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.

All Poems are Love Poems (???)

In class recently, we touched very briefly on the idea that poems don’t have to be about romantic love–a stance that I wholeheartedly agree with. After browsing some definitions of love, I’ve come to one basic conclusion about love: it’s indefinable. In order to create definitions for the word “love,” it is first important to recognize that there is no clear and concise definition that can be easily agreed upon by the masses. The origins of the English word “love” can be traced through various levels of Germanic and Proto-Indo-European languages. Throughout all of the influences and changes this word has undergone, there is a consistency in themes like affection, passion, and concern. However, as we have all figured out by now, love is not related only to feelings of happy tenderness. Love is closely related to fear, envy, jealousy, and (yes) even hate. Emotional mapping can help us visualize how our emotions connect, and how they intersect. There are basic emotions, like primary colors, that produce secondary and tertiary emotions that blur lines between what we would normally consider to be entirely separate experiences in practice. So, what does this have to do with poems? In my personal (and somewhat under-qualified) opinion, these intersections of emotion are the places where our best poems create themselves. While not all poems are related directly to romantic love, they all spawn from some sort of passion or dedication to our content, style, and belief in ourselves as poets. Essentially, all poems contain some derivative of love–the fear of losing it, the things that scare us, our obsessions, and so on. Are all poems love poems? Probably. Poems are reflections of life, and life, in essence, revolves around love (or lack thereof) in all its forms.

because starting poems is hard

For me, starting a poem at the beginning is entirely daunting, and something I have almost never done successfully. In other words, I struggle with both ending and beginning poems. Most of my poems tend to grow around themselves–I’ll think of an image or line that I’m really set on, and construct a poem off of that. The poetry exercises we do each week have actually been really helpful in pushing me to begin a poem without staring at my laptop or a notebook for an hour, entirely devoid of useful thought. Apparently what I was really missing was some sort of skeleton for my poems. (As someone a bit too interested in diagrams and maps and charts, I think in terms of shapes and order.) In being able to start by replacing images or words in poems from the reader, I’ve found that once I have a decent shape or skeleton to start with, I can write a poem inside of it without all the trouble of worrying about where to start or end. Over break, I hope to experiment with this a little more by writing my first drafts of poems inside of a shape or a silhouette, and then around the edges of a shape. I’m hoping this will help my uncertainty with where to start and end, but also push me to experiment more with line breaks and length, and white space.

An Unspoken Hunger

Terry Tempest William’s “An Unspoken Hunger” was the first poem I read in my freshman creative writing class that actually made me nauseous. And by nauseous, I mean it was incredible–when I finished reading it, I wanted nothing more than to pass out or vomit or sit very still for a very long time. I think that poems should create some sort of physical reaction within a reader (even if it is just imagined). The poems I have loved the most, or that have stuck with me the most even if I didn’t particularly like them, are the ones that made me feel so ill that I wanted to empty my skull for a little bit. The poems that make us feel something beyond an “oh, that was nice” are the ones that are (in my opinion) successful. For me, An Unspoken Hunger has absolutely nothing to do with avocados, and yet the poem (or maybe it’s just a hunk of words, who knows) in its simplicity and clarity of image was able to convey so much. I encourage everyone to pay closer attention to the way poems can manifest themselves physically. and to embrace poems as something to be read as such.


“It is an unspoken hunger we deflect with knives-one avocado between us, cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit. With the green fleshy boats in hand, we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks. We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert. We look at each other and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.” – Terry Tempest Williams

