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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather McHugh
Heather McHugh
A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Heather McHugh has received several awards for her work as a poet, including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 2009...
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A Singing Kind of Seeing: Heather McHugh and Christine Hume in Conversation

 
by Heather McHugh
interviewed by Christine Hume

Interviewer's Note: Heather McHugh and I worked by e-mail, I sending her a batch of questions, and she sending back her responses. As she had warned me, it wouldn't be easy to contain her. Indeed, her responses wove elements of many of the questions together, and tended to overflow the boundaries between the questions. As a result I've printed at the outset the two questions most explicitly addressed in her first multi-part response; and then after that response, the three subsequent questions most provocative of her second long response. If the result does not resemble the conventional interview format, at least it does bear a resemblance to the "uncontainabilities" (of mind and matter) that McHugh so often emphasizes as poetry's own premises.


Hume:

  • In terms of autobiography, your poems hold a unique place. They resist the burdens of identity politics and the confessional impulse and, at the same time, reveal (or at least suggest) a personal narrative. How do you see your poetry in relation to constructions of the self, the possibilities of sincerity, and the American tradition of autobiography?

  • Poems spanning your career ("Language Lesson 1976," "To Have To," and "Coming," for instance) highlight your accurate ear for American idiom--both musically and analytically. You're also actively engaged in reading, translating, and elucidating poets such as Rilke, Celan, Valery, Follain, and Blaga Dimitrova. Your selected works, Hinge & Sign, opens with a charged international scene where American writers (and subsequently readers) are told a thing or two about poetry. How closely do you identify yourself with American writers? What does it mean to be writing contemporary American poetry? What's American about American poetry? In what ways do you see a particularly American language as generative to your imagination?

McHugh: I don't identify myself with writers. I can't identify myself at all. I'm not out of the woods yet. My whole life feels like a blue streak issuing from a solitude.

Lurking at a conversation's outskirts, I learned a thing or two about the human calls and cackles. (In the back of the Audubon book, poignantly transliterated into English, are the chachalaca's cries: the male says, "Keep it up!"; the female answers "Cut it out!") I listened from the hallway to the liquored pitches of the party animals. I listened from a wooden bench, to how the halleluias were intoned. I listened to the highway ruckus, from a lowland path. A paradox: in high society, one underhears; fallen into solitude, one overhears. By the time I was twelve I was already an expert eavesdropper. And the big barn from which every dangblasted goldarn utterance issued was (for sure!) American.

There are readers who think Stevens too cold to be good, and Dickinson too solitary to be true. I am not one of those. It's not for glimpses of their social life I read them. Plath still suffers from the misdirection of her fame into an oven-story, and so her most amazing work is slow to find its better readers. If Stevens is not particularly interested in human afflictions, it may be that his genius is averse to human inflictions. Dickinson's brilliance bloomed at a distance from the crowd. Would I have wished these poets happier "interpersonal relations"? The cruel truth is: not to the substitutive ends of the parlances of "interpersonality"; and not at the cost of those poems, which speak to so many people long after the "personal" has rotted in its grave.

Even the word "identity" makes me uneasy. (Do I have to have one? And what if the construction of the "identical" requires at least a pair of selves? If so, uh-oh. The thought of one is boggling; the thought of two is dangerous.) Though I studied with Robert Lowell at a time when his work was being branded "confessional" and though in that fortunate workshop there were many for whom the social life of poetry came easy, whose verse arose like vapor from conversancy, that's not how it was with me. Thomas Mann says "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I am not fit. But I am fierce. I was the world's least urbane Ivy Leaguer. And my idea of a good time was NOT to be painting the town. I come from somewhere where a man could have a conniption, somewhere where living souls remembered the real roots of hens' teeth, the provenance of a gift horse, the innards and offal of which a humble pie must be concocted, and the meandering meanings in a beeline. From time alone in woodlands and along riversides, from water-ways and forsythia-whips, from winding things and rocking things, I took my only fluencies. Congenitally shy, I took my cues from patterns (not from patter). I made my poetry from scratch.

"Clear as mud. Dead as a doornail. Thick as thieves.
 
