Why Richard Hugo? Maddy asks

Scene: Our Kitchen. Takes place on the day my new book, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, arrives.

Who: My daughter Maddy, age fourteen, and me.

Maddy: Hey Mom, why did you spend all those years following Richard Hugo?

Frances: Well, first it was the poems. I loved the poems. The way you love Manga.

Maddy: Maybe not as much as I love Manga. Richard Hugo didn’t come with drawings.

Frances: Okay, so you know how you started to collect certain artists, ones whose books you liked?

Maddy: Yup.

Frances: For me it started with the poems. They were refreshing, these new kinds of poems. Kind of like how you see that Manga is way more interesting than the old Marvel comics.  Hugo wrote about people and landscapes that most people didn’t consider “poetic.” Like drunks passed out in yards or the “slow, sick” Duwamish River, “Midwestern in the heat.” It started there. The poems had the bumps and turns of the landscapes he described. Hugo moved words around until he got that effect. So pretty soon I thought, “Who is this guy who made these cool poems?”

Maddy: I’m surprised that Rumiko Takahashi {the artist who created Inuyasha and other series} is this older, kind of boring looking lady. Hugo is this fat, bald guy.

Frances: I think that interests me a lot. I mean what if Rumiko and Hugo were hip, like hipper than us?

Maddy: You sound like the Gilmore Girls, Mom.

Frances: Seriously, Hugo wasn’t like us. He was bald and fat. He drank too much and it almost wrecked his life. He went fishing with bait and sat in his lawn chair. He came from White Center and spent years as a bombardier in the Second World War. I mean how unlikely is that for a guy who becomes an outstanding poet in contemporary American Literature?

Maddy: But you kept going. You went to all these places that you wrote about. You met his family. I mean, by now, you are practically his family.

Frances: Maybe I went a little far.

Maddy: Duh.

Frances: But here’s something. Yeats’ poems could only have been written by Yeats. He had a peculiar mind and he rolled it over some subject matter that is common to human experience: pining for an unrequited love, recovering from war, fighting old age. But here was this guy who didn’t get to marry Maude Gonne and instead married a woman named George, a guy who had monkey gonads implanted within himself, a man who was generally peevish but became a senator… Well, Yeats could only have been Yeats. Unlikely, brilliant, and filled with language.

Maddy: So Hugo could only be Hugo and that makes him interesting.

Frances:  Yeah.. The guy from a little cabin in White Center, the guy who grew up under the thumbs of his strict grandparents, the guy who flew 35 missions, the guy who studied poetry on the GI Bill ( I mean who does that?), that guy. The guy who wrote a mystery novel, a book about writing and community, an autobiography and all those delicious poems. Him.


Where Richard Hugo Starts and Ends

Less than a month from now, my new book will be in my hands. That’s a feeling of limbo, for sure. You anticipate this big thing coming at you, how the novelty of it, the heft in your palm, will change things. Since this is my first book in almost 18 years, I will be startled to see my name on the cover. I will be surprised to hold it.

But, honestly, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs is a sad thing for me.

The book traces my journeys to small towns in Washington, Idaho and Montana. I went to these places, first on a whim, to see the region where I’d chosen to live. Accompanied by Hugo’s poems, I found the rivers where he’d fished. I was pulled into their names—Skykomish, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Snoqualmie—and then into their waters. I put my finger to the map and traced Rock Creek, the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork. On one end of my travels, rivers led to the sea. On the other, they led to the Columbia, and then to the sea.

There were towns, too. Places like Wisdom and Philipsburg, Tahola and La Push. I pulled up barstools; I ordered sandwiches. I met Hugo’s friends and family. I ate at Ripley Hugo’s purple picnic table. I sat in Lois and Jim Welch’s cozy, wonderful living room. I slept in the meadow in front of Annick Smith’s log home.

But, the reason why the book is sad is not because of the rivers and towns. The book itself, as a narrative, is not sad. I travel with Gary, my sweet husband, and Maddy, my daughter, to many of these places and we discover them together. Gary and Maddy are in the book and the journey is one of mapping poems onto places, and then people onto poems, and then us, our little trio, mapping our own place in the world.

When the book was in production at the press, Gary died.

We were living in Morocco. One afternoon, he fell while he was playing basketball. Hit his head. And then, for Maddy and me, our worlds came apart. “Say your life broke down,” Hugo says. And it did.

And now, the book is coming out. And it reads just as it did when I wrote it. Before all this.