Three Rounds : New Poetry

by Weston Cutter

Heather McHugh’s Upgraded to Serious

There’s a magic laughter running through McHugh’s stuff, all the time, and laughter might not even be the right word: there’s just this delight, someone clearly enjoying the wobble and burstability of language. The first stanza of her poem “Glass House”:

Everything obeyed our laws and

we just went on self-improving

till a window gave us pause and

there the outside world was, moving.

Forget for a second the nice/beautiful metric symmetry: this sort of sad funniness, this song-of-those-in-charge-but-not-feeling-enough—that’s this book’s schtick or MO. I say schtick cautiously: one of the things that’s most fun about McHugh’s stuff is also the element that invites danger, and that is that she’s fantastically, hilariously gifted with language play and how to structure it. From “Philosopher Orders Crispy Pork”:

I love him so, this animal I pray

was treated kindly. Let me pay as much as even

greater pig-lovers see fit

to guarantee him that. As for his fat,

I’d give up years yes years of my

own life for such

a gulpable semblable.

It’s gorgeous and witty and quick off the tongue like a good curse—the pray/pay, fit/that/fat, gulpable/semlable (and, note: those-in-charge-but-not-feeling-enough: this book’s quite a few playful fingers pointed at the Emperor in his clothes, snickering); however, once you’ve seen some of these poems, you can sort of see what might be coming. To be clear: that’s not inherently a bad thing, it’s just a diminished potential surprise. Still: it’s hard—impossible—to argue with McHugh’s great playfulness, and there’s, as ever, zero arguing with Copper Canyon.

Pulleys and Locomotion by Rachel Galvin

I’ll admit it: this book is beyond my reach. Here’s what’s hard: I don’t know if that’s the intention. Galvin’s fantastically interesting and strong poems are well-made machines (look at the book’s title), but, like a dope, I’m not sure what the machines want, or are making, or how I’m supposed to use them. I know we’re not supposed to admit this stuff re: poetry—we’re not supposed to say I don’t get this, it’s beyond my grasp—but, well, here we are.

And here’s why it actually sort of hurts, lines like these (from “Scenic Overlook One Hundred Yards”):

At a roadside Park ‘n Eat we spoke of what it takes

to unfurl a belief of this size. And maintain it.

I was convinced it was a buzz saw,

or something unzipped, but

it could have been the blue mountains

laying their wagers.

There’s so much to love about that—the delicate off-harmony background music of the words not-quite-meeting/mixing, the verbal insecurity about the relationship between the mountains and or/faith and/or buzz saw/unzipped thing, or just a sound, whatever. Basically: I want very much to get and feel more from and in Rachel Galvin’s work. I’ll be reading her next book. I’ll keep reading this one (which, for the record, is from Black Lawrence Press and is incredible, as they are—I only recently started paying attention but should have been this whole time). I’ll take any hints anyone’s willing to offer.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland

Honestly, I’m sort of including this book only because I must, because Hoagland comes out with a new book, what, every five years? and each one feels insanely necessary, and you read them and you can’t even understand how you went through life without these poems. I don’t know any poet who is making stuff that feels this way—and there’s not even a word to capture what “this way” means. Dig the start of his “Expensive Hotel”:

When the middle-class black family in the carpeted hall

passes the immigrant housekeeper from BElize, oh

that is an interesting moment. One pair of eyes is lowered.

That’s how you know you are part

of a master race—when someone

humbles themselves without even having to be asked.

Plus that’s not doesn’t even hint at the arc the poem will, in just a couple more stanzas, take. Again: this is less a review, or a hand-waving, jumping-up-and-down, please-buy-this-book plug: this is Hoagland, one of the country’s most impressive writers, one of the poetry’s most dedicated and un-chicken-shit writers. Unincorporated Persons… is, like What Narcissism Means to Me or Donkey Gospel or Sweet Ruin, a totally American, totally necessary collection. Yes: if you don’t have it, everyone will judge you accordingly.