"Dick Hugo was a presence. His booming laugh, his outrageous Falstaffian vitality engendered in poems a tender toughness 'as bear-blunt and shufflingly endearing' as the man. (Trout, p. 289) He was master of a strong, affirmative style, a compassionate voice that had to be heard. He never played around. He was never interested in the perfect image poem, the little jewel of virtuosity that no one needs. [He did not] pressure us with the poet’s poetics so much as with his need to make us believe. 'Please hear me,' these poems say, not 'Be amazed.'
"Because of that booming voice, that resilient energy, humor and heart, Hugo’s poetry is essentially positive, and American. … He speaks of the past in order to come to the present, of despair in order to come to hope, of dispossession in order to come home."
From HUGO: R E M E M B E R I N G
By William W. Bevis, in CutBank 20: A Celebration of Dick Hugo
Welcome to the fourth piece in CutBank's series of letter-poems from George Kalamaras. George shares with us letters to poets he knows or has known personally, or, perhaps as intimately, knows primarily through their work. Enjoy.
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Letter to Hugo from Nowhere
by George Kalamaras
It was the animal testicle you ate
that spring when the herds swayed down from Glacier.
It brought you something low-slung through bunchgrass.
First, the snows thawed like a man without a drink,
all night with no ride and only the sweats.
Then inside storms found rain could never heal.
I want to say it right, even if I might
miss your grave with an occasional twelve-beat line.
Form equals content. We want order. We crave.
Trains couple on the track. We’re frayed, already
stuck in our words like dogs swollen
into each other. They know no other
way. They whine. Howl. They’re nowhere
and so am I, mending snow-fence against weight.
Something is always wet and drift. That part
of me frozen in the hunched shoulder.
I thought my life would be a shame. Thoreau.
Emerson. Times with books I want to die. We
were kids together, Dick, you and I. Decades
and now death separate us. I’m sorry.
You never meant to hurt. You hurt me
with your poems, even where they healed. How could
anyone with such pain refuse death in the face?
We need a name, strong and belligerent,
fleeing north with the war party like Rain-in-the-Face.
They say he got the name when in a fight
in his youth his cheeks were streaked with Cheyenne
blood. We need a word against the massacre
of our mouths, a gone-wrong to stand our strength
against sorrows of the entire whirl
whipping us from Wilsall to Clyde Park and all
the way to Ringling. This is no circus.
We speak hoops of fire the tigers take.
Roar and pace, and somehow we leap through.
Our words, serious as strife and girth.
The lives we’ve died to get here are real. Ask
Emerson who read the Upanishads.
Ask Thoreau how many lives it takes just to
become human. And still he stroked a locust
as if honey tippled inside the leaves.
We might forget the bees until the stinging
comes. Sometimes in orgasm. Sometimes
in death. We tremble and sweat and shake
we never met. We’ll one day meet, I swear,
even if I write a poem as if you spoke
from absolutely nowhere, as if I bought
your life back with stalks of cheat grass. A poem
about something’s nothing, though that nothing
is never absolute. The ten-beat line
might give it shape, drive, and not from the beating
hands of grandparents angry with guttural rain.
When will you be reborn? Where? Will your mother
keep you this time, even if unwed? How
can I find? You are nowhere and still
steering your Buick from frown to frown,
whipping the wheel from Missoula through wide
river valleys to Choteau, Montana.
Even here in Colorado, you carve
me down from the ranches of Livermore
to Fort Collins where I first read your words
from Kicking Horse as I sat at Horsetooth
Reservoir and imagined I was you.
It was the animal. You ate the way
it bled from the neck. You ate the way
it fled from people pushing from behind.
Angry spurs and angry ways, a Philco
in west Seattle toward which you had to strain
to hear jazz when grandparents went to bed
at eight. A later ache in Deer Lodge or Butte
when you tuned your car to weather, static
pop and snap in the vast in-between. First
the snows, then the thaw, then sheets and sheets
of impossible mountain rain. Sink, now,
into sound ground, Dick.
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is a former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
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About Richard Hugo:
Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, “Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg," he opens with the lines “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”
George Kalamaras recommends "Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg" as a Hugo classic on the must-read (and must see) list. Enjoy the video, and follow along at PoetryFoundation.org.
Also, the poems "Hot Springs," and "Bear Paw," both of which can be found at http://adilegian.com/hugo.htm, transcriptions and website courtesy of James Howell.
Enjoy audio of Hugo reading each of these poems:
Directed by Montana author/filmmaker Annick Smith, the film traces Hugo's life from his grim childhood, through his experiences as a bombardier in World War II, to his creative writing professorship at the University of Montana.
"Being in love with your own responses to things. That must be it."
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by Michael Moore
The Missoulian, May 3, 2010
The town is never really the point of Hugo's work, but it's never really beside the point, either. In terms of place, the poems are both true and imagined. Paired with Hugo's sad imagery and dense rhythms, that liberation from the truth made a poetry that re-envisioned the West.
* * *
by Alice Bolin
The Paris Review, May 14, 2012
Hugo’s poems famously concern places. He is known primarily as a regional poet, and many of his most famous poems are named for Montana towns or landmarks, like “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” “The Milltown Union Bar,” and “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” One can use his book of collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, as a guidebook to Montana’s bleakest and loveliest destinations; titles of his poems will lead you to Garnet ghost town, St. Ignatius, Turtle Lake, Wisdom, and Fort Benton, finally winding back to what was once Hugo’s actual address in Missoula, 2433 Agnes Street. When Hugo wrote a poem about a place, he made the place a part of himself, and now that he’s gone, a part of him remains in those places.
* * *
“Believe you and I sing tiny and wise
and could if we had to eat stone and go on.”
Richard Hugo, “Glen Uig”
* * *
Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Read George Kalamaras's previous letters to John Haines here, to Dan Gerber here, and to Li Ch'ing-chao here. And this isn't George's first message for Dick Hugo, here at CutBank. Read his poems from 2014: "Letter to Hugo from Cowdry," and "What Thou Lovest Well. Letter to Hugo from Big Timber."
Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us through your own.