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Two poems from newly-anointed MacArthur genius Heather McHugh:

Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun

A book is a suicide postponed.

Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I’m a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy’s: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror’s not convincing– that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time’s revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn’t love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you’ll be the death of me — each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I’m halfway to the
third person.

Etymological Dirge

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

Crazy good stuff.


Heather McHugh

How nice when the arbiters of taste and genius align themselves with my way of seeing the world. The MacArthur Genius Grant recipients have just been announced, and a well deserved award goes to poet Heather McHugh.

Her fabulous poem, Coming, was posted here on Slow Muse in June of 2008.

Here’s what the New Yorker wrote about her winning:

What we poetry readers have known for a long time has been officially announced to the world: Heather McHugh is a genius. McHugh, whose latest poem in The New Yorker, “Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies,” is included in her forthcoming collection “Upgraded to Serious,” wrote to me about her reaction to the news, her vow of silence, and her new label:

How do I feel about the word “genius”? Bottled.

They called me about a week before and made me swear not to tell anyone anything until today.

I was so flabbergasted every last wit deserted my head. (And so far my wits haven’t managed to make much of a home in my heart. So god knows where they are.)

Nancy Spero, currently on view at the MOMA in New York


is the body’s way
of weeping, after a series
of shocks is suffered, after the thrust
of things, the gist of things, becomes
apparent: the bolt is felt completely
swollen in vicinity to wrench,
the skid is clearly headed
toward an all-out insult, and the senses
one by one abandon all their stations—
into smaller hours and thinner
minutes, seconds
split—til POW—
you had it, had it coming, and it heaved, whose participle
wasn’t heaven.
Was that.
And when you got

some senses back,
you asked yourself, is this
a dignified being’s way
of being born? What
a thought
somebody had! (or some no-body)

out of the breathless blue, making us
double up like this, half gifted and
half robbed. ‘Rise up to me,’ the spirit

laughed. ‘I’m
coming, I’m coming,’
the body sobbed.

–Heather McHugh

Heather McHugh, born in California and raised in rural Virginia, studied with Robert Lowell during the time he taught poetry at Harvard.

About her work she has said, “I write because I want to find out what was bothering me . . . I’m not sure what it is that wants to be said, but I’m there to be its scribe…Almost always I’ve seen some pattern. Then comes a rocking and a humming. I find language to document that play of patterns in the world.”

(I especially like the part, “then comes a rocking and a humming.” Ah, yeah…!)