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Overview

Available now in paperback, The Father of the Predicaments is Heather McHugh's first book since Hinge & Sign was selected as a National Book Award finalist and chosen a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. In this witty and deeply felt collection, McHugh takes her cue from Aristotle, who wrote that "the father of the predicaments is being." For McHugh, being is intimately, though perhaps not ultimately, bound to language, and these poems cut to the quick, delivering their revelations with awesome precision

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" 'No word can clear itself' in this accomplished volume of poems, which illuminates how the contradictions and dualities concealed in language both betray and redeem us . . . McHugh emerges as a kind of seer, and her striking conceits and crackling rhythms reveal an intellect that is often as sensuous as it is clever." —The New Yorker

"Heather McHugh is one of the brightest of the Pacific Northwest's literary jewels . . . These poems slide like quicksilver in and out of one's grasp playful and provocative . . . McHugh's elusive, allusive language is the fitting instrument for knowing a world that is equally unsettled . . . McHugh's poems offer the constant delight of words and worlds made new. The Father of the Predicaments stands as a remarkable achievment of contemporary poetry." —Seattle Times

"Her writing is so alert to itself, so alert to language, it's like watching a dancer on a mirrored floor, stepping on her steps. She's practically playing with her words as she writes them down. 'Joycean' is the word that comes to mind . . . This kind of writing could seem like pure playfulness, but in McHugh it rarely does . . . She's a poet for whom wit is a form of spiritual survival."—Robert Hass, Washington Post Book World

"McHugh's terse and deeply intelligent poems teach the virtues of wit, curiosity, patience and attention. Like Rilke and Celan, McHugh makes a poem into a storehouse of predicaments — a field of compound and divided meanings never synthesized or resolved . . . McHugh uses paradox and equivocation to quarry and refine hard truths from the vernacular: that living is dying, that the mind has only itself to know itself. McHugh's poems are not flights from these truths but honest and often humorous efforts to bear them."—Newsday

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
National Book Award finalist McHugh tackles caregiving for a dying relative, the moon, love, the self, sex, and subjects not readily discernible in poems that focus too much on wordplay and too little on emotion. At times her work moves toward parody, as in "Neither Brings Charges": "When someone barks out/ Author! author--thinking thinking's/ in the wings, however far the furor goes/ no star will come: only a fever." "Not a Prayer," a long poem about a relative's death, has some nice moments: "The dining room's become/ a mill of business, wheel of paperwork and news./ In short, it has become the outside world." Mentioned too in this poem is the title phrase: "The father of the/ predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being." McHugh is a modernist and an extremely cerebral poet, so these poems will not please everyone, but readers interested in language poetry will find poems of interest here. For academic collections and libraries where McHugh has a following.--Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780819565068
  • Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
  • Publication date: 11/29/2001
  • Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 88
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.21 (d)

Meet the Author

HEATHER MCHUGH is Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English at the University of Washingotn in Seattle. She also regularly reaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Warren Wilson college, near Ashville, N.C. She is the author of five books of poetry: Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993(Wesleyan, 1994), Shades (Wesleyan, 1988), To the Quick (Wesleyan, 1987) A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin, 1981), and Dangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). She has translated three volumes of poetry: Because the Sea Is Black: Poems by Blaga Dimitrova (with co-translator Nikolai Popov, Wesleyan, 1989), D’Après Tout: Poems by Jean Fallain (Princeton, 1982), and Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan (with co-translator Nikolai Popov, Wesleyan, 2000). In 1993, Wesleyan published her literary essays, Broken English: Poetry and Partiality. Her version of Euripides’ Cyclops (with an introduction by David Konstan) is forthcoming in a new series from Oxford University Press. Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 was named a finalist for the national Book Award in 1994. Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan won the Griffin Prize in 2001. In 1999 she was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


    Not a Prayer


    ... she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of a serpent.

