The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume I, Number 2, Pages 10-16
Nanry Prothro Arbuthnot teaches at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. In this article she discusses Ivan Doig, Norman Maclean, and Richard Hugo, three Montana writers for whom "the importance of place looms large."
Richard Hugo, in an essay on writing poetry, calls the subject that startles the writer into working the "triggering town." For Montana essayists Ivan Doig, Norman Maclean, and Richard Hugo himself, the expression is peculiarly apt, for the importance of place looms large in the imagination of these three. Even the titles attest to the significance of place--This House of Sky, A River Runs Through It, The Triggering Town.
In both style and content these essays reflect the beauty and harshness of life in the West. At times lyrical or stoic or witty or somber and always engaging, they are forged out of memory of the Montana landscape and its people. They memorialize youth--the authors' and the land's--in an attempt to make explicable the way our landscape shapes us and our relationships with others. They are all, curiously, essays on the meaning of memory--of its uses, its manner of behaving. The way they talk about both particular memories and the idea of memory, mixing as they do personal reminiscence and story with meditative musing on experience, these essays are recognizably similar and perhaps even especially Western.
Ivan Doig opens This House of Sky with the epigraph "Westward we go free," emphasizing the importance of the American West on his development. A book-length memoir of his childhood and youth in Montana as (11) the son of a sheepherder told with a quiet nostalgia for a time and place now vanished, it is a memorial as well to his father and maternal grandmother who raised him together despite deep differences.
Doig's remembering begins with landscape, "far back among the high spilling slopes of the Bridger Range of southwestern Montana" and the "single sound" of "hidden water." Out of the silence, or near-silence, of the inarticulate sounds of the land comes words as Doig composes his memories into story. The images of landscape that comprise Doig's memories trigger others: when he walks past a window of Seattle fir trees, Doig sees "the wind-leaning Jackpines of one Montana ridgeline or another;" when he fixes his lunch in his Seattle kitchen, he finds himself "sitting down thirty years ago in the company of the erect old cowboy from Texas." These acts of memory bring with them meditation on the concept of memory, its play in the mind. Memory is "a set of sagas we live by," "the near-neighborhood of dream ... casual in its hospitality."
The act of writing for Doig is an essay, an attempt to come to terms with the past, to communicate with it and make explicable experiences he missed the meaning of when young. For example, he tells how he comes to better appreciate his father and grandmother through an experience, similar to ones they had told of, with near-death; and how the act of remembering brings him closer to them, despite the fact that they have died: "The links are made instantly, by memory... I feel, in my musing on it, as if the two of them too somehow stood up out of the slosh of death with me."
This House of Sky is divided into six sections of stories of the past separated by philosophical reflection in the present tense. The book moves thoughtfully, contemplatively through tales of his upbringing. Doig's manner of telling has almost as much to do with the beguiling quality of his work as what he says. His structure of story followed by reflection keeps his narration focused on significant concerns. His pace, even in the narrative sections, is slow and thoughtful as he pauses to find the exactly appropriate image for his portraits of people and of the land: his father is pictured as "wide and square at the shoulders and then angling neatly down, like a thin but efficient wedge;" the Blackfoot Reservation, he writes, "lay like long tan islands in a horizon brimming tan ocean. Westward the Rockies jagged up .
Easterning ridgelines ran from the base of the mountains tawny as lions' backs and crouched forward."
And though slow, his writing is never static, never weighted down (12) with too much discursiveness; even in his philosophical sections he brings concepts alive through metaphor, personifying the idea of memory (its neighborliness), rooting it in every occurrence as he thinks about it while eating or typing or walking dully along. This interweaving of image or story and meditation makes for a rich reading experience, halting us periodically in the very act of listening to the story, drawing us back from the story to ourselves again, giving us that silent space which allows us, too, to reflect on our memories--and the meaning of them.
