Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993

Hinge and Sign: Poems, 1968-1993

by Heather McHugh

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A renowned poet’s artful collection is a striking body of work

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819512161
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 05/09/1994
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 237
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.53(d)

About the Author

HEATHER MCHUGH is Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. She regularly teaches at the low residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of six books of poetry, including, most recently, The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan 1999). In 1993, Wesleyan published her literary essays, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality. She has translated the work of Jean Follain, and with her husband Nikolai Popov, the work of Blaga Dimitrova and Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan (Wesleyan 2000). In 1999, she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Read an Excerpt


What He Thought

for Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy and, full of our feeling for ourselves (our sense of being Poets from America) we went from Rome to Fano, met the mayor, mulled a couple matters over (what's cheap date, they asked us; what's flat drink). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib — and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this unprepossessing one had written: it was there in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn't read Italian, either, so I put the book back into the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last big chance to be poetic, make our mark, one of us asked
  "What's poetry?

Is it the fruits and vegetables and marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or the statue there?" Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer instantly, I didn't have to think — "The truth is both, it's both," I blurted out. But that was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square because of his offense against authority, which is to say the Church. His crime was his belief the universe does not revolve around the human being: God is no fixed point or central government, but rather is poured in waves through all things. All things move. "If God is not the soul itself, He is the soul of the soul of the world." Such was his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die, they feared he might incite the crowd (the man was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors placed upon his face an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That's how they burned him. That is how he died: without a word, in front of everyone.

  And poetry —
  (we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to the man in gray; he went on softly) —

  poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.

Acts of God

I. Tornado

I said the people come inside.
They would be safe in the building.
So many of those people die.
You can see my guilt.

I could see hands to a lady moving.
I knew the lady.
You can see my guilt.

Sometimes I want to run, to get away from it. I ask forgiveness night and day, I ask it from the cemetery. I can never dream this storm away.

It was over for maybe minutes then it was never over.

II. Lightning

It pushed me backward, I could see my friends go backward, too,
as from a blast, but slowly,
very slowly, everything was in a different time.

It burned inside my body.
I could feel my hands curl up. My pocket got on fire, I didn't want to reach in there and take a handful of the hot.
My money hurt.

I'm different now forever, put that fact into your book. My hair used to be straight.
My eyes — you see? They're gray as ash.
They used to be light blue. You live,
if you're lucky, but take my word —
it changes how you look.

Window: Thing as Participle

Welling and flowing and fastening, too,
the window itself became the fever,
faces waved and surfed across its surface ...

Stop that, she rebuked herself,
people are only passing on the sidewalk,
people are simply walking on the sidepass, yes,
that's all you're seeing, so much

water in an eye. But then the sneezes rose from somewhere to attack whole buildings, schools and churches,
massive stoneworks, city hall —
whatever stood, stood to be wracked —
did no one notice? They were all at risk: whatever the window held could tremble. Mortified, she sat

in the eye of the storm, with steam from cups of cure to drape or dramatize her time away; but still the window went on streaming all these bundled half-lives by, in one continuous unravelling of differences, of higher, lower, lighter, darker,
faces framed in fur or bared of head,
blown blond or blasted black, each one appointed in a halo's freeze-burn or an aura's sun-chill,
each one with its hunch of forehead, over only two hot coals per person ...

Humankind was understandable in this unending sentence of an EEG she witnessed scrolling by; it was, at each new moment, modelled into spikes of single-mindedness; but every bobbing of discreteness in the flow, each block or chunk, each head, she knew
(she knew) had its own helixing and coils of orienting endlessness, its moving windows of reflective flux,
and its own someone in a fix: that figure underlying everything, that glimpse

in brown or blue, with fringe of lash:
a holy icon, prize of self, an image irrecoverably, shimmeringly still, it is so deeply

plunged into the nominative ...


Freezeburn forms whirlpools and bearfur has curve.
My line is gravity's sheer vertical.

