It is an indisputable fact that the memory of poet Richard Hugo haunts Missoula, Montana. This notion might first strike us as innocuous, obvious, falling within the simple domain of legacy. Thirty years after his death, he leaves equal endowments in Missoula, as the most important “Montana poet” and as a teacher of poetry: he was one of the first directors of the University of Montana’s renowned creative writing program and the author of a classic handbook on creative writing, The Triggering Town, that is filled with excellent, weird, and practical advice.
Further related to the activity of haunting: Hugo’s poems famously concern places. He is known primarily as a regional poet, and many of his most famous poems are named for Montana towns or landmarks, like “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” “The Milltown Union Bar,” and “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” One can use his book of collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, as a guidebook to Montana’s bleakest and loveliest destinations; titles of his poems will lead you to Garnet ghost town, St. Ignatius, Turtle Lake, Wisdom, and Fort Benton, finally winding back to what was once Hugo’s actual address in Missoula, 2433 Agnes Street. When Hugo wrote a poem about a place, he made the place a part of himself, and now that he’s gone, a part of him remains in those places.
But it is not as simple as legacy. Spending time with Hugo’s poems, it is not only the activities of his life that linger—his death lingers. We may note that Making Certain It Goes On contains fourteen poems with either the word grave or cemetery in their titles. Graveyards always seem a point of contemplation for Hugo, being as they are both repositories of loss and attempts at quarantining that loss from the routines of everyday life. It’s a shame we keep the dead this way. But death always resists the control of the living, and graveyards in Hugo’s work evince a tenuously maintained order. “This graveyard can expand,” Hugo wrote with some irony and some hope in “Indian Graves at Jocko,” “can crawl / in all directions to the mountains.”
Full tribute at the Paris review