— Revelations 12:l4
* * *
We sleep inside a bullet —
cheek to cheek, in public
anonymity — and then we wake. We do
not speak. The sun's
a red-eye, and the earth
a fast blue rushing underneath.
* * *
"You've come into my life," she says. And then
"I want for you to understand." A night
and a day and a night from then,
I'd understand all right, helping to hook
around her corpse's chin and ears
the strap that keeps
a speaking-place from gaping.
* * *
Throughout the daylong night, the nightlong day, the livelong time
that's left, we mean to be her mates, go anywhere she drifts — we'd follow
every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam — give up every
tillerwork for her, if she required. But what does she require? The
place has no coordinates — or else it's we who don't — who fall asleep
to jerk awake at her every "Are you there?" or "What are we?" or, now
and then, her half-polite, half-consternatious Russian-French
"Pardon?"
* * *
"Malheureusement, pour être mort,
il faut mourir
." And now we tangleup
the nightgown's arm; can't get the air-tubes
through the head-hole; all of us are clumsy,
short on sleep and snapping at each other —
she emitting cries of naked fear and
sheer indignity. Oh for the calm
credentials of a nurse, the competences
of a nurse, the cool! But when
the nurse, a family friend, arrives
a clamor comes from in the room —
the nurse has been mistaken for
someone her husband cheated with
a thousand years ago, and now
his wife "won't have her in the house."
It seems we have to die the way we lived.
The nurse departs, and love,
that history of strangleholds,
has left her with
the likes of us.
* * *
At first the impulse was to finish up her falterings. "You know ... you
know ..." she tried a hundred times. "Know what?" her son kept probing,
but she couldn't say. One knew it took some life from her to try.
* * *
Who tells the time?
A calibration's on the shelf,
syringe her husband wouldn't give her.
She is not in pain, he says, and he's
the doctor. Two days from today
(is it today?) I took the red-eye. One
AM: is anyone awake? Arrived
a life ago. But time is going
to be unkept. It has
to tell itself.
* * *
The body is moved from its chair onto the cart.
The head is calm. It has, for once in seven decades,
no more mask of lipstick and mascara. Now I see:
she's beautiful. Each eyebrow exquisite,
and every lash. Her mother must have felt
precisely this objective an affection, when her own
long day and night of laboring were over. Then
the black bag's zipper rips
the seeing from my .
* * *
To put some sense together, she takes
time: ten minutes, twenty, half an hour.
The others come and go.
Each thinks her thinking
incoherent. But if anybody
listens long enough he hears
(among the many dozings)
something terribly intelligible.
"Yesterday yesterday I was [and here she falls asleep for seven minutes]
yesterday I was full of new [she falls asleep for three] new life new life
but today but today new life but today [she falls asleep eleven minutes]
I am full of full of yesterday I was [she falls asleep] was full of new life
but today I am full of of [come back, come back, I tell one of her sons,
the sentence has a structure, when she falls asleep she's not forgetting]
but today [she falls asleep, he can't believe me] I am full of but today
I'm full of [somebody is calling him from somewhere else and then
he's gone] but today I am full of ... [now she'll tell me, now I'll know]
... I'm full of finished ..."
[Full of finished? is that last word AFTER the ellipsis? should it be
attached to how, instead of what, she meant? which parts were talking
about talking, should I put some
quotes in quotes? some kind
of mind inside the mind, some
time inside, or out? or what? This bracket
is the writer's. Who
are you? are you? are you?]
* * *
Her husband is her caretaker, and he's half-deaf. The conferences he
ought to whisper with his sons, about some undertakerly details, turn
out to be a yelling kind of telling — she can hear: her eyes snap open.
Leaning fast into her frequencies, I chant
some species of a muffling song: "Don't worry, everything will be OK,
everything will be OK," the hymn I used to use when my own mother
wept, my father threw his plate against the wall. The father of the
predicaments, wrote Aristotle's translator, is being. Yes, but nothing
you can translate can be true. So when the powers of the universe have
got
the future all wrapped up again, I lean back from her ear and repossess
my listening-spot, here at the foot of her chair, at the tip of her hand.
She wets her lips. She's saying something.
"Everything," she says.
* * *
The days of oi-oi-oi have passed
into the days of oh — (when even a diphthong
taxed too much) — and then the oh-oh-oh
to hours of ah, the ah
to hours of of. And then
for some one hundred minutes more she made
an of that sounded something
like an awe — but with
a hitch. Awe plus a gasp,
a flutter, fell. For hours it was
awful awful awful. (Who knows if, and at what price,
she tried to tell us something with that extra syllable?
Or was it just the lung mechanic's mockery? How tell
a word from senselessness, a grown-up from his
homonym?) One son (aged 49) kept calling "Mama"
and by reflex first and then enormous effort,