Memory's the same seme. Sail a memo down: there's the spooled

real: plunge into simulcast.
Caught up in the network is a blue planet, spinner par excellence.

It's too small.
Throw it back.

Dry Time

Killed, the sand didn't give. All waves went dead: your border crossed itself.

I couldn't tell or tear us apart. In the absence of hourglasses meanwhiles

piled up, swells of the dispellable. Even the diamond shed no oil, not a drop to delight the drilltip.

* * *

Partners having come unwelded (blasted by nuclear family life) we went a long

way back,
as far as Abacus (empire of the rook and stork). We roused some dowsers

from a timeless doze, we had them scatter Onan's nanoseconds everywhere: in waves and particles, the clearest

solitudes could be broadcast. At last you kissed me, I could die again, and one

good lick of quicksand took ...


Born flipper-first into an icy wind it gropes to locate anything hospitable, and that turns out to be a nipple, cuffed in fur.
It has to live the next few months

upon that knowledge, and a frozen shelf.

In time the nipple-bearer pulls away, into a sensible give-and-take; becomes a moving meaning.
Then in time it's plain the white world has an edge. Familiars disappear across it,

reappear with hides ashine. The waddler noses toward, along, and half across the terrifying line. At last the most reluctant selfhood dares to plunge,

out of the known and over the border and down. And there,
beneath his native ground —

lo and behold —
another world, a world of milder currencies, inverted cumulus and azure, verticals and shade,
the velvets of a deep interior and turns

of coy comestibility —

in short, another life,
with footholds made for memory. (In this expanded universe, the sky is naturally

surmountable — but why?

Why lumber clumsily, above it all —
if able in an underworld to fly?)


Man is A and woman's B. The rut is deep because of cause.
The bull is hooked not avid.
Some where some narrator's lettered:
fest of nails, bequest of feed:
a real mail habit.

* * *

Her suede hold, this dancer's,
minds me to ax the aesthete what he mean, next time I see him. Opposites at

racked removes: trees bloodlines,
fingers thumb, swirl of brush its aftershot whirlpools:
DNA its fine ID. Yes no, saw was.

Shouldest its own real quest.

* * *

Hand to mouth, you weight, equate, and are the agent. Planted most means move. (And weirdest, yes, of all first persons is

the priest in his two-legged pants.)
God's Zed.


I love a rock, for holding so much down (itself, for example,
its grounds). From where we stand it seems

to set loose Alps of cloud above;
below, the lilies range around its late, light-catching

faces. Lawns run right up to its settledness: Your Highness! buzz the grasses and

Your Heaviness! (their blades ablaze). For they must come and go, attracted now

to this, now that, while it is always going — going with the monolithic given,

given every day to love
(in winter as in heat)
only the planet's plunge through heaven.


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 — till POW —

you had it, had it coming, and it heaved, whose participle wasn't heaven.
That 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.

Glimpse of Main Event

In the slump between rounds he looks older. He's been living fast. Some water glances off him,
nicks of glitter.

Time having stopped a while,
he droops on his stool.
In the foreground a female torso carves

a curve of sequins past him, expunging his face for a second.
Before and after her the trainer's visible, looking

down and in, urgent with his Adam.
Scales flicker, in that fray of moments,
in the eye of the beholder.

My Shepherd

A name's another thing in dog-dom. Fido the Uberpooch is dead,
some singing's overcome the underhund.