Old hat. Close shave. Hair of the dog. His birthday suit.
By the seat of one's pants--i.e., by the skin of one's teeth.
By a whisker--i.e., by a nose. Cut the apron strings--
   tie the knot!
Put it on the back burner--put it on ice!

Rob the cradle, rock the boat. Dead heat. Live wire.
Cloud nine a lick away from seventh heaven.
A bone to pick, and a hatchet to bury. The devil
and the deep blue sea. Don't open up that can of worms.

In stitches. On tenterhooks. [What lingo could be lovelier?]
In the red is bad, but in the pink is where you want to be.
Head in the clouds (but tongue in cheek).

Pull his leg. Bend his ear. Put his foot in his mouth.
(Fine fettle. On a shoestring. Under the belt.
The hang of it. The short end of the stick.)
On the QT. Last laugh. Off-color. In a blue moon.
His number's up. His better half is on the rampage.
Spilled beans. (Spilled milk.) Wild oats. Last straw.
Scapegoat. Fur is flying. Inch of his life. Step on it!
(Sleep on it.) Forty winks. Get up on the bed's wrong side.

Under the weather. Like a ton of bricks.
Second wind. Water under the bridge.
No longer wet behind the ears. A new leaf.
(Spur of the moment? Nick of time!)

So mum's the word? You said it."

People in other countries said it otherwise. But everywhere, a poet has the poet's eye and ear. Listen in with your mouth, said Paul Celan. One does a singing kind of seeing, out of round blind-sidedness. You don't know where you're going but you feel your way. A whiff of nitroglycerine, and zong, three spondees leap into a line. A poet looking for a translator can find a friend with fellow-fluencies in French or Farsi, Yoruba or Cree--but he can't so easily locate another soul who follows Poetese. Who loves the trail, let's say, from the Indo-European ven or wen, meaning want or desire, and follows along it to the hunt (via Latin's venari--and therefrom to our venison)--not to mention (or rather gleefully to mention) Venus' relation to the venereal, in terms and germs alike; and Venice's having styled itself desirable, by name; and venom's having come from the love-potion's goblet . . . What a voyage that is, from desire to poison! (gift to gift!) (My Lord! My word! How much You gave us, when You gave us THAT, in the beginning!)

If you're a poet smitten with English, you love it for its drive and not its drone. The rhythms of a language must be irresistible--while the humdrums of it have to be resisted. No linguistic habit is, per se, of interest--but ah! when the unsung (underlying) nun informs it--with a sensual twist or quick shape-shift! Well, that's the trick: the sudden unexpectedness inside the overknown.

The delight not only of etymologists, but of any spirit threatened with tedium (for "patter" comes from "paternoster"--prayer said so fast and often it becomes a mere formality)--is to discover an astonishment hidden in, or underneath, the usual. Chekhov's notebooks are full of quick sketches of character, single strokes of sight which then seem rich with insight: "He had a mouth like a slit: one longed to put a penny in it," and "She hadn't enough skin to cover her face: in order to open her mouth she had to close her eyes, and vice versa." The delight we feel as the physical detail releases the moral truth, as carnality is converted into character, is an inversion of the same delight we feel at certain etymologies, which recover for judgments and abstractions their origin in physical gestures. My adolescent French and Latin studies meant I would never again hear the word "supercilious" without seeing the raised hairs of the supercilious eyebrow. An inveigled man is blinded (aveuglé); an inoculated man has a little extra eye . . . Entirely drawn from such sources is the following little poem (the final piece in my forthcoming collection The Father of the Predicaments, to be published by Wesleyan in 1999):

Read "Etymological Dirge" from The Father of the Predicaments (Wesleyan University Press, 1999).

Those free from such logophiliacal obsessions might consider themselves blessed. For them, a word's a simple instrument, a saw or pliers, andirons or rope. But those afflicted with it recognize the other logophiliacs, and take some solace in the company. Without my French and Latin, I'd have missed the little kick in Moses Hadas's trilingual characterization: "That man is gauche but not sinister." (Hadas's array of replies to the hapless writers who burdened his mailbox with their manuscripts was legendary: "I have read your book, and much like it." "Thank you for sending your book. I shall waste no time reading it." "This book fills a much-needed gap." The genre includes composer Max Reger's reply to a reviewer of his latest work: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.")

