Notes On Reading Richard Hugo, continued from page 1
What is familiar about these poems to many of us is the place names of Puget Sound towns and rivers, such as the Sky(komish) and Stilli(guamish). He wrote tellingly of them and with fond remembrance. And he was at home with the Olympic Peninsula rivers and oddball places, along with their Indian names. Everybody's rivers, of course, he made them specially his own. Their seasons, the flora and fauna, the biological progressions involving trout and salmon and dollies, he describes lovingly, with assurance and perception. I find myself nodding in agreement, as I read along. His rivers and mine, I think. He appreciates them just right!
* * *
In Death of The Kapowsin Tavern, published four years later (1965), he continues the naming of places, with some new ones added to the map and to the distinct lexicon of the Pacific Northwest, which is Home. (Home, with a small h, includes Italy, Scotland, and Montana, but when the going got tough, when he sickened from cancer and it was time to die, Hugo returned to his birthplace, Seattle). It was where everything that had gone wrong might finally go right, and hopefully he would heal. He didn't.
"Duwamish, Skagit, Hoh" is a major section heading in Death of The Kapowsin Tavern; all are river names. "Other Waters" is the following section. Lakes, towns, people thickly weave in and out of these narrative poems. The foundations laid in his essay, "The Triggering Town," come into play now, if not earlier, and the experience of traveling to some small city or town and opening wide his perceptions in order to write a poem has become an important method of operation. It became a stylized approach that he was to develop it into a personalized high style. When he began to teach and to organize his material for his students, the use of the triggering town was instrumental to his approach. His first book of prose, largely about the teaching of the writing of poetry, was entitled The Triggering Town. It was not by accident. A new town freshened him and was highly important to how he lived and worked.
Nothing like a new place to spark a poem. Here is revealing evidence. There are some very fine poems in this collection, and few bad ones. Two significant Duwamish poems in his first book lead to the long, important "Duwamish Head" in this book. It begins shockingly, "That girl upstream was diced by scaling knives—/scattered in the shack I licked her knees in/where she tossed me meat and called me dog/and I would dive a dog at her from starts,/wind around my ears—violins and shot."
Wow! I'm not going to try to unravel it here, only comment to the extent it is based on a small piece of local history reported in the newspapers. He speaks more specifically about the sequence of Duwamish poems in his book, The Real East Marginal Way, especially in the lead essay in it with the same name. The importance of the industrialized river to him was complex and highly personal. It renewed him and gave him an anchor for the poems he needed to write. Later he was to transfer this approach to far-distant places. Other poems would germinate there in much the same manner.
To him the Duwamish is seminal. He returned to it time and again. The river is formed by the confluence of the White and Green Rivers. The White has shrunk to nearly nothing, while the Green is still a strong river, full of salmon and steelhead, though in its lower reaches (the part Hugo knew so well) it is sluggish, torpid, polluted. High tide from Puget Sound mixes salt and fresh water and makes the flow almost still. But it was a sanctuary, however cluttered and industrialized, for a young boy from a severe, unhappy home nearby, raised by grim grandparents.
In Death of The Kapowssin Tavern Hugo dedicated poems to friends in the arts, people he felt close to aesthetically. Ward Corley the painter, who died young and mostly unfulfilled, was one. I was at a benefit for him, as he lay in hospital, dying of cancer, ill for a long time; also at the party was Hugo, Richard Gilkey, and many others. It was at the home of Rae Tufts in the Ravenna District of Seattle. Later, Hugo wrote poems dedicated to Rae and to Ward. In "Bouquets for Corley," he asks at the start, "Are these flowers paint? Back of each bouquet/ behind the eyes of good men, odor beats. . . ." It is Hugo's poetic way of stating that the flower portraits are so real, so vibrant, that you and I and other "good men" can seemingly smell them. He adds, "That Friday everyone is born on/ slides into a weekend for our leisure. . . ." Nice way to put it. The Boeing weekend is upon us. But then Hugo takes us a step further into nether land: "In hills here hate began, cows are flowers/"What? Rage and regret are introduced as loaded themes. "Flowers will be ruined by a storm or painted./ Roses flare in ancient loam of thieves."
There is a art gallery, where evidently Corley's paintings are hung. Cityscape. "Outside the gallery roses are composed/ by rain and killed. Paint does not wash off." What again? "In painting, roses have the sense to be afraid." Oh, yeah.
A whole lot of dissimilar ideas and images are mixed into the poem, one of loss, one of grief, not wholly satisfactorily. Roses are often grown in cow manure; at least the best ones are. So Corley, the painter, is associated closely with the roses he painted, roses that grew ostensibly in the country, where there is a lot of cow shit. Corley, Hugo knew, was deathly sick for a long time. To the poet there is a strong association between the roses and death, unless the roses are preserved in a painting that never dies, and the painter, who died relatively young—42—is kept alive, too: . ". . . a flower, like a man, left one weather/ for another long ago to live." Beautifully said.
