Steve Harris Reviews Ashley Anna McHugh’s Into These Knots
Into These Knots, by Ashley Anna McHugh (Ivan R. Dee, 2010)
Ashley Anna McHugh’s first collection of poetry, Into These Knots (winner of the 2010 New Criterion Poetry Prize), takes its title from a line in Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno. This is the famous “suicides” Canto, where Dante and Virgil converse with poet and statesman, Pier delle Virgne, whose fate, as a suicide, has left him encased in a thorny tree. It’s a powerful passage about choices – and their consequences:
The Poet began again: “That this man may,
with all his heart do for you what your words
entreat him to, imprisoned spirit, I pray,
tell us how the soul is bound and bent
into these knots, and whether any ever
free itself from such imprisonment.”
The response is what you would expect, as the suicide-poet confesses there is no relief, since the body was thrown away—rejected. The act insures the fate (suicide bodies hanging from trees on Judgment Day) in a brutal arithmetic that leaves Dante, a poet as well, choked up. As John Ciardi points out in his introduction to the Canto, “Only through their own blood do they find voice.” Any poet, tormented or not, can appreciate that summation.
How does McHugh use this pregnant passage for her own use? Well, that’s complicated, since the collection is hardly about suicides (though there are some suicide themed poems). The operative word here is “knots” which could easily be translated into “experience.” Generally, the poems are personal, often filled with pain – and questions. McHugh usually employs rhyme, but in such a way that it’s hardly noticed. This is probably due in part to McHugh being something of a dramatist as well. In the collection’s first poem, “Deer Hunting,” the speaker recalls a picture of her father with a kill, proud of his accomplishment in what is probably an annual ritual. However, from the very first line, there is a warning, a suggestion (“that sagging neck”), of roles about to be reversed:
Beware the favor of God
The muzzle dropped, dead eyes float back
in their slits as my father lifts
that sagging neck by its antler rack.
The picture is taken, the deer cleaned, an annual rhythm that reassuringly is maintained:
He gutted it clean, then hung that deer
from the apple tree. We ate
its warm dark meat all winter that year.
“That year” is significant — things change, fortune turns. The next year fate inserts itself into the lives of all. The speaker’s father falls from his tree stand and breaks his back. As he lies in pain among the dead leaves, he asks the Jobian question: Why? And McHugh responds, via The Book of Job, with the (dissatisfying) voice from the whirlwind. Though I’m not sure how far McHugh wanted to take the “apple” tree, she has nevertheless opened up the poem to a theological interpretation with the poem’s first line: “Beware the favor of God.” This is a dark, sad poem. It’s very reminiscent of Anthony Hecht, and yet the setting is very American (unlike the more cosmopolitan Hecht). It has the trappings and grit of a story by Faulkner or Hemingway, but the poetry is wholly McHugh’s.
Following the events of the first poem is a seemingly connected sequence that includes “Into These Knots,” “One Important and Elegant Proof,” and “If you will, you can all become flame.”
“Into These Knots” is told from the point of view of the fallen father, suffering, endlessly reliving his fall, and wondering about the existence of God. The next poem, “One Important and Elegant Proof,” exists almost as a fusion of mini-play and poem. McHugh prefaces the poem with a passage from a similarly styled effort, “For the Time Being,” by Auden. The viewpoint has shifted, as the speaker is now again the daughter, having a therapy session with a non-responsive doctor. Throughout the reader is reminded of “the clock.” The session is coming to an end, but the young woman is pondering timeless things. She recalls being at a church service, watching people cry as a parade of boys swinging censers pass by the pews. She soon discovers that she herself is crying. Is it because she has sensed the Holy?
She knew she ought to talk. “I guess I think
Maybe the ritual of it had moved me?
Or maybe God was really there? Or else
The Holy Spirit? Something. Maybe not.
It was a visceral response, almost.
Simple. Simple is just the only word.”
The doctor is insensitive to such ponderings; however, the reader, following the sequence, senses movement – acceptances, if not understandings, of what God allows.
All the interplay between father and daughter clears the poetic table for the transcendent and prayer-like “If you will, you can all become flame”: “Father of fathers, /speak to me tonight. Let my hand ignite. Here,/ fingers tipped with flame, I will understand You… “ This prayer-poem, at this point in the sequence, is clearly earned, even necessary.
I hate to frontload my review in such a way, but it’s clear that McHugh, in these poems, along with the collection’s epigram from Phillippians 2:12 (“Now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”), is establishing a foundation of questions and topics that will inform the rest of the collection. On the surface, this may seem to be a collection about faith. However, that’s probably too strong an assertion. Hope – or the possibility of hope (“work out”) – would seem more accurate.
After this intense and cathartic opening, the collection’s first section (there are three) shifts gears, with McHugh providing some relief with the humorous “From His Mistress” providing an excellent rebuttal to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” What follows is an excellent grab bag of Baudelaire, youthful affairs, non-Plathian suicide poems, and a letter-poem from Auden to Isherwood (which I really liked).
In the collection’s second section, McHugh ramps things up again, with an ambitious long sequence called “Cairns.” It’s a complicated father-son poem that crosses back and forth through time. In her notes to the poem, McHugh states that the sequence was partly influenced by Auden’s “Sonnets From China.” In an attempt to understand McHugh’s poem better, I sat down and re-read Auden’s work and didn’t see, other than a loose use of the sonnet form, where the influence was. That said, after several readings, I found myself increasingly drawn to this section. Like the earlier “One Important and Elegant Proof,” the poem resembles a play. (I couldn’t help but be reminded, while reading “Cairns,” of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on a Hill,” from his stark Nebraska album.) “Cairns” tells the story of Jake, who is recalling his now dead father and how they hiked a Forest Service road in West Virginia. Evidently, active munitions are still buried on the trail, and those that are discovered are surrounded by protective stone cairns in order to warn other hikers. This father-son journey is of course a metaphor-for-life type of poem. That aside, what really stuck to me was McHugh’s physical descriptions of the land. McHugh, in both her formalism and her concerns regarding sin and the possible existence of salvation, has been hugely influenced by Anthony Hecht and W.H. Auden; but, it’s her rootedness to the land as an American poet that really jumps out at me and makes her unique. In “Cairns,” with its shifting wilderness shadows and stream of consciousness voices, McHugh’s literary cousin is better found in Faulkner’s “The Bear.”
The third section of the collection seems the weakest, populated with cast offs (“Hunting Accident” – see the much better “Deer Hunting”) and lighter fare (“Fling” and “My Mother’s Guide to Getting Hitched and Staying that Way”). One funny poem worked well for me, “In Praise of a Light Bulb.” Although I groaned at McHugh’s “ogling” / “boggling” rhyme, I’m fairly certain that was intended. However, the section’s last poem, “From Tuliptrees,” returns the reader to an American landscape. This is a lovely poem about love, loss, memory, and moving on. As an endpoint for the collection, it’s perfect. It captures, in a poetic nutshell, McHugh’s hard won wisdom within a landscape that complements those understandings:
The spring has gone, and all that could have been
has been — but the wind’s low pitched whine
still whistles the woods as it did back then . . . .
From tulip trees to eastern hemlock groves,
we rose until the yellow birches tangled air.
Ours was the first of many loves,
and I pass as though you are not here.