she would wrench herself from somewhere far away
to heed his cry. It seemed too much to ask:
the cry itself was all he had to say. We listened way
too hard, and one took notes.
* * *
For the rest of his life, he'll relive the scene. She furious: "You did not
get me morphine?" He: "I can't, I can't." He says it every day, until she
cannot spare the air to speak.
At last his sons prevail on him to find her one syringe at least, and so he
has to make the calls, do paperwork in triplicate, get signatures from
several fellow-doctors, and secure the morphine from the pharmacy —
when most he doesn't want to leave her side.
And still the morphine is not used. The night wears on. "She feels no
pain" becomes his theme, his hope, his surety, his dream.
Eventually this painlessness becomes unbearable, and even he agrees
a merciful, not mortal, dosage should be given. Hands trembling, head
a blur from four days' watchfulness and grief and eighty years of human
work and love, he comes to this: the moment to swab her arm,
and shoot the shot. Each son takes in a slow deep breath — and then
can't let it out. The drug has swelled into a gruesome pocket underneath
her skin — it never hits the vein. This blue-black bulge is an affront
her husband covers quickly with his hand. And holds that arm
down for the rest of her life, which is the rest of her night. And her free
arm flails.
* * *
What's worse?
To know? Or not to know?
I've been a little cuckoo, she
woke up and, waking,
said. But when she wasn't
saying anything, what ravens
settled in her head?
* * *
I thought I would be earth-struck, terrified,
there in the body's room with nobody,
or only a body, by my side. Instead
her calm's my haven — most especially
from the swarm of friends who loved
her bright society, and so
assemble in the aftermath. Each visitor
dips once into the study's
pool of quiet, where she lies
so self-absorbed, preoccupied —
then flees toward the living,
in the living room.
I'm free to stroke her face, to register
its "cold" or "marble" meaning.
Contrary to all the stories, it is not
a statue's surface, although indisputable beneath her skin
is some enormous cool, immovable. She's not
a headstone but a model. Not an idea: an ideal. It's reverence,
it's not revulsion, that I feel — fraternity not fright —
that is, until a photograph of her distracts me,
and I turn my back. (You shouldn't let a body out of sight.)
* * *
If ever I fell asleep, the plane
would plummet from the sky. And so
I kept the watch. That's how
I kept them all alive.
* * *
"But couldn't you do something with that hair?" she'd ask
my whirlwinds of arrival into town, and then she'd tell
the story of the artist in the House of Commons,
at whose entrance "every member rose."
(For all her salt, she was the true
aristocrat.) Her husband (socialist
and cardiologist, a man whose mechanisms
of association turn the humorous
to something like a legbone) resorts instead
to lecturing: "We ought to leave our bodily
remains to research." (He's not only deaf,
he's serious: the hospitals need corpses.) This was all
a thousand years ago, before I knew
the first thing about time. "Not me," was her
old come-back. "Don't think I've forgotten
all your tales of what those students do
at autopsies, touch football all about
the bed, with human body parts —
just lop it off and lob it here and there
about the abattoir. No thank you,
kolitchka. Not THIS grey head."
* * *
She came out of the first night's coma, spoke, took pleasure in her
food, was terrifyingly rapacious, glazed of eye, amazing to behold:
could walk toward and from the table, raise her own reclining chair;
she glowed, she wolfed her bread and brie. A meal was called for, she'd
regained her famous appetite. To do the culinary honors, someone
delegated me.
You'd have to know the decades she had dazzled at that house. You'd
have to know the spirit of the mealtimes, and the easy gift for guests,
the zest of wit, the tellingness of taste ...
I racked my brains: no way. I fished for thoughts. I got a ray. I thought
of fish. OK. So far so good. And then I ought, I reasoned, spare the
spice. (She wasn't speaking, hadn't spoken. Had no voice in things.) So
who was I, to make such intimate decisions? Upstart in her kitchen,
and outsider in her kin, how could anybody come across but as intrusion?
(Wasn't everything too crude, too delicate?) I made the fish. She
tried a fork. And then she tried another. (Now the happy family
smiled.) A third, and I could breathe again. And then the snake of
speech was stirred.
It said: "But where's the sauce?"
* * *
The notes remained where she had left them,
in the living room, upon the music stand. "Shaping a sound.
Feeling a pulse. Rising and falling melodic
rhythm." All her breathing
having stopped, her hand
was bound to move.
* * *
We talked our time away around her figure in the silent chair, we
missed our Madame Raconteuse. Compulsively she lifted now one,
now another, finger to her lips, and then I saw her lips were dessicated,
chapstick wasn't doing much — "Perhaps you want your lipstick?" Yes,
she nodded, yes yes yes. The onlookers applauded.
So I brought that red-gold item from the room that was her room, and
knelt beside her and began to put it on, propping my fist against her
