Richard Hugo is not my favorite poet. He would not even rank in my top 50. But he’s written a poem that I carry around in my head like a stone in a jacket pocket. I reach for it when I need something familiar to wrap my fingers around; I might even be doing so while you and I are walking and talking, turning it over and over in my hand without your knowing. Sometimes I forget about it for entire seasons, but the right weather will always bring it back to me.
With Kathy in Wisdom
by Richard Hugo
I only dreamed that high cliff we were on
overlooking Wisdom and the Big Hole drain.
I dreamed us high enough to not see men,
dreamed old land behind us better left
and we were vagabond.
We went twice to Wisdom, not in dream.
Once in day, odd couple after Brooks,
and then at night, dark derelicts
obsessed with fake
false fronts for tourists and the empty church.
I dream the cliff again. Evening. Deep
beneath, Wisdom turning lights on. Neon flakes
are planets when we touch.
I wake up shouting, Wisdom’s not that much,
and sweating. Wisdom never will be bright.
Lord, we need sun. We need moon. Fern
and mercy. Form and dream destroyed.
Need the cliff torn down. To hold hands
and stare down the raw void of the day.
Be my contraband.
Three fat Eastern Brook a night, that’s
my private limit. The cliff broke
and wind pours in on Wisdom
leaving false fronts really what they seem.
Morning Wisdom, Kathy. It is no dream.
At the beginning of the poem, the couple is in dream, and elevated. They have perspective and are gloriously vagabond — but the dream of vagabondism, as we’ve learned from Holden Caulfield, from Dean Moriarty, is a romanticization of loss and always a whole lot better than the reality. The contrast between the dreamed cliff and the lived town is stark: down in the real Wisdom, they are quirky fishermen (Eastern Brooks are trout; I had to look that up the first time I read this) and “dark derelicts” — I have been these people, a pair of outsiders, glamorous in their own minds but unremarkable to others, opining about the architecture that others simply live in.
The pun on the town’s name gets unavoidable in the third stanza, but I love it. What a thing to wake up shouting. Wisdom, the concept, is one of the things it’s most difficult to denigrate. “Sadder but wiser,” we say of ourselves when we have experienced some hardship. Wisdom is the reward we impute to old people for their life of sorrows. To toss it aside, proclaim it a city of false fronts, is daring and desperate. I yell these lines sometimes, in my head, when I need to be reminded of the importance of folly.
The second-to-last stanza in particular is burned into my brain. It is a vision of apocalyptic love, of love that knows itself as apocalypse, as destruction and remaking. The cliff exists only in dream; to tear it down is to face the raw void and face it unafraid. When the cliff breaks and dreams are left behind, suddenly the “false fronts” become the true Wisdom. It was only dreaming that made us think otherwise.
Henry Thoreau wrote, “Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.” I don’t remember where or in what context; that line is another of the stones in my pocket. Presumably he meant something along the lines of, “we live most authentically when we are living our dreams instead of continually putting them off to the future.” What I like about this Hugo poem is that it shatters this platitude — what on earth would it mean to live our dreams? Dreams get broken in the living; they are full of impossibilities. No, our truest life is when we are awake. And our truest love is the one who can stare down that void with us. This is not a popular position. Be my contraband.
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I was sitting in a coffee shop in the East Village with one of my oldest friends, when I suddenly realized that New Year’s was my favorite holiday. For most of my life I have considered Halloween my favorite holiday; this is because I love costume and carnival and celebration. New Year’s doesn’t usually involve costume, but I realized while talking to my friend the simple truth that while many people do Halloween halfheartedly or not at all, almost everyone does something for New Year’s, and it’s often something outrageously decadent. What’s more, all this decadence is in the name of renewal, a celebration of the fact that we survived one year and now have a chance to start over again with another.
New Year’s resolutions are a tricky business. Many people, including myself, aim too high and wind up angry at ourselves by February. But this year, I have found a source of inspiration. On New Year’s Day, frazzled and recovering from the previous night’s carousing, I picked up a copy of the December 10th New York Times Magazine that was lying on the floor of my parents’ living room. It was the 6th annual Year in Ideas issue; therein I found an article on “reverse graffiti.” British artist Paul Curtis selectively cleans the dirt and soot from surfaces such as subway walls so that the original surface stands out to form words and images. The city council in Leeds has accused him of vandalism, which is pretty interesting, since all he’s doing is cleaning. From the NY Times:
“Once you do this,” he says, “you make people confront whether or not they like cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression.”
What I resolve to do this year, then, is not to try to clean all the grime off the subway walls of my life. Rather, I should tackle smaller projects. I should clean up what I can, and and accept the grime I can’t remove as the background against which my cleaned bits will sparkle. I should make of my life a message, a picture, something to make other people smile.
The new year is an arbitrary break, to be sure — but on the streets of New York, people howl and sing about it. All night long, when you pass people on the street, they will smile and call out to you and wish you well. This is surely significant. Happy New Year.