Monday, May 23, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Richard Hugo

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir

Not my hands but green across you now.
Green tons hold you down, and ten bass curve
teasing in your hair. Summer slime
will pile deep on your breast. Four months of ice
will keep you firm. I hope each spring
to find you tangled in those pads
pulled not quite loose by the spillway pour,
stars in dead reflection off your teeth.

Lie there lily still. The spillway’s closed.
Two feet down most lakes are common gray.
This lake is dark from the black blue Mission range
climbing sky like music dying Indians once wailed.
On ocean beaches, mystery fish
are offered to the moon. Your jaws go blue.
Your hands start waving every wind.
Wave to the ocean where we crushed a mile of foam.

We still love there in thundering foam
and love. Whales fall in love with gulls
and tide reclaims the Dolly skeletons
gone with a blast of aching horns to China.
Landlocked in Montana here
the end is limited by light, the final note
will trail off at the farthest point we see,
already faded, lover, where you bloat.

All girls should be nicer. Arrows rain
above us in the Indian wind. My future
should be full of windy gems, my past
will stop this roaring in my dreams.
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. But the arrows sing:
no way to float her up. The dead sink
from dead weight. The Mission range
turns this water black late afternoons.

One boy slapped the other. Hard.
The slapped boy talked until his dignity
dissolved, screamed a single ‘stop’
and went down sobbing in the company pond.
I swam for him all night. My only suit
got wet and factory hands went home.
No one cared the coward disappeared.
Morning then: cold music I had never heard.

Loners like work best on second shift.
No one liked our product and the factory closed.
Off south, the bison multiply so fast
a slaughter’s mandatory every spring
and every spring the creeks get fat
and Kicking Horse fills up. My hope is vague.
The far blur of your bones in May
may be nourished by the snow.

The spillway’s open and you spill out
into weather, lover down the bright canal
and mother, irrigating crops
dead Indians forgot to plant.
I’m sailing west with arrows to dissolving foam
where waves strand naked Dollys.
Their eyes are white as oriental mountains
and their tongues are teasing oil from whales.

--Richard Hugo


In 1980, I had the good fortune to take a week-long seminar with Richard Hugo in Seattle. Hugo, then an English Professor at the University of Montana, was a born and raised in Seattle. He was one of the first contemporary poets I read -- in high school -- and remains today one of my favorites. He was a big man -- think football player size -- yet the tenderness with which he wrote and taught was breathtaking. One young woman in the class repeatedly brought self-disparaging poems to share. After several days of this, Hugo, in front of everyone, very gently told her that she needn't do this to herself. He essentially gave her a poet's version of a pep talk, with the utmost respect and selfless love. I think every one of us was moved and astonished.

He died in 1982 of leukemia, at the age of fifty-eight. Read more here.

(I don't know where the classroom scene in the beginning of this short film takes place, but U. of Montana is the logical answer.)


  1. Thank you so much for turning me on to Richard Hugo. I had never heard of him and am excited to read more. I noticed that you have Mark Doty's blog on your roll -- he is one of my favorite writers. His memoir "Heaven's Coast" is perhaps the most formative memoir I've read as far as my own writing goes --

  2. FANTASTIC!!! Thank you so much T - a wonderful offering. Much to think about... and try perhaps... Mary xx

  3. The video really helped me understand the poem!

    I don't know much of Hugo, but the name. How cool you took a class with him -- is teaching style is wonderful. I'll read more, thanks to you, T.

  4. A feast of Hugo, what a start to the morning. I loved seeing him speak to the class, hearing in his voice the route he travels to his work, learning the story behind "...Kicking Horse Reservoir." I also watched the video "The Car That Brought You Here" about his places and his poems. Thank you, T. It makes me happy to know that you studied with him. xo

  5. Amazing choice, T: very powerful.