The poem is too complex to explicate any more than this, even on a purely literal level. It is an elegy to a friend, a short while dead, and it doesn't quite work. As Hugo said about other poems, when questioned about their obscurity, and what they really meant, "I don't understand it myself." But I think I know what he means, or is driving at, and this may be close enough to be satisfying. (Some poems never quite work out, or miss by a mile.)
The poem is arresting, its images startling and succinct. It communicates. Corley had died several years before the book was published, but maybe only shortly before the poem came out in a journal. Whatever, the sense of loss is strong. People of a generation identify closely with one another; when one "goes down," the other feels his own mortality surge. To say that Corley lives on in his paintings is too banal for Hugo (and for us). But to say through figurative language that he goes on in a manner that paint corresponds to roses, or manure to earth, or outdoor weather to indoor or one's internal weather is not banal. Nor is it easy to parse or pin down its specific meanings. We don't need to.
The poem dedicated to Rae Tufts is on the surface simpler, but Hugo won't leave it that way. This is "Fort Casey, without Guns." Hugo always liked to travel, with wives or with friends. Many of his friends were poets. Numerous poems are dedicated to them. Fort Casey is on Whidbey Island, a short ferry ride from where we were all living, Seattle. It was the site of an almost jocular war between the United States and Canada, more than a century ago. It had to do with a pig, I recall. Anyway, he and Rae and perhaps some others are visiting the abandoned fort with its emplacements for 10-inch cannon that were never fired in seriousness. Hugo has read the history ahead of his visit. He jokes his way around the site, now a park, cracking wise. The land is used for faming and grazing now. The time is October, the fields turning green again with rain. (October is a favorite month with Hugo; he loves the rain and gloom, the swollen rivers.) The farmers have harvested their fields, unlike the way the American army didn't harvest its enemy. This is an ironic way of thinking that appeals to Hugo, and repeats itself, poem after poem. The only prospect of bombing in a land without enemies is the way the Olympic mountains "bomb" the straits with shadows. The paper handout Constitution, fought over between nations, is used to tinder a weenie roast.
It is not a serious poem. Many of the place-name poems are not. They are salutes to a weekend trip, a visitation. They are like the notes a fiction writer makes in a notebook. They pin the place down and give Hugo a limited geographic context in which to manufacture a poem and show off his wit and language skills. It is a workout, an exercise. The poem was produce. Choice stuff.
In this book there are some serious poems that draw on memory and a painful past not so long ago. A bombardier during World War II, Hugo's memories of Italy are vivid, never to go away. He is haunted by the action, though from on high, and in four years he will return to Italy as a civilian, just about 25 years later, to compare his grim memories with the present-day actuality. There are vast surprised for him in store that are mirrored in his next book, Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969).
His book titles are invariably good. This one is no exception. It is a book of the poet as person, acting in the role of the poet of place. And because the poems are so personal and geographically specific, I will skip over them, treating them as exceptions to his development as an American poet. They are foreign. In this sense, and in this sense alone, they are extraneous to the main body of work.
The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973) is not. He is home again, an American poet living in a whole new environment, Montana. He has left the airplane factory and, at age 50, is a full-fledged teacher and recognized poet. His students adore him (much as Roethke's did him) and he gets along well with many of the faculty, as well. But he is drinking as heavily as ever and his marriage to Barbara has fallen apart. (Jim Wright is shocked to learn of the latter, though his own marriage had crumbled, too. Both men are to make happy second marriages. And there are many other parallels.)
Hugo has had bouts of mental illness that are incapacitating. The English Department, though, has cut him lots of slack. Roethke was shown similar consideration at Washington. Wright got no such special treatment at Minnesota and was fired without notice, though he could hardly have missed knowing what was going to happen to him.
In this book Hugo's style has become deceptively simple, straightforward. Often it seems indistinguishable from prose because it is disarmingly plain and unadorned. It may fool you into reading it superficially. This is a mistake. He is in a tough new environment, where men are quick to quarrel and fight. He is up to the task. As he says in "A Map of Montana in Italy," "I'm tougher than you." He is playing the game that large boys play. He is mocking the tradition of the Western bar, of course, but he means it, too. He is mentally tougher than any of them.
He describes his new locale with love and knowledgeable derision. It is appropriate to such a place. Speaking of "two biggest towns" in Montana, he says "they are dull deposits of men getting along, making money, driving to church every Sunday, censoring movies and books." Helena and Butte are more interesting, he says, partly because "they have the good sense to fail." The mentality of Montana is more like he imagines Poland to be, Poland being part of the Soviet occupation at the time. Thought and sensitivity are not valued there. The mood is oppressive. Yet he is comfortable and happy here. He remains troubled, insecure. It is his natural state. His favorite drinking place, now canonized, is "The Milltown Union Bar," which also was a Laundromat and cafe. Yep, this is the tangled American West, partner.
Hugo is full of the new country, soaking it up, washing down the slightly sour taste it leaves in his mouth with booze. In this sense he doesn't stand out any more than the next guy. He likes that; it is West Marginal Way again. He is a poet on a bar stool, lonely, drunk, garrulous. He doesn't have to be a serious literary man. He is recognized as a character. He dates his students—not so unusual as it may seem today, and in English Departments almost required as a proof of masculinity, along with the ability to drink and not noticeably stagger or get sick to your stomach.
