Jordan Soyka on Maureen McHugh

January 7, 2012

From our December issue, Jordan Soyka writes about his highlight:

At the center of this grudge (called “Ammonia”) there is a body. Cold lungs & grinding teeth, stiff hands & soft hair, and knees, “patterned” from whatever they were pressed into (is the body forced to its knees? is it praying?). There is a betrayer that is also called “Ammonia.” There is a lot of slipping around, grinding, pulsing.

In the three parts of Maureen McHugh’s “Hallelujah Ammonia,” we’re dragged back and forth across town (JC Penny, townie bars) and time (“$ay it slant as Emily would $ay / the high school friend you shoplifted with”). Everything is dog-eared. Memories hang stubbornly, somewhere between old musk and menacing ghost: “Nothing in this dead town is special … You’ll forget the way he smelled /…/Like bar-soap. / Like fuck & rot.”

But at the center of it all is this body (the speaker? the betrayer? the grudge itself?). It’s clean the way a corpse is (“the arms stay clean as bleached toilets”) and it threatens to eclipse the poems.

The speaker tells me to “mop the black road…”. The speaker says, “Kill a weak grudge with water. Get you whiskey in paper cups for the bearded one who smells like bar-soap.” The speaker asks questions (“Who wept in parking lots?”), but I’m not sure to who. The speaker tells me to “Steal clothes off clotheslines / make ‘em the wrong size for Ammonia…”. I can’t tell if the speaker is bossing me around, or if the speaker needs me. But we know each other from way back.

“Night bums us something special so we ache & pull the sheets off mattresses with floral patterns.” There is ecstasy in these poems (“Hallelujah! Hysterical occasion!”), but it’s not what it could be—“For once let the grudge be the heart cock’d and clenched…”. It all starts to feel a little desperate. The past is collaged over the present and “beard’d bar-folk” are indistinguishable. It feels like wheels spinning in snow.

In the last poem, the speaker says, “Make it a grave,” but “it” already is. The grave is gaping. And we’re peering into it, trying to figure out—is it hungry or bored?