Wednesday, May 08, 2013

"Letter to Levertov from Butte" by Richard Hugo

There are a lot of poems that I love, and one of them is Richard Hugo's prose poem "Letter to Levertov from Butte."

I don't remember when I first read it.  Maybe in grad school, maybe earlier, but I know what it means to me.

It brings me back to the time when I was living in Chicago, after I graduated from college and really didn't have a much of a sense of what I wanted to do with my life.

I was working on the docks as a longshoreman.  I worked crazy hours, sometimes double shifts, sometimes triple shifts.  It was kind of pleasant early in the summer when I started, but as October started up, it got to be pretty hard out on Navy Pier, sticking out there into the cold and wind and ice of Lake Michigan.  A lot of the guys down on the docks kept warm by drinking.  At least that was their excuse, and it was one that I picked up and used.  Working we'd always be sneaking drinks from half pint bottles of Cutty Sark that came off the ships from Canada and found their way into our back pockets.

When you spend your days and evenings drinking like that, it's hard to stop when the night comes, and there were times when I'd spend a couple or three days going on nothing but drink.

That kind of living puts you in a dark mood.

Richard Hugo captures some of that better than anybody.  And he also captures the hope that keeps you going when things are hard like that.

Letter to Levertov from Butte

Dear Denise: Long way from, long time since Boulder. I hope
you and Mitch are doing OK. I get rumors. You're in Moscow,
Montreal. Whatever place I hear, it's always one of glamor.
I'm not anywhere glamorous. I'm in a town where children
get hurt early. Degraded by drab homes. Beaten by drunken
parents, by other children. Mitch might understand. It's kind
of a microscopic Brooklyn, if you can imagine Brooklyn
with open pit mines, and more Irish than Jewish. I've heard
from many of the students we had that summer. Even seen
a dozen or so since then. They remember the conference
fondly. So do I. 

Heard from Herb Gold twice and read now and then
about Isaac Bashevis Singer who seems an enduring diamond.
The mines here are not diamond. Nothing is. What endures
is sadness and long memories of labor wars in the early
part of the century. This is the town where you choose sides
to die on, company or man, and both are losers. Because
so many people died in mines and fights, early in history
man said screw it and the fun began. More bars and whores
per capita than any town in America. You live only
for today. Let me go symbolic for a minute: great birds
cross over you anyplace, here they grin and dive. Dashiell
Hammett based Red Harvest here though he called it Personville and "person" he made sure to tell us was "poison" in the slang.

I have ambiguous feelings coming from a place like this
and having clawed my way away, thanks to a few weak gifts
and psychiatry and the luck of living in a country
where enough money floats to the top for the shipwrecked
to hang on. On one hand, no matter what my salary is
or title, I remain a common laborer, stained by the perpetual
dust from loading flour or coal. I stay humble, inadequate
inside. And my way of knowing how people get hurt, make
my (damn this next word) heart go out through the stinking air
into the shacks of Walkerville, to the wife who has turned
forever to the wall, the husband sobbing at the kitchen
table and the unwashed children taking it in and in and in
until they are the wall, the table, even the dog the parents
kill each month when the money's gone.  

On the other hand, I know the cruelty of poverty, the embittering ways
love is denied, and food, the mean near-insanity of being
and being deprived, the trivial compensations of each day,
recapturing old years in broadcast tunes you try to recall
in bars, hunched over the beer you can't afford, or bending
to the bad job you're lucky enough to have. How, finally,
hate takes over, hippie, nigger, Indian, anyone you can lump
like garbage in a pit, including women. 
And I don't want
to be part of it. I want to be what I am, a writer good enough
to teach with you and Gold and Singer, even if only in
some conference leader's imagination. And I want my life
inside to go on long as I do, though I only populate bare
landscape with surrogate suffering, with lame men
crippled by more than disease, and create finally
a simple grief I can deal with, a pain the indigent can find
acceptable. I do go on. Forgive this raving. Give my best
to Mitch and keep plenty for yourself. Your rich friend, Dick.


To read more about Hugo and see some of his poems: click on the following: Poets Org or Poetry Foundation.

You can also hear him reading his poetry at the Library of Congress by clicking here.


Leonard Kress said...

Great post!!!

Mark said...

Thanks for sharing this John. This is a poem that is clawing its way off the page. Piercing at its time, and still resonant today I think.

Mark said...

Thanks for sharing this John. This is a poem that is clawing its way off the page. Piercing when it first appeared, no doubt it still resonates today.

Stephen Lewandowski said...

I remember hearing Hugo recite his poems at the University of Rochester in the late 70s. He shocked me, maybe us all, by not reading, but by reciting from memory. I was writing by then and thought, "Oh great, now I have to memorize my work." I did memorize a few things but the anxiety was too great and I gave it up, even though I knew from hearing Hugo that being free of the page was a wonderful thing. I had a lot of respect for the man's work as written and it grew having heard him speak it.

Geo-B said...

Longshoreman? Docks? Chicago? Where is this?

John Guzlowski said...

Navy pier in the 60s

John Guzlowski said...

Before it became Disneyland, George.