cover image The Father of the Predicaments

The Father of the Predicaments

Heather McHugh. Wesleyan University Press, $25 (86pp) ISBN 978-0-8195-6375-0

Bright rhythms, pointed rhymes and dazzling surfaces distinguish McHugh's poems, which tease their language to the ends of wit: ""I tell you outright,/I'm a neitherer. But what are you? You are a bother."" McHugh's sixth collection follows her new and selected Hinge & Sign (a National Book Award finalist), and continues her pithily specific explorations of general human conditions: being, thought, life, death, time. The opening ""Not a Prayer"" demands of the poet ""every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam"" she has at her command, as she searches for meaning in the death of a septuagenarian, mother-like figure--""a nomen always aiming/ for amen."" In the title poem, the ""Father"" visits each ""Predicament"" at night, like a parent checking sleeping children, ""train[ing] us in the virtues we most lacked."" Her M bius strip-like sentences double back on seemingly obvious meanings and sound patterns (""To what high end/ the spondee's spasm""), daring us to give up on them. Yet the jokes work to draw us in. She writes of a bather's poitrine: ""This was mesmer/ to terrify mortals: and so/ from the calm corroborate tubworlds/ she climbed out, bore her own dead weight again, took on the old/ mundane emergency: the world/ at large, its separations/ hefted."" The construction of such poems, and of the opening tour de force, displays McHugh's Dickinsonian, saving restlessness: she can't stop looking for self-undermining meanings within the clearest of statements. McHugh's best poems are both comic and profound: their depth comes from the belly laugh of the Medusa. (Sept.)