Q & A

POETRY: About “Myrrha to the Source,” in Greek mythology, Aphrodite inspired Myrrha to commit lust with her father, in punishment for which she was turned into a tree — a myrrh tree, or myrtle. Her shade is seen in the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno, suffering punishment not for this, but for deception. What, though, is the “source” to which your title refers?

HEATHER MCHUGH: There are several feeder-streams here. I started from the premise that the river or fluency or wellspring of poetry was being addressed by its daughter (myself, in one incarnation — although it must also be said that my father, an amateur poet and professional oceanographer, was no erotic object in my regard).

I make Cinyras (Myrrha's father) into a river by variously associative reflections. Cinyras and Marsyas suffered sad outcomes in lyre contests with Apollo. (Those who contest a god for supremacy in music-making suffer sorry fates: Marsyas is flayed by a god and Cinyras is laid by a daughter.) The name Cinyras comes from a word meaning “lyre” — and so does the name of Kinnaru (a musican-god of the Phoenicians) whose mother is Malidthu, goddess of the myrrh tree, Myrrha's alter ego.

In the Cinyras story, Adonis (Myrrha's son) replicates his father's figure in several ways — both of them are fabled for their beauty, both of them attract the goddess Aphrodite, and the name Adon was apparently in ancient times a generic meaning lord, a title borne by successive generations of kings (hence the merging of the figures of daughter and wife). The name Adon also winds up being conferred upon a river that turns red annually. (In other versions of the story, Theias is said to be Myrrha's father, and his name is associated with a river in Hungary.) In the Marsyas myth, the blood that flows from the flaying becomes a river . . . And of course Orpheus too has a bloody river to sing from . . . .

I find myself attracted to the figural relations and reiterations in these stories (just as I am to those in Biblical texts). Coming on to the lyric source she comes from, Myrrha confounds succession, reconceives time. As cursed as caressed, the creature seduces the creator. (We do it to god. God does it to us. Or, if you are too postmodern for that sort of metaphysics, you can nail it to the lesser — because redundancy-burdened — cross of the so-called self-reflexive, where Nano-Onan does it to himself.)

P: “From the Tower” — is your tower in any way related to Yeats's?

It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things.

Whom do you picture when you think about this poem, and whom are we meant to picture?

HM: I assumed the poem would bring to mind (or at least to the dream-reader's mind) several towers at once. Yeats's, yes. And two of 2001. And some of ivory.

P: How do you picture this poem?

HM: I picture run-off from a think tank. An inflammation of serious-minded theorists.

P: What do you mean for the reader to picture?

HM: Far be it from me to mean anything for a reader. He'll have to do that for himself.

P: “Space Bar” — Is your “space bar” supposed to be like the one in Star Wars?

HM: How embarrassing. I never knew there was a space bar in Star Wars. Now that you've made me have to, though, I do love saying there's a space bar in Star Wars. I'm no Star Wars cognoscenta. Once, on meeting Leonard Nimoy and his wife, I was gratified to find out by contrast how literate they are. He advised me on the pronunciation of some words in the expression Alle Kunst ist umsunst Wenn ein Engel auf das Zündloch brunzt (which covers a multitude of sins and means something like: all skill is in vain if an angel pisses down the touch-hole of your musket).

My space bar turns out poems: makes space to live in. Before five, it's the space bar of the typist's working handscape; after five, it's the space bar of her drinking dreamscape.

P: Can you say more about the “weeping women” and the “men in hats”?

HM: I plead the fifth (but note they are in their cups).

P: And the dingbats?

HM: Dingbats are for dazing or dinging human beings, who then themselves become dingbats (because, once smitten, one smites). Dingbats are also, as you know, very important typographical entities — important among symbols (if you ask me, and you do) in mattering where letters mean, and thus reminding letters they can matter.

P: How do you connect the typographical with the astrophysical?

HM: By dint of an attack of asterisks.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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