“The End” an essay by Heather McHugh

“The End” an essay by Heather McHugh
March 19, 2024 McHugh Heather
In her ecstatic personal essay, “The End,” that also reads like a prose poem, McHugh considers the phenomenon of letters, specifically their iconography, their runic etymology, their aesthetic shapes, their archetypal strangeness, their psychic catalysts, and their poetic inspiration. “My gifts of oversight were hooked on braille,” she confesses, continuing, “I would be bound forever and for letters, via love of poetry; be moved by shape and hooked on music, ear to eye, and hand to mouth.” In her unabashed homage to the alphabet, McHugh informs her reader of the intrinsic, verbal current that letters form as the aural and visual parts of words that, in turn, construct the grammar, syntax, music, and meanings of poetry.

–Chard deNiord





I’m drawn to seacoasts, where you see so many ways at once. The shipping lines along the Strait emblazon letters on my view, though I am ignorant of freight in yen or business models for purveying content. But I adore the clusters of containers, written on.


The mere arrangements of them! All mysterious insignia remarking trails of motion! Ways they navigate the oppositions, crossing from one country’s outermost projection toward another’s. (Many nations have their Point no Point, with upper cases, to confuse the travelers.)


With letters on their cargos, waving to the sky, from foothills to the waterfalls, from clarity to cloud-line, the shipping lines and fishing transoms are discernible each day from where I’m working at my desk. About, across, against, among and through the fixtures of a landscape, they are moving as the tags on trains can do, and making prepositions for positions I will never know.


With all their many kinds of beelines, S-curves, U-turns, zigzags! Letters! That’s my stuff!

Most maritiming trade’s in English. Several accidents of sky or borderline topographies can edit all their letters, but in ordinary straits they form the anagrams for means, or names. Sometimes SW is dead-set on NE. SE can aim NW. The news is never quite sewn up, the letters move yet stay: they’re irreducible, they’re stubborn in their literality.


My whole life long, I’ve been infatuated with these graphemes and their glyphs, down to the styles of typefaces in printers’ manuals. How did the English conjure up so much philosophy, with only 26? Perhaps by making All a la-la narrative, alas.  But oooo, the letterforms, they don’t just coolly cut their figures; they are not disinterested! they’re partial! They’re in love with lyric means: Materials to spin the senses, stroke the curves, and marry into meanings when they must.


With two or three exceptions, on their own, the letters don’t “mean” anything (at least not transitively): they don’t start out with their prescribed designs on you. Like treble signs, they spin, but not the way the politicians do. Their grounds are shifting, a-semantic, and their forms must occupy a space in the imagination halfway from involved to isolated, halfway from collective to unique. Like lives, at different angles, they may lean, they list. They lose some gists in the lasso.


My gifts of oversight were hooked on eyechart braille, my touch was drawn to scale and texture in an allograph. I would be bound for ever and for letters, via love of poetry; be moved by shape, and hooked on music, ear to eye, and hand to mouth. My marathons got snagged on the transcriptions of a laugh. And singing was itself a work of signs, sketched out during delivery by hands.


A reach by way of which you sailed, from your extremities of hurt or happiness, to foreign ports or forest understories.

English lower cases rise as if from some imaginary leveler. Their ground’s a given but their heights are variable. Nagari scripts may literally incorporate the lines they hang from—the Hindi, and Bengali, and some others..  I can’t read a lick of those, but feel the weight: their words descending from an act of literal lineage. The wordwork done in waves, beneath an equanimity of line. (Or maybe heaven is a lid.)


In my preferred interpretations, etymologist and addict must connive. You stand to study what will let you dance. You’re quite precise about your mysteries. Each language is bequeathed its forms, its habitudes, its codes. Inevitably depth and height, the gravity and airs of premises will tug against the sentences. Reflections sharpen and collide; the smokes obscure the air you thought was clarified.


Your senses must revise your pace, and place, and time. They aren’t for just accessorizing some intentions. As the eloquent Olympics aren’t only a single altitude or aptitude, they have a range; you have to bring the flex. The twonie got its name from loons. You have to study change.

I’ve got some trouble with my balance now and then, especially in prose. I’d love to execute the form as art by laying down a celebration (way to go!)—but always find myself impeded my feet. (You’ll see the traces of titanium in my slightest sentence’s iambic: I’m always one knee short of kneeling.) I mainly whirl.


But any line of verse has its resistant narrative, with literal horizon, lateral, that’s broken off in space. I love that sensory upheaval, the vertical’s subversive, superversive, hand invisible as gravity that yanks us from those blue horizons back to earth. The downfall’s as compelling as the flight. Some balances are fundamental to the arts, but so is getting knocked right off your feet.

And now it’s MMXX plus. My first reaction was: AWE RIGHT! A candy with some letters on it, and a couple kisses too!  But you can die of sugar.


All my life I longed. I never shorted out. I sought a fellow strangeness, oxymoron; companion contrast to my ilk and likes, conversant cacophone and kisser, looker, toucher, gaper, grabbability you could contend (and then at times consort) with. Lines of those would be one way to plant yourself upon a planet.


But if you’re of another kind instead, by some device or reckoning of heart, and find your ilk in only far-off galaxies you touch with dreams of readership, then fine. You leap to love. End of the line its own riposte, to broken home or hope of much. Especially for that, you have to write.

To write, you have to read the world. You keep the faith in furious attention. That’s the art I aim to cultivate.

To live’s a mystery; to love’s a luxury.


I’m dying just to tuck into curves, but living for the lucky breaks.


[Heather McHugh, October 1, 2023, Olympic Peninsula]

Heather McHugh is the author of nine volumes of poetry, including Muddy Matterhorn, Eyeshot, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and Hinge and Sign, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant, and her work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has been a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2006. For 30 years she held a chair at the University of Washington in Seattle.