These guys were mercilessly elegant. I was a klutz who wore unmatched shoes to school, and on her sleeve a badly-bleeding heart: I admired their arts, adroit and sinister, from unattainability's distance. To the astutely-meaning, how could the merely well-meaning hold a candle? It was not just wit's dagger I loved, but its cloak: the ways in which language could say two things, even contradictory things, at once. These equivocities inform the greatest poetry. The revelation needs the veil, as every stripper knows. Perhaps the astonishing capacity of a linguistic construction not to settle for a single meaning satisfies an old life-craving in me, for an unsimplistic truth, an irreducible existence. (A reader most delighted by these, of all the glories of language, will surely not prove useful to the purveyors of psycho-social, socio-political, or moral formulae.)

A short sermon. Each seventh day to wake up merely in a Monday? God forbid. A language is a system not for estimation only, but for intimation. (Poetry used to be called numbers, but its calculus is visited by the uncanny and the uncontainable.) Languages go about the work of intimation each in its own distinct and characteristic way. But we don't care for those distinctions much, these days; many schools no longer require a student ever to study a foreign language. I have seen first-hand how few of our English teachers (even at the university level!) are competent in grammar and syntax, the fundamentals of which should have been drilled--yes, DRILLED--into pupils well before they hit the impertinences of puberty. We've had two generations of this pedagogical neglect, and the dimming of the prospects now proceeds by exponential bounds, since teachers beget teachers. That the principal charm of the word "discipline" for a new-fledged English Ph.D. could be its status as bondage's sidekick, or that her dissertation committee (a trio of amateur psycho-sociologists) might entertain seminal matters only in sensational incarnations, taking the history of ejaculation for the study of a spurt of breech, rather than of a part of speech--surely means higher education is involved in a time of wildly inadvertent satire.

But moving forms matter; and so moving matters form. There is hope in the spirit that demands not merely to be plied with platitudes and good intentions, as there is hope in rap and hip-hop, all that verb-vigor and word-wit. Kids have naturally lively minds, to which the shapelinesses are not alien. But the schools aren't exercising them. Better to be drilled with anything than bored with nothing. If we never get the chance to learn our language's designs, we never know its secrets and inherencies: its best allures, its dimpled implications. (Don't forget: a diplomat, like a diploma, folds things over twice.) Our reading and writing programs could use a dose of such diplomacies. In the teaching of no other art do we so neglect its instrument. If we lose explication, we lose implication; when we lose them both, we've lost not a mechanics but a metaphysics. Far from narrowing our range, rhetorical studies develop in us a resistance to reductiveness, an aptitude for tolerance, an eye for the lucid (thus the greater) mysteries. (There are students who think the term "subordinate clause" is part of a vocabulary of oppression!) A moralist or social commentator will never richly enough read an Emily Dickinson. Her gift to the soul is better apprehended by a singer, or a syntactician.

Father Heather will now step down. (I too am at my worst when moralizing. Oscar Wilde's homily goes something like this: "Every bad poem springs from genuine feeling.") So much for the sufficiency of sincerity. The world has enough prattlers in its nursery, enough rattlers in its hospice. It doesn't need poets for that.

Nor is the rest silence.
Silence is the work.

Hume:

  • Do you see your work in relation to a 16th, 17th and 18th century English tradition of high verbal wit?

  • Broken English is a work of prose obsessed with the poetic line and fragmentation. In it you say poetry is from the first "a broken language." What do you say to the currency of blending genres, making poems out of prose, or floating fragments all over the page? Is the authority of the line, with all its ironic breakings and surprising enjambments, something to be suspicious of? How fundamental is the line break to poetry?

  • In your collection of essays (Broken English: Poetry and Partiality) you compare Emily Dickinson's "interpretive branching" to the "alternate pathways of computer programs," a description that is also apposite of your own work. (You use prepositions theway Dickinsonuses the dash, as a means to multiply "mutually resistant readings.") Given that, and your impressive interactive web page, I'm wondering, is the figure of a network a kind of model of verbal/semantic/syntactic potentiality for you? Can or must poetry and the computer be comfortably wed? To what extent do you see the future of poetry as inextricably bound to technological media? Are certain primal elements of poetry sacrificed by media cross-fertilization?

