RICHARD HUGO V. TESS GALLAGHER

This is Dick. He writes poems.

Richard Hugo published letter poems in the 70s, which for the time seemed pretty clever, another victory in the war against formalism by workers who wanted to be free; the poem as a letter, just a regular letter, why not?

You can tell when a poet is writing a letter, can’t you?

Like most 20th century experiments, this paraded around arrogantly for a while, and, when no one paid any attention, sat down, red-faced, in disgrace, one more chapter in the great 20th century poetry collapse.

So here’s the APR anthologist Hugo poem:

Letter to Blessing From Missoula

Dear Dick: You know all that pissing and moaning around I’ve
been doing, feeling unloved, certain I was washed up with
romance for good. That has come to an orgiastic halt.
From nowhere came this great woman. I wasn’t looking
even when she was suddenly bang in my life. I mean
bang in all the best ways. Bang. Bang. Richard Blessing. And years
of loneliness faded into some silly past where I
stared moodily out my windows at the grammar school girls
passing each morning and fantasized being young again
but with circumstances better than the first time and with
an even newer than new morality current. To
say nothing of saying to myself over and over
“I am retired from romance. I am a failure at love.
Women don’t like me. Lecherous, treacherous, kindless klutz.
Oh, that this too too flabby flesh should grow solid. Do not
go gentle into that defeat. Let us go then, you and I
into the deserts of vast eternity.” As you can no doubt
see, things became warped, including my memory of how
certain lines go, and all for the wisest of causes:
self-pity. Do not depend on others for sympathy.
When you need sympathy, you’ll find it only in yourself.
Now, I need none but I still defend self-pity. I still
say, if this woman hurts me I’ll crawl back to my cave.
The snow doesn’t get me down. The solid gray overcast
doesn’t make me moody. I don’t get irritated by
cold clerks in the markets, or barbers who take too long
trimming my hair. This woman is statuesque and soft
and she loves me; meaning she is at my mercy. Have you
noticed when women love us how vulnerable they are?
How they almost challenge us to test them, to be bastards,
to see how much outrageous shit we can fling their way?
Maybe, that’s why we’ve been ripping them off for centuries,
I don’t blame them for bitching, turning to movements, fem lib
or whatever they call it. This time, I’m not saying prove it,
prove your love by not objecting as I steal your money,
set fire to your hair and break your toes with the boots
I took off a dead German soldier at Tobruk. I am
simply going to prove I’m worthy of her love and I feel
I am, which must mean I love her. Boy, am I becoming
tender, and am I ever certain she will not hurt me.
I’ll give her no cause. I accept maybe for the first time
love and I luxuriate in it, a glutton, a trout
who had a hard time finding the spawning ground, who swam time
after time the wrong river and turned back discouraged
to the sea, though at moments the sea was fun. Those sex crazed
sharks and those undulating anemones, can’t beat them
when you’ve had a few drinks though you wake up diseased and raw,
your gills aching and your fins stiff with remorse. That’s enough
metaphor. This morning I feel as masculine as you,
and I regard you as the C.C.Rider of poetry,
criticism and trout. This woman will curve from now on
lovely in poems and streams. Look for her in the quarterlies
and pools. I mean real pools, the ones you come to
with Lisa when you take her on picnics. And take Lisa
on picnics. Give her and her cooking my love. Your friend, Dick.

–Richard Hugo

Tess Gallagher’s poem, like Dick Hugo’s, is about affection, vulnerability, embarrassment, late 20th century luxuries in America when the greatest country on earth could afford to indulge in such luxuries, Aquarius dawning and all that—well, not living them, but self-consciously indulging in them from time to time.

These poems are period pieces and they are embarrassing, like some of the songs which became big hits in the 70s, such as “Muskrat Love.”  

Gallagher’s poem feels as if we took a Victorian platitude and fleshed it out to see what it would look like. The rigid Victorian-poet speech is gone, but something almost worse is in its place, the sentimental residing not in the speech but in the simple actions the plain speech depicts.

