Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Driving Montana: Richard Hugo on the landscape

Driving Montana

The day is a woman who loves you.  Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
spray from your car.  Miles from any town
your radio comes in strong, unlikely
Mozart from Belgrade rock and roll
from Butte.  Whatever the next number
you want to hear it.  Never has your Buick
found this forward a gear.  Even
the tuna salad in Reedpoint is good.

Towns arrive ahead of imagined schedule
Absorakee at one.  Or arrive so late--
Silesia at nine--you recreate the day.
Where did you stop along the road
and have fun?  Was there a runaway horse?
Did you park at that house, the one
alone in a void of grain, white with green
trim and red fence, where you know you lived
once?  You remembered the ringing creek,
the soft brown forms of far off bison.
You must have stayed hours, then drove on.
In the motel you know you’d never seen it before.

Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to.  You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.
                                    --Richard Hugo
I think I've mentioned before that I like to start off the day by reading a poem.  For the past six months, Richard Hugo has been my morning-coffee companion.  Poem by poem, I'm working my way through Making Certain It Goes On.  Hugo's descriptions of war, Scotland, and especially Montana have been jewels I roll around on my tongue.  Since my work takes me throughout the western half of the state, I do "drive Montana" a lot--I-90 is my Main Street--and I can vouch that Hugo gets the details precisely right--the "spray" of magpies taking flight from your approaching car, the house in the "void of grain," the sky "wide as the mouth of a wild girl."  It's all there just beyond my windshield.  I've yet to try the tuna salad in Reedpoint, but I have no doubt it's good.

When Hugo moved to Montana to teach at the university in Missoula in 1964, he quickly found a connection with the land and its residents.  Life in Milltown, the small community east of Missoula, proved to be too violent for Hugo's first wife Barbara and she moved home to Seattle.  The poet threw himself into teaching students and transforming Missoula into what eventually became known as "the Paris of the Rockies."  As William Kittredge writes in his introduction to Making Certain It Goes On:  "Natural and direct and informed, funny and utterly open, always honest, if occasionally maudlin, he was soon reinventing the possibilities of literature in Montana for another generation.  Montana, he told students, resonated."
Hugo took the Big Sky and made it his own and now the state belongs to him.  You cannot drive anywhere within these borders without coming to the realization that you are traveling through a landscape that is no longer just rivers and granite and wheat, it has become the words of Richard Hugo.  We drive on roads paved with his language.
*     *     *     *     *
Before I go, let me also mention this fine essay by Charles Finn, "The Milltown Union Bar Revisited," which recently appeared at New West.  Finn pays a visit to the "working-class watering hole" made famous by Hugo in his poem with the mountain goat staring at barflies from behind plexiglass.  Finn is looking for any remaining traces of the poet in the fake mahogany walls and the chipped veneer of the bar top.  He doesn't find him, of course, but he's okay with that.  The bar must adapt to changing times; it's up to us to find the Hugo left inside ourselves.
Photo: Dusk outside Boulder, MT, June 16, 2009.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful reflection David. So true. Montana looks deeper after Hugo.

  2. Hugo leaving a hospital ln Seattle,Life magazine 1981, that photo touched me ..I love poetry. So today I read him here for the first time. I want more. Grateful to have met his poems.

  3. Why was my comment about Hugo deleted? I am not a robot,I really love poetry and wish to read more of his works, Fine turn to see life,sharp and humble

  4. Thank you, It is a great little moment this evening here in Ireland for me to learn more about R.Hugo

  5. So all my comments /praise about R.Hugo have been deleted. Why? Anyway his work matters more to me.

  6. I like the idea of seeing the day as a 'woman who loves me' it seems more comforting somehow, might get me out of bed earlier in the morning!