Poet Richard Hugo was a native of Seattle, or technically, White Center, an unincorporated neighborhood familiarly known as “Rat City.” White Center is a tough, rundown area of immigrants and low-cost housing, a place feared by many Seattleites as a lawless no-man’s-land of bars and gaming parlors prowled by gangs and prone to random gunfire. In Richard Hugo’s youth, the 1930s, it wasn’t much different–a hardscrabble place where the poor lived.
White Center permeates Hugo’s poetry. It haunts his memory; it shapes his language; it colors his moods. Even when he escaped–first into the Army Air Corps as a bombardier, then to the University of Washington under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke, and finally to Montana, where he taught poetry at the university–Rat City was always with him.
A friend of mine compares Hugo to Raymond Carver, another Northwest icon. She sees in his plain, hard and hopeless poems fueled by alcohol and persistent depression something akin to Carver’s minimalist stories. But where Carver reveals an occasional ray of hope, an unwarranted grace that might redeem, Hugo’s outlook is grim.
The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir is one of Hugo’s later books (1973). In one poem he describes a bar in Montana where ritual for the passed-out Indian is to be laid upon a table to sleep it off. In another he writes of coming across a map of Montana on an Italian bar’s wall, where patrons cheer at the violence of TV westerns. And in still another he describes a bar in Dixon, Montana, a dying town that is “Home. Home. I knew it entering.” Even touring in Europe, the great tradition of poetry cannot dim his darkness. In a graveyard in Somersby, England he sees the headstone of a child and writes:
Mercy Jesus Mercy
cries a stone
and Tennyson’s brook
Most of Hugo’s poems are narrative in style, vernacular and unadorned. His is not poetry you will recite lines from, but you will remember its emotional punch long after putting the book away. Though you might want to save reading it for a sunny day.