MARLA MUSE: The Hugo poem depicts nothing; we don’t see one detail of him or how he lives his life, we don’t see his “woman” at all; it’s just a mass of cliched phrases. It’s ghastly.

So you think Gallagher will beat him easily?

MARLA MUSE: Yes.

Let’s see:

The Hug

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
with our arms around each other.
The poem is being read and listened to
out here in the open. Behind us
no one is entering or leaving houses.

Suddenly, a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is — that I’m yours, only
yours, exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love — that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem, or the houses—
what about them? the houses. 

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet on my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

–Tess Gallagher

You’re right, Marla, Tess Gallagher does win, 88-69.

2 Comments

  1. Poem support said,

    March 27, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Letter to Blessing From Missoula

    Dear Dick: You know all that pissing and moaning around I’ve
    been doing, feeling unloved, certain I was washed up with
    romance for good. That has come to an orgiastic halt.
    From nowhere came this great woman. I wasn’t looking
    even when she was suddenly bang in my life. I mean
    bang in all the best ways. Bang. Bang. Richard Blessing. And years
    of loneliness faded into some silly past where I
    stared moodily out my windows at the grammar school girls
    passing each morning and fantasized being young again
    but with circumstances better than the first time and with
    an even newer than new morality current. To
    say nothing of saying to myself over and over
    “I am retired from romance. I am a failure at love.
    Women don’t like me. Lecherous, treacherous, kindless klutz.
    Oh, that this too too flabby flesh should grow solid. Do not
    go gentle into that defeat. Let us go then, you and I
    into the deserts of vast eternity.” As you can no doubt
    see, things became warped, including my memory of how
    certain lines go, and all for the wisest of causes:
    self-pity. Do not depend on others for sympathy.
    When you need sympathy, you’ll find it only in yourself.
    Now, I need none but I still defend self-pity. I still
    say, if this woman hurts me I’ll crawl back to my cave.
    The snow doesn’t get me down. The solid gray overcast
    doesn’t make me moody. I don’t get irritated by
    cold clerks in the markets, or barbers who take too long
    trimming my hair. This woman is statuesque and soft
    and she loves me; meaning she is at my mercy. Have you
    noticed when women love us how vulnerable they are?
    How they almost challenge us to test them, to be bastards,
    to see how much outrageous shit we can fling their way?
    Maybe, that’s why we’ve been ripping them off for centuries,
    I don’t blame them for bitching, turning to movements, fem lib
    or whatever they call it. This time, I’m not saying, prove it,
    prove your love by not objecting as I steal your money,
    set fire to your hair and break your toes with the boots
    I took off a dead German soldier at Tobruk. I am
    simply going to prove I’m worthy of her love and I feel
    I am, which must mean I love her. Boy, am I becoming
    tender, and am I ever certain she will not hurt me.
    I’ll give her no cause. I accept maybe for the first time
    love and I luxuriate in it, a glutton, a trout
    who had a hard time finding the spawning ground, who swam time
    after time the wrong river and turned back discouraged
    to the sea, though at moments the sea was fun. Those sex crazed
    sharks and those undulating anemones, can’t beat them
    when you’ve had a few drinks though you wake up diseased and raw,
    your gills aching and your fins stiff with remorse. That’s enough
    metaphor. This morning I feel as masculine as you,
    and I regard you as the C.C. Rider of poetry,
    criticism and trout. This woman will curve from now on
    lovely in poems and streams. Look for her in the quarterlies
    and pools. I mean real pools, the ones you come to
    with Lisa when you take her on picnics. And take Lisa
    on picnics. Give her and her cooking my love. Your friend, Dick.

    Richard Hugo

  2. Noochness said,

    March 27, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    What do I know?
    I drive a Yugo
    Equivalent—
    But I say hands-down Hugo.

    He shows a man,
    Despite his quirks,
    Determined to no longer
    Be numbered among the jerks.

    Hugs alone can’t break through
    The hard armor of a heart,
    If it hasn’t yet made the changes
    That Hugo here tries to start.


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