Heather McHugh was guest teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop several years ago when her father died. Her brother delivered their dad's ashes to her in a Crown Royal bag. McHugh couldn't resist the opportunity. She brought the ashes to class. She plunked the bag down and announced to her graduate students: "Look, here's the big chance, for once I can show you a mortal moment. This is what human beings are made of." Only one of the students in the classroom would touch it; he raked the ashes with his fingers. "He was interested in it as matter, which is what I was interested in it as," McHugh recalled. "I always liked that kid for doing that."
Then she flew the ashes to Seattle—where she has taught at the University of Washington since 1984—and from Seattle to Victoria, BC, to scatter the stuff. The deed done, she and her husband (she calls him "the Bulgarian") were walking up from the beach when a sign caught her eye, an advertisement for an apartment with a water view. She's owned it ever since. It's the apartment we were sitting in a couple weeks ago.
"My dad fished these waters," she said, waving toward the sea, choppy and British-looking. On the table between us sat a galley of The Best American Poetry 2007, which she guest edited. "That's going to sell more than any book of mine ever did," she said. Victoria is her escape from being a notable American poet, from teaching, from "po-biz" (her word). In Victoria, she doesn't have any students to encourage or MFA programs to oversee or grants to accept (she has won two NEAs and a Guggenheim) or prizes to judge or readings to give. "You're the scariest guest in a long time," she said, smiling, as I scribbled notes. "I don't want to be known. To me, being known is the loss of liberty."
Escape has been her MO since the beginning. She was raised in rural Virginia by parents who fought a lot. She was morbidly shy. She credits a piano teacher from Vienna for introducing her to the arts. "This woman was like the witch in the woods. I would go to pee in the outhouse and come back in and there'd be a roaring fire and bowls of soup." She listened to records of famous English actors reading Shakespeare, Yeats, and Donne. At 16, she enrolled at Harvard University—she'd skipped a grade; she wanted like hell to get out of Virginia—where her workshop professors included Robert Lowell. ("That meant more to other people than to me. I was mostly concerned with not turning green smoking a cigarette in front of the graduate students.") At 17, she sold her first poem to the New Yorker. She chose the New Yorker because "I knew that it was my escape and I knew I better choose well if I wanted escape."
We watched a seaplane flying in. She had insisted I come by seaplane. On the ride, I read the plane poem that begins her third collection, Shades, called "20-200 on 747" (later republished in her greatest-hits collection Hinge & Sign, a National Book Award finalist). "20-200 on 747" begins: "There is rain on the glass but it all disappears/when I look toward the curve on the world./(The here and now is clear, I mean, so we/can't see it.) In an airplane, chance/encounters always ask, So what/are your poems about? They're about/their business, and their father's business and their/monkey's uncle, they're about/how nothing is about, they're not/about about. This answer drives them/back to the snack tray every time./Phil Fenstermacher, for example, turns up/perfectly clear in my memory, perfectly attentive to/his Vache Qui Rit, that saddest cheese." It's a piece of comedy, this poem, satisfying and narrative, perfect reading for a roaring ride on a 10-seater. The narrator thinks of the French philosophers and hopes they're not in the cockpit "undermining meaning as they do": "They think/we're sunk, we're sunk, in our little/container, our story/of starting and stopping. Just/whose story is this anyway? Out of my mind/whose words emerge? Is there a self the self/surpasses?"
Many of McHugh's poems are like this—dense, startling stories that could be published as paragraphs, as prose, although she doesn't take to the suggestion. "I like lines," she told me, and then paused and said, "She snorted."
Her lines are packed and bright and good, and they like space. They have a way of meaning more than you think, of going deeper than you can see. Take the marriage poem "Anniversary Song," stacked with lines stacked with meaning like: "I have a man/in mind, he's out of sight." And: "I'm at home/with these clockwork birds, the time/I kill, the stew/I'm in. He's come/to matter, as the island/comes to mind. The world/of doubles loves itself." It's impressive without seeming hard, it's friendly, it's colloquial, it's truly miserable, it's self-conscious, it's language as material, and it's funny. (One way to read that last line—and there are at least four ways to read it—is as a joke about the poem's own duplicities.)
McHugh exploits the split personalities of words, building phrases that contradict themselves. When I mentioned this, she said, "I'm drawn to finding the grammar that can make the thing that can't happen happen." She added, "Frankly, that's what's not interesting to me about politics. It's about containment. Containing people." I asked if she is fucking with people with her ambiguous, uncontainable stuff, and she said, "I'm not so much fucking with people as trying to escape them. I can't bear to think of being nailed into place." When I asked about being funny, she said, "I make people laugh so they don't look at me—make them have a little seizure."
She has a genius for ambiguity and the vertiginous little joke, evident even in the poems she considers throwaways. Her recent poem "Song for the Men of the Pennsylvania Hills" gets thunderous applause at readings, although she thinks of it as a "barroom jingle." She did it for me from memory:
It was not because the heavens
didn't shine upon the match
nor for want of indication
that he thought himself a catch.
He was able, he was stable
as a Harvard running back;
of the requisite credentials
there was surely not a lack.
Lack of coulda? Lack of shoulda?
Lack of spermicidal foam? No,
it was just for Lackawanna
that I didn't take him home.
She wrote it for her father because "he always wanted a poem that was understandable and funny and rhymed," but he died before she could show it to him.