In Your Worst Moments, To Whose Words Do You Turn?

I was thinking yesterday, as I unexpectedly spent the afternoon within the austere confines of a hospital, that I must credit poetry with being more than just an occasional amusement. It has, during many hard moments, saved me from my own worst tendencies, as it did yesterday when we discovered that my older brother has a brain tumor. I began turning over certain words in my head. This is now more or less an acquired reflex, similar, I suspect, to a devoted Catholic thumbing a rosary.

To whose words do you turn in your worst moments? I continually take refuge in the work of Richard Hugo, one of the finest and most ignored American poets of the twentieth century. A regionalist, Hugo fixated on the peculiar rhythms of life in the American northwest. His poems pulse with rural imagery, which he always stained with his own lonely obsessions. Here, for instance, is the searing final stanza of “Farmer, Dying”:

And we die silent, our last day loaded with the scream
of Burnt Fork creek, the last cry of that raging farmer.
We have aged ourselves to stone trying to summon
mercy for ungrateful daughters. Let’s live him
in ourselves, stand deranged on the meadow rim
and curse the Baltic back, moon, bear and blast.
And let him shout from his grave for us.

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