What He Thought

Apr 14, 2017

Today’s poem is What He Thought by Heather McHugh. Heather lived for a time in Eastport and now lives on the northwest coast. She’s the author of 8 books of poems and the recipient of a McArthur “Genius” grant. She’s also a noted translator of poetry. She recently collaborated with Adam Larsen on a documentary film called Undersung—an hour-long close-up portrayal of four caregivers and their families.

“The poem…. marked a sort of turning point in my life, when I began to practice turning over my voice or vantage whole-heartedly to someone else's story and vantage. Nested in the story is yet another tale:.the tale of the one who cannot speak. Words are perhaps the most mixed blessing-- no sooner learned than their utility for deception crops up too. You can see it in a two year old, and you see it in much more practiced forms in 70 year olds. We must suspect ourselves. No one can do that for us. Poetry is my way of suspecting my fluency...”

What He Thought 
by Heather McHugh
for Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what's
a cheap date, they asked us; what's
flat drink). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib—and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was the most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn't read Italian, either, so I put the book
back into the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

                                        "What's poetry?"

Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?" Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think—"The truth
is both, it's both," I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things. All things
move. "If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That's
how they burned him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
of everyone.
                            And poetry -
                                                       (we'd all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
softly)—
                                                      poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.

Poem copyright © 1994 Heather McHugh.
Reprinted from Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993
By permission of Heather McHugh.