"Dating" is an euphemism, of course. But this is the guy, remember, who hardly ever had a date until he married and looked out longingly at the world of ordinary human sexuality through a clouded window. Now he is a published poet, a professor, famous within a small circle of near-friends. If his female students want to know him better, get out of town with him for a weekend, who is he to say, Nay? It is a privileged world. Besides, a new town means a new poem, almost without exception. And a good small town is good for more than one poem.
This book mixes new experiences (towns, people) with old ones, namely his experiences in the war. The poem, "Mission to Linz," is a good example of the presence of the past in Hugo. He is back in the bomber, flying a mission that is twenty years ancient. The sky is orange, orange again, when it comes up against the horizon in "a vacuum of time." Good phrase, though again none too exact. Blue and orange is the day, replete with Norden bombsights and "turrets of fifty calibers./ It must be weird, incommunicable/and the desire for ozone/cold and the unremembered terrible."
Yes, it is. But during the Viet Nam War men had a similar experience. War was more real than civilian life ever seemed and the war's presence persisted long after the fighting had stopped. Soldiers could not explain how they felt and soon the condition was called a "syndrome," which doesn't explain it away, either, but is a handy tag with which to wish it away. The last three lines quoted in the paragraph above form a refrain repeated through the first section of the poem and then, oddly, are heard no more.
The poem is an example of the poet of person, or personality. Yet Hugo unmistakably is caught up in the place. The two are inseparable to him. He is so much back there on a bombing run to Linz that it could be called a regression of the type induced under psychiatric hypnosis to help cure a patient. For the duration of the poem he is living, writing, in a time warp. Thirty years later, 2002, the poem does not get the response it might have, fifty years ago. It seems a sad bit of ancient history.
But there are other poems in the book that involve the now-familiar themes we expect of him now—new towns, driving around Montana, fishing, Indians, plus poems to friends to celebrate the journeys and the good times they had together. Drinking in the "only bar in Dixon" continues an old, dismal theme. Yes, he is drinking still. And he knows it is not good for him.
What Thou Lovest Well Remains American (1975) is full of familiar places, new places, and old place names. Hugo is moving around fast. He has met the second love of his life and commemorates it in the poem, "Listen, Ripley." But this painful boyhood is still pressing him. In this poem he tells his new wife, "I still believe/the mother screaming, 'Don't come back' was mine." The past is not ever past, nor is it over. Abandoned by his parents, raised by grandparents whom he believed didn't love him, the presence of the past is oppressive. It is too much to bear.
Hugo goes to Queens for a reading at the YMHA Poetry Center and, naturally, a hangover follows and a bleary-eyed poem. He is at his best in just such a situation. He wanders around a graveyard, lamenting, but acknowledging that the reading last night went well. He feels so badly that, in somewhat poetic hyperbole, he is considering buying himself "a casket/ in the mid-price range." Yet there is a kind of bitter humor and genuine happiness in the poem that doesn't let us forget that the reading was successful and he deserves, by God, the drunk that follows. He has earned it.
The play with words is delightful, neo-Shakespearean. "I never told you, Greenland floats./ It is often Africa when no one looks." The poem goes on in free-association form—something he may have learned from reading Joyce or Roethke's The Lost Sun, or else picked up on his own much later. Whatever, he handles the associational form well. One graveyard suggests another, the one in Mukilteo, where there were (only) twenty buried that he can recall, but all died in 1910. It is one of those wonderful jokes that can't possibly be true, but you want it to be.
Unfortunately the form he has chosen to write this poem is so open-ended that it can lead to no organized conclusion or ending. It sort of peters out in mock-Hemingway toughness that is not convincing and somewhat undermines what went on before. To be told that all the gravestones, and all the buses, "go on. Millions—/and the lines of stone all point our way./ A damn sad thing. Let's go home to bed./ You didn't mean a thing when you were living/ and you don't mean nothing now you're dead" is to be told nothing new, and the slang or bad grammar toughguyness is unconvincing. I wish he had dropped the last stanza. The poem would be stronger. But it is his poem. And his poems only get so bad.
"Topographical Map" is a fine poem and is quoted in full in the next column over. It is an example of the dramatic monologue (Browning?) and a poetic voice that is entirely convincing; it draws us immediately into the poem with its military/historical/Wagons West evocations: "Good morning. The horses are ready. The trail/will take us past the final alpine fir/to women so rare they are found only above the snow line."
Wonderful and not to be surpassed by hardly any writer. It evokes, of course, Hemingway's snow leopard and the kind of Army language that, once robbed of its incessant obscenities, is rich with understatement and poetic evocation. It is just right. The language is simple, straightforward, and direct. Or is it? A soldier asks a question, but we don't hear it, only the answer: 'The region was founded by pioneers who floated/ their findings on stars down to the flats."
