The poem “Where the House Was” is Hugo apocrypha: released posthumously in the collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On, it hasn’t gotten a great deal of attention. I’d say this neglect was a fluke if it weren’t for the fact that many incredible artistic statements never get the praise and circulation they deserve. Such is the sad, well known condition of being a consumer. The best stuff doesn’t always rise; sometimes you’ve gotta feel around in a whole lot of tepid so-so-ness before making a find.
I want to suggest “Where the House Was” deserves a place in the pantheon of Great Hugo Poems. Of course, the whole question could be a waste of ink, since there isn’t that much of an industry behind determining and defending what gets to be called a Great Hugo Poem. Actually, relative obscurity of the kind Hugo enjoys has a certain democratizing effect on an artist’s output. Most people who read Hugo’s poems these days will probably pick up a copy of Making Certain It Goes On and poke around in there, and in so doing are just as likely to read an acknowledged Great like “West Marginal Way” as they are a B-side like “Where the House Was.”
So why quibble about the merits of one Hugo poem versus another? For one thing, because it provides an opportunity to think about how art gets received, ranked, and remembered. But more importantly, because those of us who love poetry love to care about small, apparently trivial things. Who cares if there’s no Great Hugo Poems industry? It’s our job and our privilege to be that industry ourselves.
Maybe “Where the House Was” lacks the structural perfection of “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” Maybe it’s missing the stunning, effortless soundplay of “Driving Montana.” What is does have, however, is the poet’s singular knack for devastating, incisive lines. We get two such stunners right at the end of the first stanza. “Your vision must be late autumn,” says the narrator, before remarking, more cynically, about some trees he’s been remembering, “They’ve bloomed and produced and shut down.” Hugo isn’t just talking about pears, plums, and dogwoods here. He’s talking about the whole setting of the poem, all the lives, structures, and ruins it’s contained. And he’s making a darkly critical comment about what can happen when we only value things insofar as they’re useful and profitable. Total utilitarianism, he wagers, is a recipe for desolation and loss.
Hugo’s sensitivity to the various, layered significances of a place—its urban, social, floral, and faunal dimensions—is part of what makes it so necessary for us, in our film, to discuss his life and legacy in the context of urban change. His poems remind readers that places are complex, ever-shifting constructions, not simple coordinates. And perhaps above all, they’re attuned to the emotional vectors that structure how we experience our environments.
Take the second stanza, for instance. The mention of singing to gophers comes off as a little goofy on the first pass—and it is. But just a few lines later, the goofiness gets shot through with self-consciousness, and then, finally, with some very serious questions about the relationship between art and place. “Finally your music came back / from somewhere deep in the earth,” says the narrator, “somewhere deep where the fires still burned.” That word, “still,” is pivotal, stuffed with nostalgia, grief, and hope all at once. It indicates that the levity of singing to gophers is impossible in the narrator’s present circumstances. But we know that some levity survives, if not in the narrator’s life, then at least in the poem itself. After all, Hugo didn’t take out the gophers; they’re still in the poem, along with the silliness they create, even if that silliness is complicated.
The lingering whisper of optimism reflects a persistent belief that poetry, in its own small way, can sustain lives, feelings, and situations through language. I’m talking about a world not quite identical to the world of lived experience, but not quite unlike it, either. Literary critics call it “defamiliarization,” but that word might oversimplify things. The feelings, voices, and situations in good literature are both familiar and unfamiliar; the world they explore must be different enough from what we think we know that we’re able to learn from it.
This refreshing, redemptive difference, by which I mean good poetry’s simultaneous adherence to and transformation of reality, is what makes the ending of “Where the House Was” so damn good. “You remember. Bob Edwin. A purple left hand”—and that’s it. I don’t care who Bob Edwin is. I know enough about him from the third stanza: he’s a double of the narrator who died alone and angry, exiled from his hometown. Two things are remarkable here. First, there’s the strange inevitability of the hand image, the way it alludes self-reflexively to the act of writing, while epitomizing the frustration the narrator has been elaborating throughout the poem. But the image also stands for the vivid, unparaphrasable details that are the peculiar wealth of poetry. Understood in this light, as a statement about poetry, the presents us with a kind of formula: to remember people, places, and lives is the business and function of poetry, accomplished through memorable, weird imagery. But the terms are reversible: in its small, bizarre way, poetry gives us life.
Just as “Where the House Was” asks us to remember places, poetry, and places via poetry, I ask us to remember “Where the House Was.” It deserves our attention. Still, I’m left with the suspicion that a great part of the poem’s power lies in its marginality. It’s an afterthought in the same way poetry and art are usually afterthoughts these days—an afterthought, namely, that matters, one that can and should change, if not how we live, then at least how we think about how we live. “Where the House Was” prompts us to reexamine the spaces we inhabit, eyeing both the privation and the raw, vital feelings we find there.