Why I Chose Heather McHugh’s Muddy Matterhorn for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I’m having a hard time writing anything right now. I want to say this has been going on for a month but it might only be a week or it might be the last decade. Time doesn’t make sense anymore because the ways I use to mark it have been slathered together into a muck of missed bedtimes and sweatpants and “working from home” and varying levels of anxiety. And now I’m having trouble even concentrating on reading—the one thing that’s seen me through every prior challenge. Forget writing King Lear; I can’t even read Edmund Lear with my kids right now. But I can read Heather McHugh’s new book, Muddy Matterhorn, her first collection in quite some time, and now we’ll see if I can write about it in these fleeting moments before my children wake up or society collapses due to a lack of available toilet paper or SAF yeast or Great Northern beans.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Muddy Matterhorn, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Heather McHugh, you’ll need to subscribe by April 15!

One of the poems I keep coming back to in this collection is titled “Breather,” and begins with the lines, “One wants to say to the dead / Come back this minute,” which feels painfully appropriate now in whatever stage we are in of this pandemic, whether we measure it in the degrees of separation between us and those we fear we will lose—including ourselves—or those we’ve lost or in chronological time, or in the time between enraging moments on social media. I’m struck by the way the title means respite but also could be an identifier for a living being, and that reminds me of one of McHugh’s greatest strengths as a poet, which is the way she plays with meaning and sound. And also, she asks big questions:

What’s come between us,
Mirror with your ever-loving
Doppelgang? What infant’s crawled today

Behind the glass’s ploy, to play
The flats and sharps we’re always only
Only telling of? I watch, intransitive.

That is the skeptic’s motto. (Even clarity’s
Delusory, unlike the sense of love, from which
Come charity and faith—and maybe even

Hope—though hope is hard, and faith
is bodiless. We’ve ironized too long,
Shed rusty glances over every landing, every

Leaving season.

Faith, hope, charity, and love all within the space of three lines(!) with a claim that maybe we’ve been a little detached for too long, and later in the poem, a call to re-embrace some part of our essential humanity. The poem ends with “Come back to be // In danger once again, and bear / The living gift—the giving in and giving out / That cannot be distinguished,” an invitation to, well, breathe, and the final word does double duty just like the title. You can read it as a comment on the earthiness of life and death, that one cannot command great respect in those basic human moments, but also the idea that individual breaths, the giving in and giving out, can’t be differentiated from each other.

Muddy Matterhorn is full of moments like this, but it’s also funny and fascinating and irreverent and frankly, what I need to read more of in this precise moment, which is not to say it was written for this period (because what could be?) but that, well, my soul is ready for it, and I hope yours will be, too. If you join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by April 15, you’ll get an early copy of Muddy Matterhorn and be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Heather McHugh in early June. Will you join us?

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →