Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Upgraded to Serious, by Heather McHugh

I have not read McHugh's previous volumes (Upgraded to Serious was published last year), so I have little idea whether the following characterizations hold for her earlier work. To jump the gun a bit, this volume certainly makes me interested in figuring out if it is, although, as Mr. Brooke would say, I will probably pull up before going too far.

Upgraded to Serious is plagued or gifted by a tendency to let the puns lead the poems, and the sound often has the sense, by the nose, the buttonhole, and the balls. The intensity and ubiquity of the wordplay virtually insures that you won't like many—maybe even a majority—of the poems. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone finding all the puns clever even, much less all worthwhile.

Yet I also can't imagine any two readers rejoicing at the same moments of success, or grumbling at the same lines; McHugh's poetry, like most comedic efforts, is more an art of averages and increased subjectivity than a quest for Eliotic (T. S. this time, though) precision and perfection. I feel (although I may be wrong) that there are poems before which one cannot help but be impressed, and any dissenters must have either an agenda or a mineral deficiency; McHugh's poems aren't like that, and don't seem to wish to be. They are instead in the service of what McHugh charmingly calls "the curlicue's indulgence of itself" (from "Philosopher Orders Crispy Pork" which, as you can see from the title of the poem has a grislier undertone which makes the curlicue something more than a figure of pure whimsy or caprice).

There probably isn't a poem that will please all readers or a poem that will grate all ears. As such, reading the book is a curiously personal and impersonal experience—the poems you enjoy have a vividness that seems meant for you, and those you don't enjoy come to seem not so much like botched efforts as trails of a conversation you imperfectly overhear.

***
My favorite poem of the collection is the very cleverly titled "Postcocious" (both the opposite of "Precocious" and aurally similar to "Postcoital") which the publisher Copper Canyon Press has made available here.

Another is "The River Overflows the Rift," of which I will quote (the best) part:

Before a human face
a glance could light without
alighting, gleams meander through
the untagged trees, a stream into the pattern
lend its thread. But then we cam affixing
barbs and snags, and until all of us
are done away, a million lilies will be stilled
by some arranger's hands, a billion stones
be hauled and heaped by heart, to stand
for words, where words aren't going
to be kept. The word

must move: the minute does.
Its starred expanses dazzle
humankind (wherever there's a mind
for wonderment). In time

the glimmers of the uncontained
outcourse even a lover's frozen frown,
the silver wave revives the mower. Glowers
by glow are overcome, flowers by flow.

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