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Richard Hugo is one of America’s major poets. However, one wouldn’t get this sense browsing such sources as the websites for The Poetry Foundation or The Academy of American Poets. The Poetry Foundation dedicates a mere four paragraphs to him, five if we generously count the two-sentence conclusion about his death and the house where he died being turned into a writing center. Yet fellow students of Theodore Roethke such as A.R. Ammons, Williams Stafford, and David Wagoner, all have seven or more meaty paragraphs dedicated to their lives and poetry. If one searches the online edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, there is an entry for each of these poets, but not for Richard Hugo. And yet, Richard Hugo was two times a finalist for the National Book Award and two times a finalist for the Pulitzer.
If one reads the opening paragraph on the Poetry Foundation site for Hugo, one hits upon one of the causes of this shortsightedness. It says, “Richard Hugo was a poet of the Pacific Northwest, yet his renown attests to a stature greater than that of most ‘regional’ poets.” The effort to downplay categorizing him as a regional poet by putting “regional” in quotes is belied by the assertion itself. The assumption remains that he’s merely regional and his larger appeal an inexplicable oddity. This kind of thinking is reinforced by a source like The Academy of American poets that says of Hugo’s poems they “often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest.” Portraying his poems as mere celebrations of these landscapes and people is a shallow reading of quite profound poetry. Neither source provides an explanation of why these landscapes and isolated people fascinated him or why his poetry’s appeal extends beyond the regionalism most want to confine him to.
Hugo served as a bombardier in WWII running 35 bombing missions. I entertain an image of him living the life of Yossarian from Heller’s Catch-22, enduring the contradictions of a system that deprived him of the very meaning he needed, for this time is arguably the central event of his life, fixing in him a sense of responsibility and grief that he was to spend the rest of his days trying to understand. While this major life event is mentioned by those online sources, it is only acknowledged as experience “he would later recount. . . in his poetry” (Academy) or as “experience [that] informed some of his poems” (Poetry foundation). The failure here is to see a connection between his experience as a bombardier and his fascination with isolated people and dying towns.
While every collection of Hugo’s revisits some element of his time during the war, he has two collections that are pretty much devoted to those experiences: Good Luck in Cracked Italian and 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. In the latter collection, he says in a deeply painful poem “Letter to Matthews from Barton Street Flats,”
Why, faced with this supermarket parking lot
filled with gleaming new cars, people shopping unaware
a creek runs under them, do I think back thirty some years
to that time all change began, never to stop, not even
to slow down one moment for us to study our loss
Time here becomes an enemy of meaning, pushing the speaker along and depriving him of the chance for the reflection required to locate a reason for his pain and grief. This study is central to Hugo’s poetry. It is what makes the creek that “runs under them” not only a hint at ignored natural beauty but more so, in the reflection of the speaker, a symbol of loss and a failure to understand it.
Whether Hugo is writing about Kapowsin, or Maratea, he’s returning to the bombed out, gray landscape of wartime Europe and grappling with the losses both of life and land that he felt responsible for as a bombardier. That’s why “gray” is his favorite word and color. That’s why even when he travels to other places, his subjects wind up being something like Chysauster, which is a late iron-age village in Cornwall that was abandoned sometime in the 3rdcentury. Even his early poetry, which tends to assemble around natural imagery, suggests desolations that speak to the vacancies he was later to obsess over. Consider the opening poem to his first collection A Run of Jacks. Simply called “Trout,” the speaker describing a kind of study of the fish concludes how his scrutiny is:
to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions of cress.
That use of “oblivions” transforms this natural image into one of loss, a comment on memory and the kind of deprivations of a past that would go on to haunt every poem. Such subtleties persist throughout his work. Consider another poem later in this first collection called “Two Graves in a Day,” which opens with,
Now I break the mask, repeal those years
of forging any other face until
my name is mine.
Here we find a determination to reach toward a genuine self. The poem, however, ends with an ambiguity suggesting the struggle is not resolved:
Come with all your hair and bake your arms
where beaver ponds are steaming to be clear.
This ending implies a lack of clarity by the effort toward it. That is often what Hugo’s poems embody: that struggle, reaching toward clarity and meaning. Born, as that struggle is, of the need to understand the suffering both witnessed and felt during the war, he also has a poem in this first collection that directly recreates a moment in Italy during WWII called “Centuries Near Spinnazola.” Interestingly, it is Hugo’s effort to capture a moment when he stood by a field of grass, completely detached from the horror around him, feeling a kind of peacefulness. And yet, it ends:
There will be a time for towns to burn
and one more sea to flog into a pond.
Even when not explicitly speaking to them, the threat of loss and pain assert themselves, impinging on the speaker’s very self and the peace that is momentarily enjoyed. Those “towns to burn” will become, in successive collections, the vacant lots and defunct towns of the Northwest. For while Hugo happened to grow up in an area that was collapsing under the weight of economic depression, what made these vacancies appealing is that they echoed the desolate landscapes of Europe he helped create as a bomber. What resonated for him was the grief, loss, and pain in both landscapes, both devastated in some way. He then sought to find a meaning in those landscapes, to take responsibility for the lives devastated because of his part in it. This then becomes the impetus for his poems to engage the homeless or native Americans. Consider the ending of his poem “Indian Graves at Jocko”:
Dead are buried here because the dead
will always be obscure, wind
the one thing whites will always give a chance.
