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The 'triggering towns' of local poet Richard Hugo

A native of Washington, Hugo was inspired by places around the state that many of us overlook, places he said 'triggered,' or inspired, his poetry. A beautiful new book, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, takes us to many of those places.

By Frances McCue

July 20, 2010.

Editor's note: Richard Hugo (1923-1982) was born in White Center and graduated from the University of Washington with a Master's degree in creative writing. He worked at Boeing as a technical writer, and his first collection of poems, A Run of Jacks, appeared in 1961. Having lived through a Pacific Northwest economic depression as severe as our current one, Hugo wrote about small-town factory closings and Main Streets emptying except for the bars, in a plain-spoken voice with hints of wonder at the ceaseless vigor of nature and the human imagination. Seattle’s Richard Hugo House was established in the poet’s honor.

Frances McCue, a Seattle writer and poet and founding director of Hugo House from 1996-2006, spent more than 13 years visiting Hugo's friends and family and the "triggering towns" that inspired his poems. She wrote 13 essays about those encounters. Her collection of essays, The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, is excerpted below with permission from University of Washington Press.

— JudyLightfoot


“White Center, Riverside, and the Duwamish”

Going back to these early places is a historical act, but more of an imaginary one. As Hugo often said, the poet’s job is to misremember things until they feel true. The brain is wired to allow the pastiche of actual facts to blur into something more meaningful, something that betters reality by making it feel more authentic. Magic resides in the places you barely know. Those are the ones you can make up.

That’s what Hugo did with the area around Riverside, the old neighborhood just south of the river’s mouth. The two miles of mills and barges were not in any town, they were just a tossed-aside part of Seattle. To him, the place must have felt exotic. It was on the east side of Delridge and Pigeon Hill, inclines that ran between the river and Youngstown, a rough-and-tumble neighborhood near the steel mill. Riverside, a few miles north of White Center, rested against the hill — three rows of frame houses stacked up against the slant that rises into the trees. Little roads, shedding crusts of pavement more and more each year, dead-end into those structures.

At one time, during Hugo’s boyhood, Riverside’s isolation from West Seattle made it into a village of its own, with a restaurant that sold hardware and lunch, and one hotel. In this little three-block strip, Greeks and Slavs — families with a knack for fishing and storytelling — lived in small cabins along the streetcar tracks. Others managed to haul boards up the hill and build frame houses. Otherwise, Riverside’s tiny section of houses had little to resemble a full-scale town — it was more a hamlet locked into the industrial world along the river. South of the designated poetry-generating area was White Center, a place with schools, churches, and stores.

When I drive into Riverside, I can see the outline of the old hotel — that western frame storefront once so prevalent in old western places — within a building now used for storage. Sixteenth Avenue Southwest and Seventeenth Avenue Southwest, streets that reappear a block or two from Hugo’s house down in White Center, converge in a triangle at the base of the hill. A few of the old buildings shadow the footprint of a town, but there’s no real commerce, not now — only broken-down yards with car and boat parts. West Marginal Way, the busy road that carries me under the West Seattle Bridge, carves the line between Riverside and the loading yards fenced in along the water. I turn into a side street because I catch a glimpse of two tiny and very old cottages standing at a forty-five-degree angle to the street. They remind me of places Hugo wrote about; both would be quaint if they were in good repair. Instead, the porches would fall under the weight of a small child, and the shingles are drying into powder. Resembling the cottages that suffered through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they have entrances several feet above ground level, with little rickety steps. The tiny yards hold old boat parts. I wonder what the residents are like — the folks who have kept the original flavor of Riverside intact. No one is visible.

The wisp of a town gone by reverberates with possibilities for poems. The cottages are structures Hugo would have written about. I hear a whoosh of time roaring through that space off the river, up the street of Riverside, tugging at the clapboard of these tiny cabins. Above me, larger houses are tethered to the hill with long wooden stairs and the crumbling dead-end streets gone to pathways. I have the feeling of being watched, a sensation that comes to me in towns that are on the verge of passing out of existence. . . .

I can’t help thinking that not long from now what remains of Riverside will be torn down and replaced by condominiums. The city is already planning “live-work spaces,” dog parks, and even a gondola up to Delridge Way.

Of course, for that to happen, the Duwamish would have to be cleaned up. The river, once an estuary of tidal flats that brought together the Black, Cedar, White, and Sammamish rivers, knotting through black cottonwoods until the Duwamish emerged, looped like a half-coiled rope on a floor. That was until 1906, when a group of white settlers decided to connect Seattle’s two freshwater lakes, Lake Washington and Lake Union, and dug a canal between the two bodies of water. This lowered the water level of Lake Washington. Water drained into Lake Union to the north, and at the southern end of Lake Washington the water dropped, drying out the Duwamish valley. The Black River completely disappeared, and people told stories about seeing the fish flopping around on dry riverbeds.