The underhund's no private nose or eye. Smells well, sights bound.
He cops his swill from the bar's back door,
scopes kibble out in big denominations;
even his birthday suit is finest furs; you'll have no other dog before me, he rebarks; I'll be boygone. I'll be

downhome, awaiting his arrival.
What I mean by home is totally upgussied: I've got five pink weenies in the microwave
(he loves paw-long hot-men); I've licked the floorboards spick, the chain-link span.
I've almost utterly forgotten any other master (man:

the heaviest of absentees, you do the gorge-tattoo, the choke-a-throat. To you

we're Fidos or we're Rovers;
deep in mastery of mind there is

no other kind.) Thank Dog our star is no cartoon — it's Sirius, not Pluto,
and the one I'm waiting for won't call me by my human name. He'll lift

a leg to the polestar, he'll speak bone; he'll bow and wow me, nose the moistened meat. He knows the sweetest senses of the shady. In the end,

because he cannot lie,

he'll switch me back to Bitch,
from Lady.


There is much unsaid, though the edges of the said so long and so perversely have attracted me. And even now how can I tell what old unbearabilities of mind in animal amount

to my drive to seize you, you who have become my being's being,
owner than myself? Parmenides' muse
(Dike the indicator, Dike the just)
insists no part is more existent than another, no part less; and yet

there SEEMS to be less being in a self than in another: self is least the seeable, in self's esteem; one's sense of it a sixth, at most, whereas one's senses of another billow full and five ? YOU I can feel

all ways: I run an eye on your leg,
look a foot in your eye. In you I am very advanced: I see the end of my own inwardness. But if I turn

to me, the second splits. There's instantaneous adjustment — surface slid in place: I face someone who's always facing back, or inside-out, or rightside-down;

someone who saw me first, and fixed herself;
someone whose other faces I know nothing of.
If for a moment she were clearly visible to me, I think

I'd fall forever, out of love.

The Woman Who Laughed on Calvary


Smilers, smirkers, chucklers, grinners,
platitudinizers, euphemists: it wasn't you

I emulated there, in that Godawful place. What kind of face

to put on it? How simple is a simon's sign? To my mind laughter's not the mark of pleasure, not a pleasantry that spread; instead

it's intimate with sheer delirium: spilt brain on split lip, uncontainable interiority —
(make no mistake, it is a horror, this

inmated, intimated self, revealed as your material: red smear,
white swipe). It's said the brain stinks first, then organworks of art and eatery,
and then — what's left? a little cartilage for

ambiguity? a little tendon's B&D? At last, the least ephemeral of evidences: nuggetworks (discrete, and indiscreet) of teeth, bone-bits, odd scraps of a delapidated strut — and this is just the sort of stuff, insensate,

to which life (which comes again as slime) has always loved adhering. Life! Who wouldn't laugh? Your inner life! Your pet pretense! It can't be kept up, can't be kept clean,
even in a thought,
except a good bloodworks or shitpump keeps it so.


Out of the mouth comes a tongue,
it calls itself linguistic and it never quite effects the cover-up (good Lord, there's much to cover up: so many belches, outcries,
upchucks, sneezes, puffings, hiccups, osculations, hawks and coughs) —

so laughter (which, among the noises, prides itself on being the most intellectual) can't help but come out, snorting. Nothing

smiled or mild or meanwhiling — a laugh's got teeth to send it off,
and spit to keep it company, and rot to end up with. Its closest kin is grimace, it's a grimacing with wind.
It will (the will be damned)
burst out

in bad cacaphonies of brouhaha and borborygma — it's the stockbroker of mockeries, a trachea rake —
the vent of rage and irony, and right there in the very shrine of signs. A laugh, I mean,
is sorrow's

archery and signature,
while flesh is being hoisted and arrayed

on roosts of skeleton.


I saw what good comes to; I saw the figure human being cuts, upon its frame.
The laugh was a cry from my own

perscrewed, misnailed, cross-crafted armature. Despite

your consternations, oh you meekened warners and polite conventioneers, the thieves were better served upon that day. For the heart

is a muscle, where cruelty's humored.
The tooth of moral rectitude's a fang. What I gave

at the sight of him there

was up. What I got of humanity there was the hang ...


I drove a day and a night over poured concrete, over moon macadams, now and then corrected by an intermittent dashing; I

turned right at the first fierce sign, and went till I hit wet. The wet was only starting, so I stopped.

