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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, by Frances McCue

The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo - Frances McCue,  Mary Randlett (Photographer)

I don't read a lot of poetry. My mind is too analytical for its own good, and has trouble following the leaps and intimations of a good poem. But very occasionally, the right poem will hit me at the exact moment I need it in my life, and it is an almost holy experience. Completely unduplicable, except by chance.

I had one of those moments with the very first poem in this book, Richard Hugo's "Duwamish".

See, like Hugo did, I live less than a mile from the Duwamish. I read the poem on a grey Sunday afternoon in late November. The timing was preternaturally perfect. I read it over and over again, unable to move on. I was hooked.

I hadn't been familiar with Hugo before I read this book, and now I don't know how I missed him. He was a prominent poet originally from Seattle who wrote the kind of bleak and melancholy landscape-based poetry that deeply resonates with me. Traveling around Washington, Idaho, and Montana, he would stop in small towns, sometimes for less than a day, then write poems about them. Haunted, lonesome, painful, beautiful poems. From the first lines of "Duwamish", I felt a kinship with him. I too like to drive around by myself, getting lost in the scenery of the Pacific Northwest, feeling both at home and desperately lost, both embraced and all alone. I think about the people who live in these remote places, and I want to be one of them, I used to be one of them. If I had any gift for writing poetry, these are the kinds of poems I'd write.

This book is so much more than just a collection of poems, however. It's an account of how Frances McCue, an English professor at the University of Washington, and Mary Randlett, a renowned photographer, traveled throughout the Northwest in 2007 and 2008. Using Hugo's poems as guides, they went back to the same towns Hugo had visited and written about in the 60's and 70's. They found the landmarks he described, they went into the bars he frequented, they talked to his friends and acquaintances. They discovered what had changed since then, and what had remained the same. To McCue, a devoted Hugo acolyte, this was almost a religious pilgrimage, each tiny Montana town a rosary bead to pray and linger over.

The resulting book is divided into twelve chapters about twelve towns. Each chapter begins with a Hugo poem or two, and one of Randlett's photos, followed by an essay by McCue, illustrated with additional photos. All three components are equally fascinating. The poems consistently took my breath away, and the photographs act as both art and documentary, offering a clear window into these towns as they exist today - often poor, bleak, and disintegrating. But McCue's essays are truly remarkable. From the story of Hugo's life to the story of her own, from travelogue to poetic meditation, from town histories to local causes, from literary analysis of the poems themselves to private musings about what Hugo may have been feeling when he wrote them, her essays are varied and completely engrossing. They filled in the gaps in the poems that my analytical mind couldn't quite bridge, and they told me stories that I couldn't get enough of. By the end of the book, I couldn't help but love Hugo as much as McCue does. Her reverence for him is catching, and her writing is incredible.

If you like poetry, if you like the Pacific Northwest, if you like backroads road trips, if you're fascinated by places and the way they change with time, I can't recommend this book enough. I lingered over it, I didn't want it to end. I read it aloud to myself slowly, in whispers, and went back to certain paragraphs and stanzas again and again, captivated by the way they sounded, the way they said so much in so few words. I peered at the photographs for minutes at a time - the metal-poisoned rivers, the crumbling mills, the clouds rolling past heedless in the enormous sky. Beautiful, beautiful.


23 November 2010