Here what we have done to the Indian population of North America is another long warfare we are responsible for, the cause of another desolation and bombed out culture, all contained in the abandonment, the obscurity of these dead, and the non-existent or empty gestures of atonement implied by that final line, “wind/the one thing whites will always give a chance.”
Or consider the end of a poem called “The Colors of Birds,”
Now the laughing black bird draws
a hectic line of nothing on the air
and drives relieved into the rocky dark.
While the lines are focused on a natural image, a black bird, the way it “draws a hectic line of nothing,” and finally drives to find relief in “the rocky dark,” we see another way Hugo searches out those losses and changes imposed by war. The image presented is transformed by the lines that precede it where we are told, “The army/separates in current as they drown.” Nature is embedded in a wartime context and is thus an exploration of war and its consequences, the various darknesses it creates in landscapes of the world and mind. His poems are freighted with word choices like these, like “oblivions” in the poem “Trout.”
Multiple times in his second collection, Death of the Kapowsin Tavern, from which “The Colors of Birds” comes, the idea of war is brought up as, “Only wars without a name have meaning,” or “Something about war, translated by the sea/and wind into a song.” This is the creek that runs underfoot in every Hugo poem, a wrestling with the trauma of dead children and bombed out buildings, the scenes he knew he was responsible for as a bombardier. In fact, one of his epistolary poems is to the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Simic, who was a child of five in Belgrade when Hugo was bombing it. While the poem expresses gratitude that Simic survived, it also expresses the lingering pain of the war,
I believed the necessity
of that suffering world, hoping it would learn not to do
it again. But I was young. The world never learns. History
has a way of making the past palatable, the dead
This is that haunting that rises from those “oblivions of cress” from his first collection: a dream that is more a nightmare here in the collection 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. One such dream/nightmare is called, “In Your War Dream.” In the second half of the poem, he’s trying to break through to a place of love and domesticity but is instead doomed to run his 35 missions over and over again.
Lovers are inside a cabin. You ask to come in.
They say, “No. Keep watch on Stark Yellow Lake.”
You stand beside the odd water. A terrible wind
keeps knocking you down. “I’m keeping watch
on the lake,” you yell at the cabin. The lovers
don’t answer. You break into the cabin. Inside
old women bake bread. They yell, “Return to the base.”
You must fly your 35 missions again.
This return, this struggle is one of the keys to why Hugo’s poetry is so good and has an appeal beyond the Northwest: at their heart there is a constant vulnerability, a constant exposure to the consequences of past actions, a yearning toward love and meaning in the context of perpetual war. It is often, though not always, explored or embodied in the desolate landscapes of either the Northwest United States or various places in Europe. It is in the vulnerability and confrontation that there is hope in his poems. Not a hope that whitewashes the past or one’s actions, but a hope anchored in responsibility and a burning need for some resolution to the pain one has caused others. Ultimately, he defines hope and meaning in the constant struggle itself. As he says in his poem “Letter to Peterson from the Pike Place Market,”
Today, I am certain,
for all my terrible mistakes I did the right thing
to love places and scenes in my innocent way and to spend
my life writing poems, to receive like a woman
the world in its enduring decay and to tell
that world like a man that I am not afraid to weep
at the sadness, the ongoing day that is draining our life
and is life.
Because this hope is anchored in loving a “world in its enduring decay,” it is precisely in the cycles of pain and peace, guilt and atonement, that meaning is found. Hope is mixed with the dark recesses out of which the new light emerges:
The raw blaze of the void
might bring me wood tomorrow
what shall become
of us without monsters to pity and fear?
(“Letter to Garber from Skye”)
I promised myself I’d come back one day
serious about a chapel that cracks
and patches itself with sky
and locate for the first time what we are
(“Repairing the House, the Church, Restoring the Music”)
And yet again:
And if inside you
a fist waits to beat back the bad man you are
that hand opens in hunger
(“A Museum of Cruel Days”)
The very hand that beats back the bad man inside also has needs, hungers that can create difficulties in relationships, might lead to the kinds of pains and guilts for which amends must be made. But then, too, it’s in this cycle that we find a meaningful life, the wood for tomorrow’s fire, by which we find light and warmth. Likewise, we see in the repairing of that chapel an image of perpetually fighting back the decay and in it, creating our identity. It’s another metaphor for what Hugo finally found in his struggle with those desolations in the wake of the war: hope and meaning are defined as the constant repair that makes a life. This is the source of his appeal, not as a regional poet, but as a poet of the human condition, the human struggle, for out of our hungers and oblivions rise the necessities imposed on us to fight back against them and the deterioration they engender, and in this very act create a world and an enduring identity.
Copyright 2021 Michael T. Young
Michael T. Young’s collections of poetry include The Infinite Doctrine of Water (Terrapin, 2018).