Poet's Choice: 'Domestique' by Heather McHugh

By Heather McHugh
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Here's a little bagatelle from among my more accessible pieces. It's a kind of affectionate outburst that communicates something of the poet's (The Poet's!) implication in the service industries of everyday life.

I assume that the pronoun "they" in the poem's penultimate line can comprehend all the co-habitants in a daily life's doghouse. There may be traces here of my recent reading of Voltaire (in small prescriptive gulps, for doses of ironic vivacity, in moments filched from classrooms, kitchens, airports and laundry-rooms). In an entry entitled "Optimism" (from his "Reason by Alphabet"), we find one salutary account of the source of human sorrows:

"The Syrians had a pretty story about man and woman, who were created in the fourth heaven; they tried eating a cake, though ambrosia was their usual food; ambrosia was exhaled through the pores, but the cake made a new problem. They asked an angel to direct them to the W.C. 'See that little globe down there?' he said. 'That's the earth, the latrine of the universe.' Man and woman hastened down, and have lived here, with evil, ever since."

The auras around the word evil have darkened a bit, I suspect, since this translation was made. Perhaps these days, one would change the phrase "with evil" to "in a fallen state." In any case, here's my modest contribution to the literary lineage of such stories, a poem the subtitle of which could have been "After the Fourth Heaven."

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)


Surfaces to scrape or wipe,

a screwdriver to be applied

to slime-encrusted soles, the spattered

hallways, wadded bedding -- and, in quantities astounding

(in the corners, under furniture, behind the curtains)

fluff and dander spread by curs the breeder called non-shedding.

It's a dog's life I myself must lead, day in, day out --

with never a Sunday edition --

while they lie around on their couches like poets,

and study the human condition.

This poem appears in my new book, "Upgraded to Serious" (Copper Canyon Press).

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