, and celebrates a love found late in life.
Born in 1948, McHugh is a poet, translator and educator. The author of nine books of poetry, including this one, which she published after a 10-year hiatus, McHugh has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.
Her mother nurtured McHugh’s innate love for language and poetry. She started writing poems at the age of 5, it seems, partly because she was shy and reluctant to talk. But she liked to listen and catch the sound of the words and the tone in which they were spoken.
She attended Catholic schools, where the nuns’ emphasis on grammar made her a more assertive writer and influenced her fascination with the idiosyncrasies of the English language. In a 2001 interview with Plowshares, she mentions her fondness for nuns, in particular a sister Cletus “who in her innocence and love of grammar… persisted in her use of the term, ‘suspended period'”, while that the class reveled in the sexual connotations of the words.
She references her religious upbringing in several poems. Take “The Catch,” where McHugh comments on reading psalms and going to Sunday school, “Where for God’s sake / (or just so they can fight in peace) / my parents dropped us off…” She alludes darkly to her parents’ marital difficulties, a theme she takes up in later poems. She also remembers using paper fans to advertise funeral homes and wearing Catholic school uniforms.
When she was 16, she applied to Harvard and was accepted. While studying for her bachelor’s degree, one of her poems (which she submitted over the backboard) was published by The New Yorker. It was a lucky break and one that launched his career. She graduated from Harvard with honors. By the time she was in her thirties, she was publishing in major literary magazines like The Atlantic.
She writes fun, punchy poems mixed with Catholic ideas. For most of the free verse poems, their style recalls the work of EE Cummings and the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems, like McHugh’s, received mixed reviews. Both poets were popular when McHugh was growing up. All three poets are known for their controversial and innovative work that is both engaging and difficult to understand. In some cases, their poetry gets lost in the fog of their own words – a situation McHugh seems to enjoy but some readers may find problematic.
McHugh uses puns, free associations, made-up words, broken sentences, and anagrams. She also experiments with aphorisms. She adds emotion through the arrangement of words and verses. She uses enjambment and rhyme (internal and external) for added zest. She seems fond of parodies. She rushes through imagery, alliteration and paradox, then comes to the end of her poem, she usually finds the right metaphor to create a poem from what has so far been an apparent hodgepodge of words and sentences.
She does all of this while avoiding feelings, even when writing about love. She prefers debauchery to modeling clay. She suggests she is irrational or anti-rational while probing metaphysics; she experiments and invents words; it contradicts itself by suggesting the complexity of its thought; it transposes words by allowing them to deliver double meanings. She believes sentiment is more important than syntax, but focuses on syntax when she wants to make a point; and she uses intuition to come up with ideas like in “Shape Up, Says Doctor Death”, whose flippant tone and fast pace are reminiscent of EE Cummings’ “Buffalo Bill’s”.
“Shape Up…” begins in a dementia ward and ends with Doctor Death noticing heart, nervous system issues, and “Bloody/Wheezing in the deep…” The final lines of the poem are powerful (and evocative of the interest in paradox): “They sob to laugh/They sing to cry.”
Her most evocative poems, however, have notable religious references, but she softens religious sentiment by being deliberately ambiguous, thus avoiding the sentimentality of some religious poetry. In doing so, she is able to deepen the spiritual connections that generate poems in a way reminiscent of Hopkins’ work. Although McHugh does not use the word “inscape”, Hopkins’ term for the individuality of an object (based on the theological notion that God never repeats himself), his poems focus on the uniqueness of an object. as she finds images that encapsulate and transmit her. experience.
Take “Breather,” where she writes: “(Even clarity/Delusory, contrary to the sense of love from which/ Comes charity and faith — and maybe even/ Hope — even though hope is difficult, and faith/ is bodiless…). She ends the poem with these evocative lines referring to Jesus Christ and his crucifixion: “Dear God, come down with us! gift/This cannot be distinguished.
In “Some Sums”, she talks about nuns’ rules regarding math and grammar, noting “Rules are tricky with nuns / I AM is both last name and first name. / Middle name is THAT. That THAT is relative”, meaning the name of God, I am who am, is problematic because “it” introduces a relative clause.
As she declaims, she writes, “There would be another person of / Godhead, the grammar of his drama. / Hail the Holy Spirit! I love him the most.” The words suggest another Hopkins allusion, this one to his poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “…the Holy Spirit on the bend / The world broods with a warm chest and with shining wings.” It’s not until McHugh finishes the poem that we realize the full direction of her words when she writes that God has a sense of humor: “At least one God/(The author, perhaps)/A sense of humor —/Even as another (say/God, the Reader) cries.”
And for all of this, McHugh offers heartfelt love to the nuns who taught her to punctuate and feel “all that is felt”, which includes the spiritual life, the source of these poems not to mention her favorite, the Holy Spirit.
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