McHugh: Let's start with literary models. The books of poetry given me (before I was 12 years old) were these: The King James Bible (a tiny edition with translucent pages and colored illustrations sent by my paternal grandmother); Palgrave's Golden Treasury (my mother's old student edition), Shakespeare's sonnets, a collected John Donne, a collected W. B. Yeats, and (from my father) Dylan Thomas. (A couple of years later would come a selected Wallace Stevens, the first distinctly-American poetry to which they directed my gaze.) For Christmas I got LP records of great stage performers reading the classics of Anglo-Irish poetry. Whenever my head wasn't full of the patterns of the living underbrush and overflows I haunted, it was full of the sound of the sense of these writers. (This very week, as it happens, my mother has transferred into my eternal care a trunkful of the awful little ditties I composed in childhood, all duly dated and archived: painfully rhymed and rinky-dinking stanzas scrawled on marine-supplies tablets and pages torn from composition books. Their meters smack of those in Songs of Innocence, or so my resident critic and spouse observes. I suppose it's true that the cadences and chimes of an English tradition inhabit even these infantile pieces. But where a good dose of hot wit might have helped, these verses leak an underheated treacle of sentiment. ("A warmth he felt inside him, / A little gladness flame. / We don't know when it left there / But we do know when it came" ends one poem, dated 1957. So shoot me. I was nine.)

Fortunately time alleviates the taste for treacle, and the better traces of my training would develop into a disposition to rhetorical turns, twists of wit and paradox, and (however revealed or reveiled) accentual-syllabics and terminal rhyme. But the power of a great poetic legacy is as often a problem as a privilege: how to channel (and change) the outpour from such profound sources? How not merely to diminish or repeat? Not every wordplay's worth the candle. Not all puns deserve cracking. (In wisecracks, wise is what the crack is not.) And not all daring poetic explorers (from the Latin "plorare," meaning "cry out") press forth on iambic feet.

More of my nature is tuned to alarm than to allaying. Perhaps the English in me is outshouted by the Irish. Or maybe if you live by woods and water long enough, you're always cocking an ear for the harbinger's shriek. Whatever streak it was that kept me alert to the threat of death—whether from boredom or from sensationalism, whether from behind or from ahead—it also kept me looking twice—underwater, into the clouds, through microscope and telescope, for patterns even profounder even than those a human being can devise, whether in an elegant Yoruba analogy, or the glories of Schubert's Impromptu #2 (A Minor). To Merrill's dictum "form affirms" I'd add: "and firmaments are moving." As Hinge & Sign's mid-book series of peculiar etudes attests (a little-loved section called 32 Adults) I'm no longer very interested in the snap of the latch that closes me into the heirloom room. I'd rather be out on the edge of a cliff, where (with luck, before luck does me in) the new waves won't be vague.

You can see why a feel for forms might drive one forward, not just back. (Thank Juno, scroll and icon have been restored to our daily vocabularies!) But despite your kind adjective for it, my web page (I'm ashamed to say) hasn't been updated in nigh on three years now, and its interactive intuition is thus far barely hinted at (in the form of a scrolling poem that turns interverbal spaces into vertical patterns—an exercise that took me painstaking hours, merely to identify and then physically arrange words that could interchange letters in any sensical fashion.). If Chronos, in a fit of forgiveness, afforded me five years off from teaching, that would suffice only to start such explorations, thanks to the variousness with which the electronic poem and its related genres can be conceived. Perhaps half of my poet's heart belongs to music, but another half belongs to the visual arts. And where the semiotician sets his sights upon the signified, I'm perfectly happy to settle for some floating signs.

Someone of my ilk, whose delight in book arts is greater than her delight in art books, can't help loving the graphic possibilities for the literal, in computer arts. The medium introduces, into the poetic field, tools for coherent motion (the rolling scroll, the running icon, and the catless mouse) and also for uncommon depth (that click-on-the-underline that leads to the opening of yet deeper rooms). To compose a poem, I've always gone into some sort of room: to get away from an immediacy of overseers and reach an ultimacy of understanders. Of course, the word "stanza" itself means "room." (So does the word "camera.") And room online is conceivable as yet another an occasion for containment and capaciousness at once (though I hereby pronounce "chat rooms" to be torture chambers, circles of hell, furnished with precisely that fashion of social accident and verbal fatuousness a hermit labors to avoid). I'm attracted rather to the physical sense of "space" in the medium itself (there is a there there): freedoms from, not for, chatterers.