This is delightful nonsense. It mixes expository statement with absurdity—though grammatically it is correct, if impossible. It is followed shortly by, "If you stay a week in that dry dispassionate air/your thoughts go dreamy. Girls you like best/drift in the sky to music." And so on. It makes me think of Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts," which Hugo must have heard read by Dylan Thomas, as did I, about 1952: "This is the Upper Sling Swivel which, in your case, you haven't got," or some such. But Hugo's use of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole is equally as good and entirely his own. Gee, I'd like to hear Thomas read Hugo's poem. It is indeed a fine one.
Hugo's next book, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977) requires some explanation. Or background. It is not really a book of poems but a book produced during and coming back from a serious nervous breakdown. Long troubled by drinking problems, and by what is now called bipolar disorder (manic-depression, then), he took a year's guest teaching assignment at the prestigious Iowa State University's Writers' Workshop, which was more than his stretched-thin nervous system could take. It was a mistake to go, he knew. He fell apart. And he stopped writing poetry.
Psychiatrists in the Seventies routinely recommended electric shock treatments to snap patients out of severe depression and, hopefully, to restore them to some degree of functioning. Often it has an adverse effect and deepens their problems and causes new ones to arise. Freudians believe dreams hold secrets the conscious mind cannot reach, and it is vital to connect with the "dream language" in order to understand how the patient is unable to function in the daytime world. Or something like this.
Hugo could only write to friends and thank them for their help in his hard time. He wrote to Carolyn Kizer, a fellow student of Roethke, and a fellow poet, and thanked her for "the telephonic support from North Carolina when I suddenly went ape in the Iowa tulips. Lord, but I'm ashamed. . . ." A bit later in the same letter, he said, "I'm o.k. now. I'm back at the primal source of poems: wind, sea, and rain, the market and the salmon." The market is Seattle's Pike Place Public Market, hangout of everybody including Painter Mark Tobey.
It is funny how poets of that time could speak jocularly of their terrible, incapacitating breakdown as though it were some outside event happening to somebody else. A kind of double vision of the psyche was taking place (with Wright and, a couple of decades earlier, Roethke) in which the troubled poet, beset with alcoholism, self-doubt, poor health, and mental problems could step outside himself and his problems momentarily and reflect upon what was happening to him with biting irony, almost as though he were watching a comic movie of somebody else's life. And from the terrible experience came acute insights that possibly led to—if not a cure, at least the ability to function for a while in a somewhat normal sense.
And then the drinking would begin again, the depression start, and the wildness that kept the poet from sleeping and thinking clearly begin its new cycle. The only end to the terrible cycles was death. But often it is a long time acoming.
But before then Hugo would write his poems, his letters, and record his dreams. These letters and dreams are not much fun to read, and I am going to gloss over them here. They should be read along with the biographical prose material that illuminates his life so well and helps us understand what he is saying in his complex poems. Those poems are the meat of his life. These are not.
White Center (1980) is an important book, perhaps the most. Some poets have the remarkable ability to come back from a major breakdown as though it were a trip to Europe on an ocean liner. Donna Gersternberger warns the reader on behalf of Hugo not to take the seemingly biographical poems literally. They are constructs, based on personal recollection, and sometimes a persona is created to speak and feel for the poet, who is far away, observing the structure and life of the poem as though it were from the wrong end of a telescope. Yet the parallels to Hugo's childhood are powerful and cannot be denied. A biographical approach must be taken, though tempered with a necessary skepticism. It is a poem, after all, and not a prose statement.
As he discovers on his return to Italy, a man "remembered most things wrong." It takes the wisdom of years and great mocking self-understanding to recognize this tendency as fact. So when Hugo goes back to White Center (either in person or in his mind) it is with a clear sense of the wrongness of things remembered. This is necessary for sanity and objectivity. Yet the past persists painfully.
He received national recognition as a poet about this time. In 1977 he was appointed editor of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. And he was asked to read numerous places, none more important than delivering the Roethke Memorial Lecture at the UW in 1976. I attended that reading and was astonished at how much like Roethke he had come to look—same puffy overweight tortured face and body. (Wright too as he matured took on a similar look, one described by Richard Wilbur, in regard to Dylan Thomas, as one of utter misery.)
Yet he is happier, better adjusted (I hate the term, but there is no better one here), with honors now, a promotion to associate professor at Montana, and for the couple of years he has left on earth a happy marriage to Ripley Schemm, who gave him an immediate family of a daughter and son from her earlier marriage. He seems to have enjoyed them greatly.
White Center is a mixture of mature poems that contain elements of the past and a whole new way of looking at some things old and new. He still has his love of travel and the need to have unfamiliar places trigger his poems. Yet the unhappy associations with his childhood still oppress him and need further working out. So we have a poetic equivalent of a double vision in his poem, "Second Chances."
Other poems reveal the lonely old man who is the neighborhood joke; children throw stones on his roof and "bad mouth my life with songs" of derision. He is the unpopular boy grown into a pathetic old man, at least in his poetic self. At the same time he is happy, successful, with a "beautiful woman," his wife, fixing him lunch. His poems appear "everywhere" and people respect him. "She thinks I am fine," he adds. He fears the vagabond self who comes to the door and begs him to return to the old life—that of the "destitute soul" who walks "always downhill" to the schoolyard, where children are playing a game "where you pretend you're still you while others guess your new name."
