Lately I've been ambivalent toward contemporary (or postmodern, if you like) poetry. No doubt this is largely because of my experience (as a writing major at a liberal-arts college) of the cultural machine that produces it. Not that the professor-poets who populate higher education don't write beautiful verse--some of them certainly do. But often it seems like a beauty that draws a cultural blank, a poetry taking place nowhere. It's hard to imagine someone being gripped by this work in the way that, say, the German thinker Walter Benjamin was by the urban poetry of Charles Baudelaire, compelling him as it did to so obsessively excavate 19th-century Paris in, at least partly, an effort to simply understand.

At first one is tempted to see Heather McHugh in this context, as a product of what novelist Matthew Stadler has called "the gaping void between University and City" that has come to characterize much of Seattle's cultural discourse. It's a void which gives rise on the one hand to the cloistered academic, and on the other the frenzied but often uninventive vibe of café slam poetry, with only a precious few left in the middle space. And in a sense, McHugh is indeed entrenched in the university system. As an (only sometimes resident) distinguished writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, she has acquired the renown that can deprive poets of a certain sort of regionality.

I want to suggest, however, that such a reading is a little too neat, and that her work contains compelling resistances to this milieu. McHugh suggests as much: "The 'poetry of place' bores me: It takes place too literally." Rather, the place of her poetry is recombinative, moving with a deceptive ease that seems borrowed from the Northwest's urban environs. The opening stanza of "The Starrier the Scarier"--"So it looks./It seems to look./Appears to seem."--has such an ease, both effusive and evasive, progressing even as it takes back.

The final passages of another poem, "Streaming Audio," are characteristically indicative as self-commentary: "No real/is closable./It dreams of drumming Innisfree,/ but seems to mean it's live./ To last it has/ to flow, and so/ to stream it has to strive."

With their implication of a nomadic and partial reality, the lines suggest the critical theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. The psychic-social structures defined by wholes and corresponding lacks, they argue, are really a substitution for a more basic process in which partial objects continuously recouple in the production and flow of desire. In other words, it's possible for desire to be conceived without lack, the part without an implied whole.

The importance of this insight to McHugh's poetry is immense; it opens the field where her poems can take place. "Either... or... or" instead of "either/or," suggest Deleuze and Guattari. In "Neitherer Brings Charges," McHugh concludes: "It's them or us/it's yes or no, it's time-the-father/or it's pussy-whipped. I tell you outright/I'm a neitherer. But what are you?/You are a bother."

Something like this insight is also present in McHugh's book of criticism, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality. In a series of essays on poets often thought to be difficult or "hermetic"--Valéry, Stevens, Dickenson, Celan--she reverses the dominant critical direction by suggesting that rather than (or in addition to) writing themselves into a pigeonhole of existential silence, these poets were engaged in disseminating new ways of meaning, through, rather than against, the very brokenness and partiality of their language. Again there is the preference for fragments over wholes, flows over stasis--a formula also suggestive as an ideal urbanism.

Initially I had planned to interview McHugh for this article, until I realized (after seeing her interviewed after a recent Seattle Arts & Lectures reading at A Contemporary Theatre) that in person she is a terrible explicator of her work. She responded to questions with the same evasive resistance of her writing, finally exclaiming, "I'm tired of meaning, and usually try to avoid it." As a method for poetry--with its implication that, like the city's chance encounters, the collisions of language and desire are too multiple not to open the text--I can think of little that is more seductive.