No new instrument is worth its while in mere imitation of anterior forms: to the delicacies of musical invention, electronic organs aping violins do only violence. And it's a mere truism to say that no computer can replace a good book's wood and leather, nothing replace its feel and smell, its portability and palpability, its literalization of the yellow passages of time, and the decades of delicate dust it bears, from the touches of monks and moths.

But nothing can replace the moving image, either: the mesmerizing power of the cinema's projection, the auras around monitors. We're captivated (from the inside and from out) by some figure of ourselves, that form at once contained and yet unfathomable, persisting yet moving, that representation lit-as-if-by-magic-from-within. And if technology permits us not merely to receive but also to revise these figures, then it proposes to the imagination new instrumentalities, and will attract new instrumentalists.

The network or grid is a signature figure in the work of Paul Celan, bodied forth again and again in the semantic and syntactical fields of his poems. It appears in book titles and references within the poems (to electric power grids, for example, or the radar screens of traffic control, lines of communication among radio towers, or interwoven pressures in geological and biochemical structures). But it also appears in the syntactical designs of the poems themselves. Paul Celan more than any other poet poised the word over against its affiliations. The poems often seem like dissolving graphs, in which words float off from their lines, and lines from their sentences. Knots and threads relinquish their networks, and approach that chiasmatic moment where the space between elements displaces—as the defining feature of the grid—matter's tied-together strands. (Rhetorical chiasmus derives from the Greek letter X or chi; in cell division, at the "chiasmatic" moment only a single point still joins the dividing genetic strands of old and new, solitary and replicated, cells: the tenterhook on which the difference between identity and plurality hangs, a moment that has meaning only in a movement!) Always interwoven in language, as language, are what is and what isn't (and the question whether they are two things at all); their distinction (or indistinguishability) has given Western philosophy its very grounds (its Abgrund, too).

In Celanian space one feels the thrusts toward both expansion and destruction of the grids of traditional connection-making. This is a syntactic matter, as surely as a semantic one. One man's fragment is another's logogram or holophrase. In Celanian constructions, the patterns seem, at times, terrifyingly reminiscent of THE times: the rupture of peoples from peoples; of a person (conceived individually) from The People (conceived institutionally); of discrete or floating events from any overarching shape and historical continuity. But in this century alone the nefarious uses to which the story of historical progression has been put should serve as sufficient caveat emptor for the browsers in fairy-tale shops. And while some readers discern in Celan's work a mind in the process of annotating its own delapidation, others see a mind making itself some parcels of uncommon breathing-room. The open mind can be the product equally of a thought or of a bullet. Conflating the two, Celan excruciates the meaning of a second.

As soon as I start spouting words like Abgrund it's time to shut me up. One doesn't have to hazard the quicksands of theoretical jargon to get at a network's operating paradox: those links are nothing without the nothing between them. (The word puzzle known as a "logogriph" is named not only for the logos, but for a fishing basket—griphos—too. It's always been obvious to workers with trawls and weirs: you need the space. If water can't escape, then the fish will!)

One of the very few workable strategies for relieving a form as odiously imposing as the sestina is to conceive the form as arising from an even more thoroughly obsessive occasion than a formal impulse alone can supply. (Jim Cummins' sestina series The Whole Truth arranges for its protagonist to go mad.) At its most brilliant, the sestina can wallow in (rather than try to evade) its burden of repetitions, inserting even more of those words into the middles of the lines, creating an obsessive texture throughout, not only at the line-ends. The virtue of such a remedy is that it admits the illness. (As Nietzsche said, "Him you do not teach to fly, teach to fall faster.") Celan does the same thing with line breaks. Why restrict them to line-ends? He scatters them throughout. There can come a point where the line is no longer identifiable, the breaks have so prevailed. That point, at which the break prevails over the broken, is an inherently interesting juncture, not only for rhetoric but for philosophy.