The poem is complex but not so difficult to understand, at least in a poetic sense. He is guilty over success, which he doesn't deserve. This is a peculiarly American phenomenon feeling (thought I'm sure men of other cultures—say, Russian—feel it) and it reminds me of the adage that the true American tragedy is not failure but success. We don't deserve success and can't handle it. Now, failure is easy and omnipresent; It leads to one's demise, a peace and release that only death can bring.
I'm sure Hugo felt much of this in a literal sense, but it is also the stuff of poetry and I'm sure he knew how to "work" it for what it was worth. It was worth a whole lot in its literary value. In his new life, with a new house and a ready-made family, he writes happily of his "sudden daughter" at the seashore and his new son, Matthew, at the ballpark in Moiese. There is no game he knows and loves so well as baseball, which he played a lot on the sub-professional level, and now he has someone to share it with. But the game evokes memories of times that were not so happy. Happiness may be a thing you can't displace but only build on top of. And the flat places in somebody else's ball game cause the poet's mind to roam geographically and historically. All things are one thing, finally. He says, "What we want to save grinds down finally/to the place it happened, dim charm of four worn spots used for bases." Indians and bison, baseball and rivers. They all become one thing, a single entity. And so are the old men sitting in a bar, drinking and smoking (Hugo has stopped drinking, but not yet smoking), waiting to take a train that does not run anymore.
In "At The Cabin," "We ripple aspen the way we move out/ in the morning meadow wind. Stay close/ through the buffalo willow's manic perfume/ across the field of lupine where the fresh track/ of a cougar gives us the direction not to go." It is unmistakably Montana, his new home. Another poem written for Ripley is "Beaverbank," where "light from the river brightens your old room/ The heron you called Pete returns still young/ to sweep the river like a cloud." There is a poem here for Philip Levine and one for his old buddy, Jim Wright—"The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry with Us." There is also a poem to his old bluegill-fishing lake, Meridian, and the changes he has observed after forty years away.
I particularly like the small poem, "Scene." And the concluding poem in the book (Hugo liked to open strong and end even stronger), "White Center." It is a powerful synthesis of all the things wrong and right in his life, past and present. I think the truth of Thomas Wolfe's statement about not going home again is that the present invalidates what was remembered so wrongly and leaves one highly disturbed at the difference. Hugo says, "It's all beginning to blur as it forms." Again, he is "certain I remember everything wrong./ If not, why is this road lined thick with fern/and why do I feel no shame kicking the loose gravel home?" Gerstenberger acutely points out that the last word in the last poem in this book is "home." It may be significant.
Hugo published two books this year, 1980, a deft trick for anyone. The second is The Right Madness on Skye. (His flair for keen titles does not desert him here.) But it is largely a travel book and as such outside the canon proper. It is a big pleasure to read, however, and I don't mean to slight it, only indicate that it is special poetry for a special place. Hugo's work is full of history, contemporary places and names, and with a poet of his temperament he is triggered by Scotland and he fairly explodes (Wright would say "blossoms") into bloom. Nobody does this kind of thing better than Hugo. Or enjoys doing it more.
After Skye it ends, his poetic career, except for the last poems, ones gathered and ordered by Ripley and Matthew Hansen. They include "Last Words to James Wright," a private poem alluding to an ongoing joke between the two of them involving an ancient fishing trip to Lake Kapowsin and the old skinflint bartender, Ed Bedford, whom they both despised and mocked by calling each other by that name, over the years. (You have to be part of a private joke for it to have any meaning and silly pleasure to you, I guess.) And it is odd, because that relationship, which was full of neglect and cruel insults, long persisted, as both took advantage of each other and neither forgot a thing.
Hugo cruelly punishes Wright after Wright's death by writing, then publishing, a chronicle of Wright's terrible alcoholism and obsessions in his autobiography, TRWMW. It doesn't seem the kind of thing a really caring person might do. It seems vengeful. So I conclude, perhaps wrongly, that there were many unhealed wounds they inflicted on each other and some were, ultimately, unforgivable. Friendships are often like this, alas.
Many of these poems were written when Hugo knew he had leukemia and was not responding well to radiation. There is a finality about them, or else it is easy to read finality into them, perhaps wrongly. Two poems, "Gold Stone" and "Gray Stone," rise into the area of legend and myth, and evoke plain simple good luck (which is not so simple). The gold stone looks gold only when it is wet; dry, and with the sun gone down, it becomes lusterless. Nonetheless, you retain the stone and keep it "deep in your pocket or purse," for it will bring you a lover—"the woman you saw once in a railroad station,/ Berlin, that wide warm easy mouth." But you can't really believe "a gold stone forever," he tells us.
The companion poem and its stone do not change color, wet or dry. You might think it is constant, and it is. But it has no wonderful truth to offer you, nor any love. And it won't help you much in a crisis. "It doesn't say 'no' when you plot wrong things to do with your life or die from the drone."
