A road-tripping re-examination of the poems of Richard Hugo
A review of Frances McCue's "The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo," a road-tripping rumination on the towns that served as settings for the poems of Northwest writer Richard Hugo.
Seattle Times book editor
The author and photographer of "The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs" will discuss their book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Frances McCue and Mary Randlett
Frances McCue and Mary Randlett
'The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo'
by Frances McCue, photographs by Mary Randlett
University of Washington Press, 249 pp., $27.95
BOOK REVIEW |
Richard Hugo was a great poet, a talented teacher, a man with many friends and a burden of sadness. Abandoned by his mother and raised by taciturn, withholding grandparents, the White Center native rose above his blue-collar upbringing to become a world-famous poet and head of the creative-writing department at the University of Montana. But pain remained with him, and he used poetry, anger and alcohol to cope.
All this and more is covered in Frances McCue's new book, "The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo." McCue, founding director of Richard Hugo House, the Seattle center for writers and writing, is now a writer-in-residence at the University of Washington's honors college. This book completes her two-decade pursuit of Hugo and his work — it is an astute psychological portrait of Hugo and a superb reintroduction to his work. The "revisiting" part of the title is another matter.
McCue uses this format: she presents a poem or poems Hugo wrote, each focused on a town in Montana, Idaho or Washington. Then she writes an account of her visit to the same town, the history and background of the place and a meditation on how Hugo's poetry reflected it — or didn't.
At this point, I should say that I grew up in a small town, and here is what I know: small towns certainly shelter the small-minded and parochial. But people of great humanity, sympathy and intellect live in such places, too. They stay put because they need to know a few people very well (as opposed to city people, who know a great many people not so well).
Hugo did not stick around most of these towns long enough to discover what kind of people lived there. In the introduction McCue writes: "Often, his visits lasted little more than an afternoon, and his knowledge of the towns was confined to what he heard in bars and diners."
The towns inspired his poet's eye, but not so much his empathy. Sometimes the poem had little to do with the town. In Hugo's poem "Letter to Gildner from Wallace," the poet writes:
" .... I'll issue a curse out of my half-Irish past on the hyper/ respectable everywhere. May the bluebird of happiness/ give you a venereal disease so rare the only known cure/ is life in the tundra five hundred miles from a voter,/ the only known doctor, a mean polar bear./ May the eyes of starved whores burn through your TV screens as you watch Lawrence Welk."
This poem is about Hugo's scorn for the respectable, not about Wallace, Idaho.
Hugo did long to identify with the small-town miners, farmers and ranchers in these places, many a day's drive or less from Missoula. He wanted to triangulate their lives with his own blue-collar upbringing and the relative privilege he enjoyed as a University of Montana writing professor. Said Hugo's colleague and friend Bill Bevis: "His distance from the very audience he identified with sometimes pained Hugo, and his down-and-out poems are not always well received in the communities they so unprogressively describe."
McCue, a talented writer and an educated 21st-century woman, does some talking back to Hugo, calling him, for example, on his sexism: "... no woman can be entirely happy with Hugo's choices about the female images in his poems. Either on pedestals, chopped up in riverside shacks, or else the 'ghost in any field/of good crops,' women appear as victims• " But with a few exceptions, she doesn't include the people of towns like Wallace or Philipsburg, Montana in the conversation. On visiting a graveyard above Wallace, she writes: "Better than bars, better than grocery stores, graveyards are the places where you feel the thrum of heritage, of stories caught forever in a particular slant. Besides, I love the quiet and the lack of interference, an alternative to hours spent with a librarian or a barkeep, trying to learn about a place." In McCue's text and in Mary Randlett's somber photographs, the small-town streets are mostly empty.
Eventually McCue and Randlett visit a town Hugo liked in spite of himself: Fairfield, Mont., in the center of that state's wheat country. They talk with Gertrude Weishaar, a retired high-school teacher, about Hugo's poem "Fairfield": "Well, I think he must have had a very bad attitude," said Weishaar. "This poem doesn't even seem to be about our town. ... Now, if it were about Glasgow, Montana, I could understand it. That's a bad town." What a welcome outburst of plain-speaking. You go, Gertrude.
"The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs" revisits the power of Hugo's poetry — no one who has ever stood on a beach at our state's western end can fail to appreciate the way Hugo captures its end-of-the-world essence in "Road Ends at Tahola:"
One ship passes denting the horizon,/ creeping down the world. Whatever gave us pride/ (food en route to Rio) dies. The wake could be/ that wave we outrun laughing up the sand./ Night comes on with stars and years of dead fish/ lighting foam with phosphorus they left./ All day the boom was protest, sea against/ the moon. Mare nostro somewhere and no shame.
But the book is not what this small-town girl had hoped for; a true-life picture of the towns Richard Hugo dropped in on, wrote about and left (in that car that still runs). That task remains to a journalist, or a novelist — someone ready to plumb the mysteries of how the people in Richard Hugo's towns really live today.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.