If one wanted to get at a definition for poetry (to my mind an alien ambition, given the shifting of my native grounds) it would have to undermine its own ends. To the extent that lineated poems materialize a poet's attraction to the places where words stop, the line conspires in the poem's essence. But I take Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges and William Gass for poets; and so I find unserviceable any major marginal distinction between poetry and prose. In Julio Cortazar's so-called prose poem, "Lines of the Hand" (a poem beginning "A line comes from the hand and crosses the table..."), the line runs through the poem not only as a constitutive material for art (in a kind of animated line-drawing) but also as a dramatic character for narrative. It makes a circle in the mind as it makes its apparently happy-go-lucky journey through the world, turning tens of corners in the course of the poem, some of them in its passage through a city, and some of them in its passage through a paragraph. Ultimately the poem is about the moment at which mere sequence turns consequential; where moments suddenly cohere into the momentous. The line which has run from a hand finally finds itself in other hands, its freedom suddenly implicated in fatality's story. The shape of the whole inheres in the very last moment. For me, that point (when the contained overwhelms the container, the point its line) is the essentially poetic point. In Finnegans Wake, a river of fluency isn't just the means, but the end (and the loopway back to the beginning). Its leaping is a linking: "flowing and flown," Elizabeth Bishop would write.

I stand properly wary of my own perverse delights. Any design that devises the greatest possible number of readings in the fewest possible words might find itself too easily at the service of a facile moral relativity. A plurality of priorities could be said to mark the death of priority itself. But the utility of poetry is of as little interest to me as is the biography of poets, and a temperament of my ilk takes onto-numerological solace from the great mystics: all and one are crucially hard to TELL apart. (Pragmatic America makes short work of the visiting mystic: the Dalai Lama at the hot dog stand: "Make me one with everything.") How pleasurable, then, to read the word "constitutive" two ways: its prefix at once a with and an against! And how swiftly etymological authority will denounce that delight, though its own art conspire in it!

Well, let it denounce. (Denunciation makes itself, in trying times, into a genre.) The hapless wordsmith takes his comfort from the fact that the very word dunce came from the name of Duns Scotus, whose thoughtfulness was turned by his detractors into a long-term token of derision. The word follem (from bellows) gives us fools, who are windbags, but the old Irish for fool, fili, also means poet. I take it to mean we are bound (foolish and wise, wired and weird) together: not to be still, but to move.

If a metrical poem, poured on paper through a pen, can be the medium of something measureless (dasUngemaesse, in Rilke), there's no reason computer-art cannot express the uncontainable. (It's true the internet is also regularly an occasion for sheer waste, the expressibility of drek. But an explorer chooses—or makes—his path. One doesn't have to stay in the swamp. And, staying, one needn't be stuck: things swirl about us, and the relations we bear them cannot stand still. Suddenly we forget the many stink-bugs, as our gazes settle on that single iridescent duck.)

I have my quarrels with the Phaedrus. ("I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do," Socrates says! How could he imagine that I—richly instructed by trees and meadows—would be able to read his words, or Plato's version of them, a hundred miles from the nearest city, on a remote American island—in one of a hundred translations, or over one of a hundred internet servers, two millenia later?) Because it's from the Phaedrus we get a version of an olden story that is still of moment in our moment, I'd like to end by sharing it with you.

The King of all Egypt was offered a great gift by the god whose name was Theuth. It was a gift for his abiding benefit, and for the benefit of his people. You will be thanked through time for this gift, not only by your people but by people to come, said the god. You will extend yourself in ways you can't imagine now. You will be known as you could never before be known. This gift will greaten both your wisdom and your memory. But the king was not convinced. It's a destruction in disguise, he said. Only the semblance of knowledge and breadth, not wisdom, will eventuate from such a gift. It will rob us of our history, our memory, our independences of mind and sense. It's bound to make us lazy, stifle our inventiveness, and kill our story-tellers off. It will reduce, and not enrich us, make us less gregarious, and leave us lonely. Take it back, said the king. Too many sacrifices come with such a gift.

The gift in question was the gift of writing.







This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2006 by The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.

. Copyright © 1999 by Heather McHugh and Christine Hume. Reprinted by permission of Heather McHugh and Christine Hume. All rights reserved.

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