The last phrase is most interesting: the drone is what we must all learn to overcome. It is akin to Freud's accepting "the ordinary unhappiness" of life. Nevertheless the gray stone has value and must be retained. Keep it safe so that "when those you love/ are broken or gone, listen/ with a sustained, with a horrible attention/ to the nothing it has always had to say."
It is a powerful statement and a disturbing one. (I want to add a comma after "attention," or else delete the comma following "sustained," but the editor surely must know what Hugo meant to say, and how to punctuate it.) It is as good a way as any I've read to say, poetically, that is all comes down to nothing. Which lies at the heart of all serious literature and is Hemingway's "nada."
There are "Brown Stone" and "Blue Stone," as well. These poems seem forced, as if he is caught up in a job he doesn't much like but must finish or not be paid for completing the work. "Blue Stone" is the better of the two, perhaps because Hugo is able to lift the mood evoked by the previous three poems and begin to say (somewhat mechanically, it is true) that blue brings blue skies, blue rain, blue birds, blue mountains from "somewhere unmapped and roadless/ that can't be seen from the air."
The last poem in the book tries to continue the tradition that Hugo followed in the previous books, that is, the ones published in his lifetime: to finish strong. But this one fails in this regard, or rather the editor from Norton who tried to make it strong, wasn't able to do so. It serves as the title poem for the collection, Making Certain It Goes On. It is a Montana poem, one evoking the river of Norman MacLean, the Big Blackfoot, and it is almost prose, broken up into uneven lines to make it resemble poetry. It uses a narrative form, but sounds didactic in how it measures and meters its lines, and the use of "we" as its speaker. It tries to be elegiac but doesn't make the grade because the narrator is too far removed from the scenes evoked and sees them as a dull historian would. It is not one of Hugo's best poems.
The title, though, appeals to the editor and apparently to Ripley. It is a nice sentiment, a tidy one. I guess one could say, forcedly, that the collected poems are one man's effort to make certain that life as he has known and experienced it is made to continue. But Hugo knew full well, as in the late Stone poems, that life does exactly that, regardless of poets, poetry, monuments, and big trout "nosing the surface" of the river. The final image of "the church reforming white frame into handsome blue stone, and this community going strong another hundred years" is not convincing. The blue stone image, perhaps borrowed or appropriated from Wallace Stevens's "Man With a Blue Guitar" doesn't work. Or rather fails to work successfully.
"White Center," the poem, is one that does convince and works exceedingly well. It brings together the unhappy past and the reconciled present in a way that is a major poetical achievement (whether or not it is a major poem, which it's probably not). It is the poet of place, deeply rooted in his region, and proud of it, transcending the common place of place, and rising to the level of universality.
He says, "I hoped forty years I'd write and would not write this poem. This town would die and your grave never reopen. Or mine." And a moment later add, "I walk this past with you, ghost in any field of good crops," and amends, "certain I remember everything wrong."
No, you didn't, Richard. You got it just right.
Poems by Richard Hugo
(Poems, continued from page one)
Of course the salmon die after spawning. Creatures feed on the corpses, which provide nourishment to all sorts of critters, including the fry that will hatch from the gravel in spring. Long before then the dead salmon and Hugo the Poet are caught up in the swollen river, replete of trout that have fed and departed; water will carry him and them back to the sea. The trip will be "easy," compared to the salmon's upstream journey against the current, weak as it was then. The poet is totally identified with fish and river. They are one. Now the river is "gray and wild." It is no longer the tame one he knew from late summer.
The coda states that our rivers flow West, towards China, making them oddly Oriental in nature, or Orientally orientated, if that makes any sense. And of course there is a bit of word play here at the end on "Monday's child is full of grace," etc. Echoes of nursery rhymes are not uncommon in poems of both Hugo and Roethke. They are suggestive of myth and fable known to all of us and enrich the levels of understanding on which poetry communicates, often on an unconscious level.
From Death of The Kapowsin Tavern, this poem and these lines:
The Anacortes-Sydney Run
In my best dreams I have crossed the border
And my coins are wrong. Without the tongue
I gesture, sweat and wake aboard this boat.
Ladies in their staterooms write bad poems—
mountains in the distance evidence of God.
Maps are hard to read. Two nations own
these islands. The shade of green on one
could be Canadian, but firs and grebes
are mine. The latest run of Springs
are far too international to claim.
Yet they use our rivers for their graves.
Not a great poem by Hugoean standards, it contains good elements and shows how his mind has worked, from the poetic beginning. He has bad dreams, but this is a good one. He is on a ferry, going from Washington State to Sidney, B.C., but if it is a dream it is a trip he has made before. So he is happily dreaming of the past. Or is he? Or does it really matter?
What does is the female poet, wealthier than Hugo, in a stateroom, writing banal poems while looking out her porthole. "Let me see," she thinks, "those mountains, why, they prove that God exists—had I ever doubted it!" Yet the true poet is topside, map in hand, an Everyman, trying to read a map and being confused by all the shapes and colors.
