Richard Hugo – The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry with Us

In a large collection of poetry books I bought last year, there were 4 slim books that changed the way I read poetry, the way I write it. These were 4 volumes by Richard Hugo: White Center, What Thou Lovest Well Remains American, 31 letters and 13 Dreams, and The Lady in Kicking Horse Resevoir. The style, the grim tone, the bleak emotions, and the meticulous craft all combined to take the top of my head off. This poem in particular struck me deeply. It is a very personal poem from one man to another, Richard Hugo to his friend James Wright (who was dying at the time it was published). It is from one accomplished poet at the top of his game to another. It is quite gorgeous…

The Towns We Know and Leave Behind,
The Rivers We Carry with Us

for James Wright

I forget the names of towns without rivers.
A town needs a river to forgive the town.
Whatever river, whatever town –
it is much the same.
The cruel things I did I took to the river.
I begged the current: make me better.

Your town, your river, or mine –
it is much the same.
A murdering man lives on the land
in a shack the river birds hate.
He rubs the red shriek of night from his eyes.
He prays to water: don’t let me do that again.

Let’s name your river: Ohio.
Let’s name all rivers one in the blood,
red stream and debris in the blood.
Say George Doty had a wrong head.
Say the Ohio forgives what George did
and the river birds loved his shack.
Let’s name the birds: heron and sweat.
Let’s get away from the mud.

The river is there to forgive the town
and without a river a town abuses the sky.
The river is there to forgive what I did.
Let’s name my river: Duwamish.
And let’s admit
the river birds don’t hate my home.
That’s a recent development, really
like mercury in the cod.

Without a river a town abuses the air.
The river is there to forgive what I did.
The river birds hate what I did
until I name them.
Your river or mine –
It is much the same.
A murdering man lived on the bank.

Here’s the trick;
We had to stay drunk
to welcome the river
to live in a shack
to die on the bank
beneath the bigoted sky
under the river birds
day after day
to murder away
all water that might die.

A murdering man is dead on the bank
of your new river, The East,
on mine, The Clark Fork.
It is much the same.
Your river has gulls and tugs.
Mine has eagles and sky.
I rub last night from my eyes.
I ask bright water what’s happened.

The river, I am not sure which one,
Says water has no special power.
What should I do?
Or you?

Now water has no need to forgive
what shall become of murder?
How shall we live
when we killed, when we died by the word?

Whatever the name of the river,
we both had two women to love,
one to love us enough we left behind
a town that abuses the day.
The other to love the river we brought with us,
the shack we lived and still live in,
the birds, the towns that return to us for names
and we give them names knowing the river
murders them away.

Richard Hugo

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5 Responses to “Richard Hugo – The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry with Us”

  1. Alison (blueraven95) Says:

    good morning!

    :hi:

  2. Cheers. Yet yet another marvelous blog post, this is why my partner and I come to the internet site often.

  3. I read an excerpt from this poem many years ago in Chris Offutt’s amazing memoir, “The Same River Twice” and it blew me away. Thanks for posting the entire poem. It’s awesome.

  4. http://musickschool.com/ Says:

    Have you ever considered publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other websites?
    I have a blog centered on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my audience would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

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