Punctuation or the Addition of Sneaky Expletives

This week’s poetry exercise pushed us to take someone else’s poem, and keep ONLY the punctuation as we tried to fashion an original poem. Initially, I found this task to be a little off-putting. As I flipped through the course reader to find a poem with enough skeletal-punctuation to flesh my own poem onto, I became frustrated by the apparent lack of punctuation in all of the poems we’ve read so far. Some poems used only periods, and others had more commas than I could ever find a use for. After deciding that this exercise was probably not designed to be a form of torture, I chose a poem I thought would challenge me the most, in a sort of comfortable way. Andrew Zawacki’s “Credo” used enough punctuation to satisfy my poetic style, yet used all the types of punctuation that I find lackluster and hard to work around. I’ll admit to choosing Credo because it had a plethora of ampersands–a punctuation I realized I am a little too reliant on. As I struggled to squeeze my poem into the close commas and short lines presented by Credo, I realized that one of my poetic ticks is a reliance on punctuation as suggestion. In the same way that we might cluster punctuation as expletives in cartoons, I’ve been using punctuation to glaze over places where I felt stuck or underwhelmed within my own poems. I cover up thoughts and hints of much better ideas with m-dashes and colons. This exercise forced me to think about where I should use punctuation, and where I’ve been using it to suggest the things I should really just say. From this exercise, I think I’ll attempt to pull out what’s actually underneath my punctuation (and hopefully it’s not just curse-words).

Regional and Geographic Perceptions (and also Poetry)

This semester I’ve stocked my schedule with classes I may never need, yet have nonetheless ended up loving. Two of my favorites so far are Human Geography and Intro to Urban and Regional Planning. Like Erin mentioned in her post about her perception of a physical space based on what method of transportation she is using, the way we approach the space of a poem is more deeply rooted in crazy spatial ideas of human preference, information construction, and even territoriality. While these classes may seem entirely irrelevant to the creation of a poem, I’ve actually found a lot of correlation between these three topics (proceed to blather on about geography of poems).

In Human Geography we’ve spent a lot of time taking spatial perceptions and preference. For instance, there are places in America none of us ever want to go, just based on our rather biased perceptions of what we think those places are like. Similarly, people are more likely to prefer their home area, just because it’s home. As people, we construct the world around us, based not in fact, but in a strange conglomeration of increasingly unreliable sources. This construction of our world made me think of the way we create our poems. For many of us, there are places in poems that we’re just unwilling to go. I have no desire to write a villanella, but then again, I’ve never actually tried it or bothered to search for an example of one that I’ve really enjoyed. There are probably topics we’re afraid to approach, but feel like we need to at some point within our poems. If we never visit these places within our body of poetics, we’ll continue to perpetuate this strange spatial preference that can often leave us oblivious to some aspect of poetry–a topic or style, etc.– that we could actually really enjoy, or perhaps even be successful with. Another aspect of this spatial preference is spatial territoriality, something I’d never considered on a small scale before. Human territoriality is often personal and habitual–we might use the same bathroom stall every time or sit in the same chair in the library. This territoriality comes across in our poems. We go back to certain sounds, images, and ideas again and again without really thinking about why we do that. We construct spaces that we feel at home inside of–we get too comfortable in them and make them our own, when we should really be branching out to South Dakota or the next bathroom stall to figure out how far we can push ourselves as poets.

I’ve also found that urban planning is incredibly similar to structuring a poem. I hadn’t really considered how much effort goes into creating a functional city. The majority of urban planning remains unseen, whether it’s the sewers that run under every road, or subtle changes in the route of a train that can impact the traffic patterns of an entire neighborhood. There are so many small yet vital aspects of urban planning that allow cities to function at the surface level. The inclusion of green space allows a city breathing room, and contributes to the health of it’s residents. It offers a break from the hustle and bustle, just as a poem might need something a little softer or more abstract to balance out a concrete jungle of images and action. This urban planning is incredibly similar to understanding the way different parts of speech, word choice, line breaks, etc. can all impact the flow, function, and effectiveness of a poem. Poems need you to be their urban planners–if you aren’t there making subtle functional choices, the whole thing could easily devolve into traffic jams or dead zones. Minute changes in word choice or line breaks may seem like insignificant things, but they can change the way a poem functions–where it takes you, what it passes, and what you see, just as a tiny shift in a road can change so much that we might not be conscious of.

Essentially, poems are tiny cities–we are territorial about them, we construct different ideas of our own poems in our heads than our readers will. We have different spatial preferences, and we’re consistently building their infrastructure, whether or not we realize it. We seem to be ending on questions, which I like, so I’ll ask a couple here. What perceptions do you have about poetry that may be different from the reality? What things have you put off trying, and what things do you try too much? Are you including all of the infrastructure of your poem? What’s its traffic flow, how does it function?