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
Review by George Kalamaras
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 3)
The poems of Richard Hugo have long been one of my guilty pleasures. Some of his poems sound similar and carry a macho tone; one even wonders where the line of appropriation lies, as he chronicles the lives of the small-town poor. Still, having lived in the West and fallen under the spell of his tour through rural Montana, I admire Hugo’s humane rendering of the downtrodden. He accomplishes this not through privilege but in speaking as one of the desolate himself, rising enough to sing his own despair while maintaining his working-class roots and struggle for voice. His strength lies within his willingness to reveal his vulnerability amidst the clash between a madly progressing capitalism and the broken lives it leaves in its wake.
As a university professor, Hugo was among the privileged, but his working-class origins and orphaning (his unwed mother left him shortly after birth to be raised by her parents) complicate his privilege, indelibly branding him as “other.” In “Letter to Logan from Milltown,” Hugo chides both the upper crust and himself as he inhabits the new role of “professor,” preferring to live in working-class Milltown outside Missoula, where he haunts the local bar:
“I’ll fall sobbing to the floor. God, the ghosts in there.
The poems. Those honest people from the woods
What a relief that was from school, from that smelly
student-teacher crap and those dreary committees
where people actually say “considering the lateness
of the hour.”
In The Car That Brought You Here Stills Runs, Frances McCue, a longtime admirer of Hugo, teams with photographer Mary Randlett, offering penetrating portraits of Hugo’s verse. As it explores — even bolsters —his mystique as the poet of the modern American West, it simultaneously critiques that romanticized vision. Its brilliant strategy is to complicate genre. Part travelogue (McCue never met Hugo but visits many towns he writes about), history (both of Hugo and of the towns his poems inhabit), poetry (the book includes a generous sampling of his verse), and historical criticism (McCue reads Hugo through the texts and the texts through his life), The Car That Brought You Here is as much a history of the modern West as it is an exploration of Hugo and his poems.
The photographs themselves are enough to recommend this gorgeously produced book. Often stark, these black and white portraits of places Hugo’s poems memorialize illuminate skeletal glimmerings of towns stripped by mining and its hazardous tailings (“Cataldo Mission”), bars Hugo frequented that have fallen into disrepair (“The Only Bar in Dixon” and “The Milltown Union Bar,” just to name two), and even the kitsch Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace, Idaho, on the western border of Montana, where houses of prostitution like the Lux, the U and I, and the Sahara flourished in public view into the 1970s, the Oasis until 1988 (“Letter to Gildner from Wallace”). Towns like Wallace epitomize the collision of the modern and contemporary West — even until 1991, traffic in Wallace halted where the last stoplight on Interstate 90 passed through downtown; the interstate’s rerouting above the district left the town intact but shifted its economic focus from a vital transport point of supplies to one of quaint tourism.
McCue’s pilgrimage through the towns that populate Hugo’s poems triadicizes her personal reflection and Randlett’s keen eye for photojournalism with Hugo’s poems. With three discourses at play, one might expect a dissonance similar to that of the clash of the modern and contemporary West. Instead, McCue’s chapters subvert expectations. On the one hand, a recognizable pattern emerges: first, there’s a handful of Hugo’s poems about a particular locale; then McCue discusses particular towns in relation to Hugo’s poems; finally, embedded within her discussion are Randlett’s photos. At the same time, McCue keeps the reader off balance with shifting tones and ever-deepening critiques. This pattern is perhaps not unlike Hugo’s poetry itself, richly rhetorical in its metrics and structure, yet unexpected in its jarring imagery and syntax, with disclosures of the speaker’s strengths and nuances of despair.
The chapters progressively unfold penetrating yet generous critiques of Hugo, probing his problematic nature within the context of “place.” The book’s initial chapter, “White Center, Riverside, and the Duwamish,” maps Hugo’s origins in Washington State and the importance of place in his early life and mature vision. By chapter three, “Wallace, Idaho,” McCue’s discussion gains complexity, in light of Hugo’s “maleness” and romantic notion of the then prevalent “whorehouses” in Wallace. This is the first moment where we encounter McCue’s unease with the mentor she never met.
The following chapter, “Dixon and St. Ignatius, Montana,” is perhaps the most poignant. It explores the fabled bar in Dixon where Hugo and his students Jim Welch and J. D. Reed drank one afternoon on a fishing outing, agreed to write poems about the establishment (all titled “The Only Bar in Dixon”), published them together in the New Yorker, and infuriated the husband and wife who owned the bar with what the pair considered elitism, as they expressed in a letter to the Missoulian — an elitism both in what counts as poetry and what constitutes the “truth” of the details of the afternoon. McCue visits the owner’s son who recalls decades later what he witnessed as a young boy. Leaning on a racial slur (“the Dirty Foot,” referring to Jim Welch, who was Blackfoot), he then calls the trio elite “assholes.” The exchange of letters to the editor reveals a further complexity in Hugo, whose discourse and tone belies the fact that he’s writing the letters not to communicate with the infuriated bar owners (the social class with whom he most identified) but to impress a literary readership (the poetry “elite” to which he aspired, yet felt apart from).
“Walkerville, Montana / Butte, America,” chapter five, expands this complexity into issues of both class and gender, with a meditation on Hugo’s “Letter to Levertov from Butte.” Here, Hugo’s subtle competition with what he perceives as Denise Levertov’s gentility emerges (“You’re in Moscow, / Montreal. Whatever place I hear, it’s always one of glamour. / I’m not anywhere glamorous. I’m in a town where children / get hurt early”). McCue also perceptively notes tones of sexism:
Hugo pushes away from her, turning instead to her husband when he describes the hardships of Butte: “Mitch might understand. It’s kind / of a microscopic Brooklyn, if you can imagine Brooklyn / with open pit mines, and more Irish than Jewish.” The subtext here might read, “You wouldn’t understand this kind of poverty, but the man in your life would.”
Rather than adopt the tone of literary theorist, McCue imbues her musings with related elements — at times conversational, including anecdotes from her life, and at other times historical, even folksy when she recalls conversations she shares with locals, which add color and make these desolate places come alive.
What she accomplishes is nothing short of astonishing. Hugo — through McCue’s admiration yet demythologizing — ironically becomes more approachable and less of the archetypal Western poet. The West, too, comes alive — the real West, with its mine tailings of former glory pouring rich minerals yet toxicity into shattered small-town life, a phenomenon that argues that the politics of place remain consistently brutal, particularly if that locale is exploited. Hugo’s poems reemerge as current, even relevant to regions outside the West, especially in an era of political shell games, in which government and corporate interests shamelessly collude, almost emboldened with the recent financial crisis.
“The car that brought you here”—a pivotal line from arguably Hugo’s most important poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” — does, indeed, “still run.” McCue drives it, pulls over, and invites us to climb in, allowing us to journey through the towns of Hugo’s poems into a past that is still very much with us.