The night passed not as time but space, and pushed sunshine, and then the sun itself, from up the other side of islands. When I woke the world had turned

into a neighborhood of new-cropped rock, and one whole nowhere of sea-smoke,
adrift as if alive.


I swear affective life is water:
variously formed and regulated,
curiously colored and abounded,
but at heart always the same wet element. And we

are made of it.

No single thing, or unremitting motion,
it can fall (as joy) in flashes from high rocks, in sprays of spectra (by its virtue,
sun can be broadcast); or rise

as sorrow, once and for all,
to muddy the living room, rob the lover of her breathing space ... Sometimes

its affect is half-bred: a trickle on a cobblestone, a swamp with flesh-colored flowers in it,
ice from an eave ... What

ranges of ringing,
of whooshing and whisking it makes.
Inside our heads (the experts say) there's nonstop noise: what we call silence, it's our grounds for sound ...

Maybe it's water, what broke so we'd be born; maybe it bore

and goes on bearing us,
till humankind and animals and gods themselves are swept up in its school of thought,

till the exploding stars are only quiet points, afloat. I tell you, even

anaesthesia's a feeling.
(It's the feeling we forgot.)


Instead of angels, give us aerogels.
Diaphanous as surfaces of soap,

lightest of the solids on this earth,
an aerogel won't burn, beneath our most insistent blowtorch. We created it to be a lightweight indestructibility,
just as we did (in good old days) our bombs, and just as in the good old days, we'll sell a bit of it to you. Just take

our word for it, it's better than the gist of gism, better than the best of bed. Directly out of it will come the aero-arrows of idea, which lead to speech balloons and quick ignition pens.

Between the coupled wars, and times, and causes, prime seems fed up, misled, laid. A thought

is nothing but a need for energy, a body's mission: be suggestive to a head. Instead of angels,

give us urges. We'll take over, if the mover's dead.

Some Kind of Pine

Mid-leap in her escape, the nymph is bushed: one hand bursts out in

branches, tropes turn helio. The hapless god

has suffered some comeuppance, too:
he's stuck for good in his own stalking.

The maker's a remarker, casting animal as vegetable and then their motions turn to mineral, their moments into monument.

* * *

So now the downcast god puts forth forever in the Villa's living-room

preposterous, unsinkable, his best foremember. There it is, a figurative branching toward

her laurel literality. She can't, in time,
escape; he can't, in time, arrive.

They're caught for good in this ambiguous ambition:

one extending, one intending,
never to be free.

* * *

Right now, as I write "now,"
one happenstance of courtyard tree appears attractively more literal than theirs (as yours,
if you have one, must seem to you

more literal than mine — by mine, I mean this actual and un-possessible mid-summer something ? what's its name, this

evergreen — beyond the hotel balcony whose French doors — do they call them that, in Italy? — I flung wide open to escape

* * *

my rectitude of narrow-bedded room). The conifers outside confer a ringing down on everything; and water whooshes

white around a bend; the branches glimmer at the tips. (Are they

some kind of pine?) I'm moved by them, now that I've come

to rest, from so many thousands of words (numbed space, named time). I stand

* * *

at planet-speed, struck dumb before such patiences as these, that surge for years to crown in great calm altitudes, in starful prongs. How did they get so far? They leave us to our babbling, they ignore

the running reasons of the human stream; they pour into the sky. That's what they're standing for:

for standing fast. They are a sign we shall not overcome, except

in undergoing more ...


Excerpted from "Hinge & Sign"
by .
Copyright © 1994 Heather McHugh.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

after Rilke,
New Poems (1987–1993),
32 Adults (1990),
Uncollected Poems (1975–1986),
Poems from Dangers (1968–1977),
Poems from A World of Difference (1977–1981),
Poems from To the Quick (1981–1987),
Poems from Shades (1981–1988),

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