cheek, the artist with an audience, afraid to do it badly (and so failing
as an artist) — hardly 10 days in my life had I put make-up on myself!
— and so she took the lipstick from my hand and started her own old
and daily exercise — and then "you didn't bring my mirror" she accused
and everyone applauded once again.
I ran for the hand-mirror, into it she fell intent and finished off the bottom
lip and then she let the mirror fall, I knelt and looked into her
countenance, full-front, and saw
a suffering face, with one red lip ...
"Now press your lips together" — here I tried to ape the lipstick-kiss
the lipstick-ladies do — and then her eyes raised slowly toward me,
past me, to a focus in the nowhere. Into air's enormous glass, she sent
the reddened question: "Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?"
* * *
The room her room (no room to breathe), its lights her light,
its voice her voice, its company her company,
of her, of her, of her,
became bereft.
The glass stopped looking for her.
Two men came, in kinds of uniform, the one of law,
the other chimney-sweep or butler — ceremonial silk scarf
a blinding billowing in white. So long she'd labored
there with us, so long she'd kept
ahead of them, but now
they'd overtaken her,
they took her yellow self out of its chair
(the botched arm underneath a blanket).
I give HIM, remarked the scarf,
inclining toward the badge,
the heavy end. I always do. (He meant the head.)
I felt somewhere — indignant, delicate —
Pardon? was being said.
* * *
"I tell the world that you're my daughter,"
she kept telling me, until it seemed
I had to be the world to her. Of course that wasn't true.
She had her sons and husband, grandchildren, a lifetime's friends,
adoring and adored. She had
her druthers, too, for fully half
of mankind had deserved
her darker epithets: sveenya or potz,
durak, muzheek. Somewhere between, the hapless shmuggadorehs.
The better half were her admirers, and our names
were swolinka, and svolitschka,
were putschkala and kotchkala,
were kola, bubeleh, and Heatherchik.
* * *
It hurt my heart, it horrified my head, that blunt
"Who are you?" spoken to my face.
And so: "I'm not myself today," I said.
* * *
Somewhere deep in one unending time (through which
no thought seemed utterable) up she sat
and said in perfect clarity "I have to speak to Martha."
One son ran to tell her husband — she has spoken! — but the husband
answered "It's delirium, she hasn't anything to say to Martha,
they've not talked in years. Ignore it, it will pass." And that
was when I did, if I say so myself,
my one courageous act — who had
so failed her in the larger courages, had found
no morphine we could ease her with, no opiating words,
nothing to soothe but only temporize — who when she asked us
"Am I dying?" offered after an excruciating silence
only "We don't know. Can you tell us?" —
(my God, if that's
not cruelty, it's cowardice!) — but she
(who comprehended my incomprehension)
answered then for all of us "No one
knows death." I did, I say,
my one good thing
that moment when I turned
to the son of the man who believed
she had nothing to say, and said: "My dear,
if you don't dial up Martha, tell her that her friend is dying,
and has asked for her, and may not have the strength to talk, I swear
I'll kill you." And thereupon the son
despite his father's bidding did
find Martha's number, lift the phone
and whisper to his mom: "It's Martha,
mother, here is Martha on the phone."
Long seconds passed: I leaned
toward her ear and heard
the voice of Martha in the cellphone saying tinily:
"We love you, dearest friend; we love your love of life,"
and leaning back I saw upon that listening face
some wild emotions, efforts, tearings of intent,
attempts to speak — and then
there burst out from her voicebox
words — or rather, one word cried
three times — so loud
the others all came running from
their rooms): GOODBYE
GOODBYE GOODBYE
* * *
A scrawl upon the music stand,
a passage in her hand, her hand, her hand
(excerpted from another's): "The musician
who struggles with words
in order to translate
musical meaning
into non-musical language
does so at his or her own peril."
* * *
"Take care of him, take care of him," she told the cold black phone.
(Continues...)
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Table of Contents

Not a Prayer 3
Not Unterrified 21
Past All Understanding 23
Moon and TV 25
One Woe 27
Three To's and an Oi 28
Fast 30
Questions for the Moon (after Rainer Maria Rilke) 31
The Father of the Predicaments 32
For Raya 33
Spill of Howl 37
Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun 39
So Thick? 40
My Hexahedron Mated with His Cone 42
The Starrier the Scarier 43
Wise Ease 44
Out of Mind 45
Mens in the West 46
If Only 47
Streaming Audio 48
Sun Grounded in Sky-Pool 49
Dust Jacket 50
Verdict 52
Neitherer Brings Charges 53
Sizing 55
The Brink 56
The Gulf Between the Given and the Gift 57
Not So Fast 58
A Night Is All 59
Ein Ander 60
The Water 61
Deposition of the Seer 62
A Salt: Three Variations on Five Senses 63
Cartographer at Home 64
Nano-Knowledge 68
Open Air 70
Interior (after Paul Valery) 71
Qua Qua Qua 75
Etymological Dirge 77
Acknowledgments 79
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