In her previous six collections, Heather McHugh earned a reputation for jazzy, provocative poems. Whether her subject was love or the seaside cliffs of the Pacific, her real focus was the slippery, evocative way that words rub together to produce meaning.
McHugh delighted in taking readers on verbal roller coaster rides, dipping and rising with fast, jarring turns. Her wit and unexpected endings usually made the trip worthwhile, as in "Hinge and Sign," her 1993 collection.
But in "Eyeshot," the reader often gets thrown out of the car.
The problem doesn't stem from the subject matter. McHugh's exploration of how humans view the world - how our eyeshot changes - is intriguing. What's troubling is the fact that the poet seems to be trying so hard - too hard - to re-create her signature approach.
Instead of moving effortlessly, the poems in "Eyeshot" often stumble along, shifting from one tone or style to another. Long, distracting asides crop up unexpectedly on many pages, as do sloppy, haphazard rhymes.
The poem "Significant Suspicions" is a good example of McHugh's sudden detours. She has two distinct styles in as many stanzas. Then the awkward rhymes begin: "...You go on. But Rome will burn/ before you learn to fiddle. Rings/ your fingers might have loved will only/ discompose your nose. You dream of Rose and her/ revisions: you get glasses."
Some of the poems in "Eyeshot" do work rather well, such as "World in a Skirt," about a French horn, "Fourth of July, B.C.," and "Impolitic," a moving poem about a mare. But more often there are missed opportunities - poems that don't live up to evocative titles or narratives that are frustratingly incomplete. At times the author is simply obtuse.
Reading the poems aloud helps in some cases. But "Eyeshot" did not warrant Pulitzer consideration.