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Review: Upgraded to Serious, by Heather McHugh

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better summary of the plight of contemporary poetry than Montreal poet Michael Lista's recent observation that "most of the so-called avant-garde poets can't write, and most of the so-called lyric poets can't think." You'd also be hard-pressed to find a better exception to this zero-sum rule than U.S. poet Heather McHugh.

Followers of the Griffin Poetry Prize may recall McHugh as the 2001 International Winner and, later, the witty emcee for the 2003 gala. But her connections to this country go deeper. Born in California to Canadian parents, McHugh, 61, maintains dual citizenship and pays frequent visits to Victoria, B.C. It's no surprise this lifelong duality (which also extends to a yen for translation) finds itself expressed in poems that lyricize and cogitate at a time when polar-opposite trends have made the two activities mutually exclusive.

McHugh's new book Upgraded to Serious - the publication of which coincides with last month's news that she was awarded a "genius grant," the $500,000 McArthur Fellowship - offers exactingly ravishing poetry that digs deeply into big themes: free will, consciousness, ideas of language. The signature features of her style - intricate puns, up-to-the-minute slang, scat-singing wordplay, many-sided metaphors - are inseparable from McHugh's sense of her speakers as hyper-caffeinated theorists, brimming with hypotheses ("Insanity is not a want of reason. It is reason's overgrowth, a calculating kudzu") and maxims ("An oddity of war/ (among the many) is:/ it has to educate attackers/ in the ones attacked.")

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Marvelling over these fast-moving monologues, in which abstractions are dressed in sensualized details ("The wind/ wells up to spill a trail/ of onces off the nevers"), it's hard to ignore the patient skill - what McHugh calls the "five-minded touch" - with which the poet builds her moments. Unlike many American (and Canadian) poets, McHugh's poems are not whiz-bang affairs: Her thinking moves crabwise, cross-referring, linking up, branching out. What ultimately lingers aren't the insights - which land cleanly and memorably - but the tone, the thought-process in which the zigs and zags are their own reward.

In fact, we might even say McHugh has pioneered a new poetic genre: the meditative cliffhanger. Her poems take the shape of an idea or mood clarifying itself in stages, leaving readers on tenterhooks to find out where she'll go next. Hairpin enjambment - every line taking a sharp left turn - is the most recognizable suspense-building feature of this process, giving the poems a jaggedly uneven look. Visually, this advertises her quick reflexes, but also a living sense of form: McHugh adds new lines to pull new ideas in, allowing her to continuously refresh what she is thinking. As a result, the poems never feel like they are created top-down, from a concept, but bottom-up, from scratch, one word at a time:

Addictable to goods, one still admires the good while, full of will, we wheel upon a planetary whim, no more than incidentals in a sunscape: gravity-employees, tissue-issuers, and slaves of rhythm.

McHugh's braininess, as these lines reveal, is also darkly inflected. With its scientific predilections, the collection is a cri de coeur in a lab coat: life judged against cosmic contexts (how we are "no more than/ incidentals in a sunscape") and diagnostically decoded to a chill clarity ("humans do seem dim"). The result: black humour, a discreetly rich pessimism and a mind in constant, fascinated dialogue with its own disappointments. "As for the language/ of the love of life -/ when did my soul unlearn it?"

Thinking poems are often poems with lots of moving parts, and when reading (and rereading) this book one notes the elegance with which everything - perception, reflection, feeling - is held in play. And "play" is the operative word: McHugh's method always involves some winning blend of precision and momentum. In Upgraded to Serious, her three-decade-old gifts have themselves undergone an ample upgrade, her language improved into even crisper lucidity. Indeed, one can't help but quote her lines back at her: "I see you selve and cleave in every/ single way you can. And all the ways add up."

Carmine Starnino's new collection of poems is This Way Out. He lives in Montreal, where he edits Maisonneuve magazine.

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