In Frances McCue's newest book, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, the poet and founding director of the Seattle-based Richard Hugo House goes on a road trip. Part travelogue and part literary discussion, this engaging and meditative book, which takes its title from Hugo's poem "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" (Hugo's and McCue's favorite of his poems), rediscovers the Northwest towns Hugo captured in poems over the course of his 30-year career.
When she gets to Dixon, Mont., McCue—along with Mary Randlett, the acclaimed photographer whose stunning black-and-white photographs illustrate the book—finds the bar Hugo immortalized in his poem, "The Only Bar in Dixon."
At some point in 1970, Hugo, Jim Welch and J.D. Reed (the latter two, 20 years younger than Hugo, had once been Hugo's students) walked into the Dixon Bar and, over the course of the evening, they each decided to write a poem about it titled, "The Only Bar in Dixon." All three poets sent their version to the New Yorker and, to their apparent surprise, the New Yorker published all three versions in the same issue on October 10, 1970. The town of Dixon, however, wasn't flattered.
The proprietor, a redheaded woman named Joanne Schmauch (she took particular umbrage at Welch's line: "You can have the redheaded bartender for a word..."), wrote an inflamed letter to the Missoulian, claiming that she and the mayor of Dixon were writing a poem called "An Ode to Five-Bourbon Hugo." Hugo was not shamed. In a response, he sharply retorted that "Joanne Schmauch finds my poems unflattering to Dixon but my poems are not about Dixon. For Schmauch's edification, poems are works of imagination and are not intended to be factual accounts...If I wanted to write about Dixon, I would write an article." The words were a precursor to Hugo's now-famous essay "The Triggering Town," where he wrote that "an imagined town is at least as real as an actual town. If it isn't, you may be in the wrong business."
Hugo, however, didn't write about imaginary towns—he wrote about real ones: Dixon, Milltown, Philipsburg, Pony and a scattering of others throughout Washington, Idaho and, of course, Montana. The difference, perhaps, is that for Hugo characterizing a town had as much to do with the poet's sense of the place as it did with the actual reality of the place itself. Somewhere between the real and imagined town, lay the foundation of the poem. In the same essay, Hugo advised his students to "take someone you emotionally trust, a friend or a lover, to a town you like the looks of but know little about, and show your companion around the town in the poem."
In her own book (with chapters organized by town), McCue does just this in essay form. She takes the reader on a journey, giving us a tour of the towns about which Hugo wrote, but giving us her own take on it too. When she buys a pack of gum and a bag of chips at the 3 Bridges Deli in Cataldo, Idaho, the man at the counter asks her:
"Want a beer to go with that?"
"Too early," she replies, "But thanks."
More than a reflective journey, McCue's book is also a deeply engaging discussion, a rediscovery even, of a poet whose presence looms over the American West. McCue, who was 20 when Hugo died in 1982, drives the narrative forward (okay, pun intended) with the very basic tools of her own curiosity and sharp narrative instinct (with help from Randlett's photos, which make this book not only a good read, but a beautiful object to hold). Hers is an insightful discussion, and who can blame her?
McCue graduated from the same graduate program where Hugo had attained his degree some 40 years before. She'd go on to start a still-thriving writing center that bears Hugo's name. The poet she didn't know has influenced at least one pillar of her career immensely. Suitably, hers is an insightful and compulsively readable discussion, free of the tedious and limiting rhetoric inherent to so many book-length literary analyses.
When writing about "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," McCue points out that the reader is never quite totally alone in a Hugo poem, "but you feel as if you were standing in some foundation of a house blown down long ago, and you're looking around. And you could find yourself packing one bag and moving into a town where the degrees of gray feel somehow more alive than your regular life." The thought is a near echo of Hugo's closing remarks in "The Triggering Town" when he writes, "You found the town, now you must start the poem. If the poem turns out good, the town will have become your hometown no matter what name it carries."
No matter what names they carry, McCue has helped to make Hugo's imaginary hometowns her own—and ours too.