The Woman Who Laughed on Calvary

By Heather McHugh b. 1948 Heather McHugh

Smilers, smirkers, chucklers, grinners,   
platitudinizers, euphemists: it wasn't you

I emulated there, in that   
Godawful place. What kind   
of face

to put on it? How simple
is a simon's sign? To my mind
laughter's not the mark of pleasure, not   
a pleasantry that spread; instead

it's intimate with sheer
delirium: spilt brain
on split lip, uncontainable
(make no mistake, it is a horror, this

inmated, intimated   
self, revealed as your   
material: red smear,
white swipe). It's said the brain
stinks first, then organworks of art and eatery,
and then—what's left? a little cartilage for

ambiguity? a little tendon's B&D? At last, the least   
ephemeral of evidences: nuggetworks (discrete, and   
indiscreet) of teeth, bone-bits, odd scraps
of a delapidated strut—and this is just
the sort of stuff, insensate,
to which life (which comes again

as slime) has always
loved adhering. Life! Who wouldn't   
laugh? Your inner life! Your pet   
pretense! It can't be kept up, can't   
be kept clean,
even in a thought,
except a good
bloodworks or shitpump keeps it so.


Out of the mouth comes a tongue,
it calls itself linguistic and it
never quite effects
the cover-up (good
Lord, there's much to
cover up: so many belches, outcries,
upchucks, sneezes, puffings, hiccups, osculations, hawks and   

so laughter (which, among the noises, prides itself   
on being the most intellectual) can't help   
but come out, snorting. Nothing

smiled or mild or meanwhiling—a laugh's
got teeth to send it off,
and spit to keep it company, and rot
to end up with. Its closest kin is grimace, it's
a grimacing with wind.   
It will (the will
be damned)
burst out

in bad cacaphonies of
brouhaha and borborygma—it's the   
stockbroker of mockeries, a trachea rake—
the vent of rage and irony, and right   
there in the very
shrine of signs. A laugh, I mean,
is sorrow's

archery and signature,   
while flesh is being   
hoisted and arrayed

on roosts of skeleton.


I saw what good

comes to; I saw the figure
human being cuts, upon its frame.   
The laugh was a cry from my own

perscrewed, misnailed, cross-crafted   
armature. Despite

your consternations, oh you
meekened warners and polite   
conventioneers, the thieves were better   
served upon that day. For the heart

is a muscle, where cruelty's humored.   
The tooth of moral rectitude's   
a fang. What I gave

at the sight of him there

was up. What I got   
of humanity there   
was the hang . . .   

Heather McHugh, “The Woman Who Laughed on Calvary” from Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993. Copyright © 1994 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994)

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Poet Heather McHugh b. 1948

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

Subjects The Body, Nature

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Heather  McHugh


Poet Heather McHugh’s work is noted for its rhetorical gestures, sharp puns and interest in the materials of language itself—her self-described determination is “to follow every surge of language, every scrap and flotsam.” Describing her work in the Boston Review, poet and critic Richard Howard alleged that “most of McHugh’s poems end in a spurt, as they proceed in a slather, of just such astonishment as is bestowed—afforded—by . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT The Body, Nature

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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