His mind runs to associations. Mine, and yours. A bird I recognize is surely mine. The grebe, of which there are several species, but he doesn't differentiate. The islands (San Juans) are mostly American but some of the water, some of the islands, are Canadian. Is the map any clue here—the different colors? Which are which? Firs are green, therefore they are mine. Or are they?
There are Springs (Chinooks, Kings, all the same fish) moving up the straits, and they may have achieved their growth in Canadian waters, but they were born in American rivers and they will die there. This makes them international, but because of the length of time in Canadian waters, they are more Canadian, he has to admit. Yet because of their birth, their coming death, they are more truly ours. And they will die here.
It is a simple travel poem, the kind he loved to write. No trip, no visit, was complete without one.
In "The Colors of a Bird," Hugo shows us how keen an observer he is:
A bird sails from the hole in that high stone
circles once and glides down, humming
with his wings He seemed white half-
way up, but green now as he ticks
the river. No one doubts the water.
It will eat the best men from the sky.
in and out of sunlight hugs the stream.
Now he uses cedar bark for amber,
takes the color of a hostile man.
He has no taste. How satisfied he seems
anywhere he flies throughout the spectrum.
Man can give one color only,
promise birds a perfect afternoon:
trout and worm, a coy girl brought to answer
in the grass. The bird will never brown
hoping for the sun this river flicks.
Picnics never work. The army
separates in current as they drown.
Now the laughing black bird draws
a hectic line of nothing on the air
and drives relieved into the rock dark.
Hugo said somewhere that he leaves out transitional words and phrases in order to make his poetry more dense. That it does, surely, but it often hinders the search for meaning. It is intentional and part of the difficulty of reading him. One has to try to supply the missing links, which is nearly impossible. So one ends up "reading between the lines." When one does, the chance of misreading him is huge.
The only help I can offer as a reader is repeated readings of the same poems, over a long span of time. Hey, but it's not unpleasurable work. And after while—years—the meaning begins to emerge. Or else you simply get used to fooling yourself that it does.
In Whatever Thou Lovest Well Remains American is found this:
Good morning. The horses are ready. The trail
will take us past the final alpine fir
to women so rare they are found only above
the snow line. Even high altitude trout,
the California Golden, find them exciting.
Flowers bloom so colorful there the colors
demand a new spectrum, and wolves turned yellow
every dawn. You have questions? The region was
discovered by pioneers who floated
their finds on stars down to the flats.
your thoughts go dreamy. Girls you like best
drift in the sky to music. When they hover
close enough to touch the music gets loud.
Young, you loved those tunes. Old, you will love
those odd breaks in time when memory sings
in your groin and girls in pairs are replayed
fighting like cats for your love, on clouds
in the valleys below. You'll ride those times
higher than song and magic arrow, and ride
the avalanche down to withering routine.
Nothing has changed. Alpine fir has all
but disappeared in our blinding progress.
The rest was infantile mouthing. I'm coward too.
The original settlers left no record but tears.
They wept on earth where it counts. They pointed
a vague hand west and we took it from there,
and here's where we are. If I were strong
I'd call those horses out again. The real
is born in rant and the actor's gesture.
of unique animals and girls above the moisture
wave hello when you come into view.
I think it is safe to say that the poet is mature and working at the top of his form.
"The Art of Poetry" is another great poem from this book.
The man in the moon was better not a man.
Think, sad Raymond, how you glare across
the sea, hating the invisible near east
and your wife's hysteria. You'll always be here,
rain or gloom, painting a private Syria,
preferred dimensions of girls. Outside, gulls
scar across your fantasy. Rifled spray on glass
unfocuses the goats you stock on the horizon,
laddering blue like dolphins, looping over the sun.
Better the moon you need. Better not a man.
Sad Raymond, twice a day the tide comes in.
laughing their spades at clams, drinking a breezy beer
in breeze from Asia Minor, in those far far
principalities they've been, their tall wives elegant
in audience with kings. And envy that despairing man
you found one morning sobbing on a log,
babbling about a stuffed heart in Wyoming.
Don't think, Raymond, they'd respond to what's
inside you every minute, crawling slow as tide.
Better not tell them. Better the man you seem.
Sad Raymond, twice a night the tide comes in.
a melody from Norway when that summer storm
came battering the alders, turning the silver
underside of leaves toward the moon. And think,
sad Raymond, of the wrong way maturation came.
Wanting only those women you despised, imitating
the voice of every man you envied. The slow walk
home alone. Pause at door. The screaming kitchen.
And every day this window, loathing the real horizon.
That's what you are. Better the man you are.
Sad Raymond, twice a day the tide comes in.
of this need happen. What, sad Raymond, if
in your will you leave your tongue and tear ducts
to a transplant hospital. There's your motive
for trailing goats to Borneo, goats that suddenly
are real, outdistancing the quick shark
in the quarter mile and singing Home Sweet Home.
Motive, but no blood. Sad. Sad. The salty fusillade
obscures once more your raging playfield.
Better behind the glass. Better the man you were.
