Chapbook Review: Carey McHugh

As part of my directed study with Professor Smith, I’ve been reading and reviewing a few chapbooks. This is one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone!

Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c., Carey McHugh

Carey McHugh’s chapbook Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c. was selected by Rae Armantrout for the 2007 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. As an introductory chapbook from an up-and-coming young poet, who has since gone on to further her poetic repertoire, McHugh’s collection is a syntactic and sonic masterpiece that explores acts of creation and decay in nature, relationships, and self. The persistent crackling of the sounds and movement in McHugh’s poems create a work that can be appreciated for not only its narrative, but for its incessant and welcomingly aggressive ability to pull the reader from one poem to the next.

McHugh’s effortless manipulation of sound is prevalent throughout the collection, a true feat in light of its underlying sense of quiet. In lines like “stacked rattles stammering/ loose in the tail’s slow/ taper, scales also” and “newly embarked to carry crockery,” McHugh demonstrates an ability to use brisk sounds like t and c to create images that are alive in their vividity and repetition. Her line breaks create space between the stimuli of sound that allow sentences to carry over multiple stanzas without becoming overwhelming. In accordance with the sound conveyed by words themselves, many of McHugh’s poems utilize rhythm in a similar sense to create a similar effect. A balance of quick lines like “Tympanum among the excess.” and “A sackcloth calm.” in addition with longer, fuller lines creates a jolting rhythm that focuses the reader’s attention on certain moments within each piece. The combination of sound and rhythm within these poems creates a taught experience within pieces that can sometimes be uncertain in terms of narrative.

McHugh’s poems excel at what one could call an “element of choice.” Though many of her images are exact, in other places she chooses to create a slew of options and images that is almost symptomatic of the uncertainty of nature conveyed throughout the collection, and the repeated address to a “you,” who (whether one or many) seems to occupy many positions all at once. “Patient, eventual, brittle, misshapen/ and one fault lower than fear: your childhood/ is prarie-evident, delicate, waiting to leave” is an exercise on the ability of impreciseness to become somehow more precise than a direct image could have been. The inclusion of the “you” and “we” is sporadic, and serves to inject a sense of longing and loss into the subtle violence of the poems. Verbs like “scissored,” “blade,” and “knot” conjure their own underlying danger within the often serene passing of seasons.

Though the majority of McHugh’s poems occupy their own niche within the collection, missteps in structure and narrative in “Angling, A Catalogue” and “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight” serve only to tug at the fabric of what is otherwise an impressively woven collection of fear, danger, and reckoning in the quiet and solitary spaces created within the collection. Although “Angling, A Catalogue” serves as structural variety for the collection, the execution of the numerical list format was such that the poem itself seemed nearly unaware of its own structure. The flow of lines over numerical boundaries did not serve to inform each section, but rather made the numbers unessential to the operation of the poem. Similarly, “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight”, the final poem in the collection, worked against the rest of the collection by introducing new and seemingly unrelated images that would have been better served in the middle of the collection, or pared down to maintain the original intent of the collection. The rhythm that McHugh creates in the rest of the poems is somewhat buried in “The Final Report on Birds That Pose a Threat to Flight”, as the gravity of the administrative tone and imagery, coupled with the overly-instructive structure of many of the sentences weighs down images like “humming limit/ of bees” and “individual lilacs” that would have served as a better end to the collection, as opposed to the opening of what could be a whole other set of ideas. Overall, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds & c. is a collection bursting with sonic ingenuity and the subtle violence of relationships, routine, and nature.

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