Then the plan emerged to straighten the river. In “Plans for Altering the River,” Hugo describes a contemporary version of the same impulse, one that grew out of the same sort of hunger for commerce and growth that inspired the white settlers of the early 1900s. He gives a sarcastic soliloquy on altering the flow “just when the water was settled and at home.” Seattle’s pioneers wanted to shape the Duwamish into a straight canal. Dirt from Beacon Hill and the Denny Regrade, a project that razed a Cascade foothill from an area near downtown, absorbed the curves and sponge islands of eelgrass, straightening the river. By 1920 the refurbished waterway became two straight lines connecting in a “V” around Harbor Island, a new construct hailed as the largest man-made island in the world. The passages were fifty feet deep and would allow barges and seaworthy vessels to dock or turn around. Some came in through the West Waterway, around the island, and left via the East Waterway.

The wide swath of tidelands disappeared. The original river, where the Duwamish people had lived and fished, was erased. To the city limits, several miles south, the river now ran as straight as water through a tube. It sliced through the landscape like the lines in a cubist painting. Where there had been eelgrass, clamming beds, herring, and salmon, now there were pilings and dirt. The curves in the water’s path, once sheltering little peninsulas for water birds, drained into the large canal. Only Kellogg Island, a muddy-banked mass of scrub, remains — an oddity in the shaft of waterway where barges travel in and out with scrap metal.

On West Marginal Way, I pass the Gray Line bus lot and the river appears — looking pressed down under a graphite sky. It flows north, the region of the compass that frightened Hugo. In “Duwamish #2,” he describes how “the river points / the wrong way on the in-tide / and the alders lean to the arid south.” Then, “learn now there is one direction only — / north, and, though terror to believe, / quickly found by river and never love.” It’s cold here, and the clouds fill up. By the time I get out of the car, I’m reaching for my rain slicker. In some strange superstition, I believe that it always rains at the Duwamish — even if it rains nowhere else in the city.

I’m in an urban park that was once was the setting for two shipping terminals. T105 and T107 were docks to offload barges and fishing boats; now they are grassy fronts along the banks of the river. Ragged laurels and salal fill in the view, and I walk along some little paths over to the water. There, the rain comes, at first making a sound like shuffling paper across the leaves. Drops here form larger rings than rain elsewhere. At the edge of the path, where it drops over to the sludge that some might call a beach, I’m looking out at Kellogg Island. A collection of cottonwoods, the island fills in the view to Boeing. Nearby, the old Plant #2 is being taken down; the demolition cranes are pulling out the boards.

"West Marginal Way"
By Richard Hugo

One tug pounds to haul an afternoon
of logs up river. The shade
of Pigeon Hill across the bulges
in the concrete crawls on reeds
in a short field, cools a pier
and the violence of young men
after cod. The crackpot chapel,
with a sign erased by rain, returned
before calm and a mossed roof.

A dim wind blows the roses
growing where they please. Lawns
are wild and lots are undefined
as if the payment made in cash
were counted then and there.

These names on boxes will return
with salmon money in the fall,
come drunk down the cinder arrow
of a trail, past the store of Popich,
sawdust piles and the saw mill
bombing air with optimistic sparks,
blinding gravel pits and the brickyard
baking, to wives who taught themselves
the casual thirst of many summers
wet in heat and taken by the sea.

Some places are forever afternoon.
Across the road and a short field
there is the river, split and yellow
and this far down affected by the tide.

The book is: The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo, by Frances McCue. Photographs by Mary Randlett. University of Washington Press, 2010, $27.95. Ride a YouTube mile or two along with author McCue.

Also on YouTube, Hugo is shown teaching students in one of his UW writing classes how they can write “one hell of a goddam good poem.” They need to stop writing “over-literary, inflated” language and remember that poetry is “the art of meaning what you say,” which he illustrates with “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” In other videos he recites more poems set in his small-town “triggering places”: “The Union Milltown Bar” and “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg.”

Frances McCue is a writer and poet living in Seattle, where she is writer-in-residence at the University of Washington's Undergraduate Honors Program. She was the founding director of Richard Hugo House from 1996 to 2006.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2010/07/20/books/19985/The-triggering-towns-local-poet-Richard-Hugo/

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Printed on July 22, 2014