Sad Raymond, twice a night the tide comes in.
loses control. Tides are run by starfish
and those charts you study mornings on your wall
are meaningless as tide. The near east isn't near
or east and Fred was an infant in your neighborhood
devoured by a dog. Those days you walk the beach
looking for that man who's pure in his despair.
He's never there. A real man walks he moon
and you can't reach him. The moon is cavalier.
Better to search your sadness for the man.
Sad Raymond, twice a moment tides come in.
Boy! Now that's a poem. I'd like to think "Sad Raymond" is Carver, but he's probably not. Besides, to pin him down to earth with a real last name would diminish the poem, make it ordinary.
Two more poems and it is time to turn to The Collected Poems as individual readers and make our own particular discoveries of what is good and what is even better. First,
One day at a time. And one barn.
Lovers inside and horses ignoring the lovers.
And the creek nearby. The willows.
That was the scene. I forget the sky.
The sky, let's say, was green
dotted with silly clouds that looked like dimes.
Then the horses were lovers.
The lovers had gone to the creek
to celebrate their bones
under the willows and green
under the drifting dimes.
Let's say the lovers were green
and this dream is about them.
One barn at a time. One moon.
The dimes are dark monsters
ignoring the lovers, the horses
who are also lovers and asleep.
Deep inside deep that is the scene
I never wake up.
And finally—what else?—
Town or poem, I don't care how it looks. Old woman
take my hand and we'll walk one more time these streets
I believed marked me weak beneath catcalling clouds.
Long ago, the swamp behind the single row of stores
was filled and seeded. Roses today where Toughy Hassin
slapped my face to the grinning delight of his gang.
I didn't cry or run. Had I fought him
I'd have been beaten and come home bloody in tears
and you'd have told me I shouldn't be fighting.
the streets for no pay, believing what he'd learned
as a boy in England: 'This your community'?
I taunted him to rage, then ran. Is this the day
we call bad mothers out of the taverns and point hem
sobbing for home, or issue costumes to posturing clowns
in the streets, make fun of drunk barbers, and hope
someone who left and made it returns, vowed
to buy more neon and give these people some class?
you offered a penny for every fly I killed.
You were blind to my cheating. I saw my future certain—
that drunk who lived across the street and fell
in our garden reaching for the hoe you dropped.
All he got was our laughter. I helped him often home
when you weren't looking. I loved some terrible way
he lived in his mind and tried to be decent to others.
I loved the way we loved him behind our disdain.
like I should have early. But your odd love and a war
taught me the world's one evil past the first check point
and that's First Avenue South. I fell asleep each night
safe in love with my murder. The neighbor girl
plotted to tease every tomorrow and watch me turn
again to the woods and games too young for my age.
We could never account for the python cousin Warren
found half starved in the basement of Safeway.
you beat to perversion. That was the drugstore MacCameron
flipped out in early one morning, waltzing
on his soda fountain. The siren married his shrieking.
His wife said, "We'll try again, in Des Moines."
You drove a better man into himself where he found tunes
he had no need to share. It's all beginning to blur
as it forms. Men cracking up or retreating.
Resolute women deep in prayer.
It is quite a poem, highly personal and yet far reaching in its implications. It is a perfect coda for the poet and his life, tying his beginnings to his end in poetic form. It is both a poem of personality and a poem of place—Hugo at his best, doing what he does so well. And—as he warns us—just when we think we can take him literally, autobiographically, we may go most wrong. For instance, when he alludes to the python found half-starved in the basement of Safeway, he is evoking a common local folktale we who grew up in Seattle all heard and half-believed. Still do.
It is the stuff of legend, and Hugo knows it and uses it cunningly. There is great personal freedom in this kind of self-expression, mixing the highly memorable with the legendary, hiding behind the ambiguity. What is real, what is made up? Hugo leaves us free to sort it out and, in the bargain, hides behind words and fable, leaving us unclear as to which is which. It is a favorite way he likes to work. [One of my notes to myself as I read through his collected poems was, "If 'you don't get it,' Hugo probably doesn't care." He has also admitted in a personal conversation with William Kettridge that he sometimes doesn't know himself what he means by a certain image or phrase.
None of which ought to distract much or for long from the individual poems, which are of uniformly high quality. One, put back into the collected by his posthumous editors, is "December 24, Alone," dating from 1973 or 74; Hugo omitted it when in his last days he put together the poems he wanted to succeed him. It was probably a mistake by the editors to include it. Hugo knew better. It is a weak poem, an inferior one. It was a bleak time for him. But, not surprisingly, it would be a good poem for any other poet, including many of his contemporaries and friends. The remaining poems are all good by any standard.
Hugo's achievement is impressive, and as time goes by it becomes stronger. His poems seem to me masculine, but that doesn't explain his appeal to so many female readers and poets. A few years back, to honor him as an important poet utilizing strong regional themes, Richard Hugo House was established as a community center for the literary arts in Seattle. It is full of poets and teachers of poetry and prose. I think it would surpass his wildest dreams and he might just say, "A house? No kidding? Now, a tavern I could understand." And we would have to search his terrible, careworn face, with all its wrinkles and folds, to see that he was totally and finally happy.