Morning Wisdom

January 23, 2007 at 5:29 pm | Posted in love, poetry | 3 Comments

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.


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  1. This was a complicated poem, a complicated post, uncomplicatedly! It took me any number of readings.

    If I understand the poem aright, it is about the moment of decision that lies between the dream and the possibilities of real life. That moment lies between real love and the hollow perfection of the romantic film, or between On The Road and the social leprosy of real naive enthusiasms equal to Kerouac’s.

    I don’t think dreams ever get “broken” for being too grand or sacred; they either get abandoned, or shattered in the attempt to realize them. Dreams inspire us, but the consequences of that inspiration are unpredictable.

    There is a safe economy of dreams, and a safe economy of custom in the real world. Be my contraband means make the switch. Instead of being an escapist — be illegal.

  2. A lot of people will talk about books, literature, or poems, and the last thing I’d want to do is read them (because I feel they have somehow… contaminated them with their reading. Silly, no?) But I love the way you talk about books and poems. Your reading is always very personal, yet you hand us the written object, as though it were a precious object for us to discover. It makes me want to read them all. Thanks. 🙂

  3. JK: I agree with you about the inspirational potential of dreams. One of the greatest things about poetry is that interpretation is often a matter of both/and rather than either/or. The third stanza is quite powerful, and is not entirely undone by the following two. What I see the last two stanzas doing, however, is arguing for the importance of attention to the here and now. It’s too easy to let our hopes be hopes; let’s make plans and start dealing with the messy realities. I didn’t mean it to be quite as pessimistic as it may have come out in this post; I see this, rather, as an inspirational message.

    SW: Thanks so much for your kind words. I wanted very much to explain what this poem means to me, but I was worried that I might be murdering to dissect. It’s great to hear that’s not the case!

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