Norman Maclean's title story in A River Runs Through It is, like Doig's work, an attempt to refocus the past, to memorialize the beauty of the landscape, especially the trout-filled streams of western Montana, and the relationship of his father and brother Paul to the land and to each other. For Maclean, as for Doig, the landscape provides the triggering subject for memory: "in the Artie half-light of the canyon of a western Montana river, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sound of the Big Blackfoot River."
Again, as in Doig's book, memory begins in the inarticulate sound of the land, in a kind of silence. For Maclean, the land is not only a place in which to do something--primarily fish--but a scene of meditation. The isolation of the rivers of Montana allows for reverie, for generalizing from specifics. Standing in the river, Maclean finds himself "thinking about character." But the particular landscape always brings Maclean back to his particular world, and his general observations become sharply focused on the living scene before him in an artfully intricate yet seemingly artless interweaving of reflection and story:
While I was standing in quiet, shady water, I half noticed that no stone flies were hatching, and I should have thought longer about what I saw but instead I found myself thinking about character. It seems somehow natural to start thinking about character when you get ahead of somebody, especially of how, when things got tough, my brother looked to himself to get himself out of trouble. He never looked for any flies from me. I had a whole round of thoughts on this subject before I returned to reality and yellow stone flies. I started by thinking that, though he was my brother, he was sometimes knot-headed. I pursued this line of thought back to the Greeks who believed that not wanting any help might even get you killed. Then I suddenly remembered that my brother was almost always a winner and often because he didn't borrow flies. So I decided that the response we make to character on any given day depends largely on (13) the response the fish are making to character on the same day. And thinking of the response of fish, I shifted rapidly back to reality, and said to myself, "I still have one more hole to go."
A River Runs Through It is filled with moments of human interaction, of close connectedness between people, almost as a result of their relation to the land: for example, Maclean tells how he and his father, watching Paul wading a river, "lived in him, and were swept over the rocks with him and held his rod high in one of our hands." The land, then, provides connections through memory; and the fusion of land and self that this passage displays recurs throughout the book.
This sense of communion also paradoxically provides an impulse toward forgetfulness of self, a sense of oneness with the world:
"I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched ... Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river." The fact of meditation allows Maclean a kind of divine perspective on existence, an acknowledgement of his own small place in the universe; yet his sense of story keeps his narrative engaged with the details of daily living (Le., fishing) that keeps us as readers engaged.
Although Maclean revives the past in order, in part, to understand it, to try to understand his brother who died violently, young, he realizes that memory alone does not always bring understanding. He realizes along the way that knowledge is not always essential. As he says of Paul, "You can love completely without complete understanding." But Maclean has also learned the importance of trying to understand, of observing and listening to what goes on around him. He learns, in fact, to listen to the land, which has its own language. He quotes his father discussing this point: "In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that's right.
I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water." When Maclean learns to listen to the water, he begins to know his dead brother better, who could live in peace only when alone with the land.
Maclean's willingness to listen to words of the water, the language of his landscape, translates into a story which attends wonderfully to its manner of telling. A River Runs Through It, filled with the lore of fishing and the wisdom of living, is told with simple, vivid detail in a tone at once deadpan and lyrical. Maclean establishes this tone in the first lines: "In our family," he begins, describing his youth ruled over by his gentle fisherman, Presbyterian minister (14) father, "there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing." Throughout the book, the play of wit is as bright and quick as sunlight off the surface of a river: speaking of Paul's tendency to bet on anything, Maclean notes that "Although I was three years older, I did not yet feel old enough to bet.
Betting, I assumed, was for men who wore straw hats on the backs of their heads." Maclean moves easily from story to commentary, from memory to meditation. Most stunningly, he captures in short simple statements worlds of feeling: the rich suggestions of desire and possession in such statements as "Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it;" the sense for pain and loss in "What a beautiful world it was once" or "I am haunted by waters."
The personal quality of the writings of Maclean and Doig is not surprising in these reminiscences of their own lives. But the emotional honesty of A River Runs Through It and This House of Sky is rare in any kind of essay. It is, therefore, even more surprising in Richard Hugo's technically more formal collection of essays on poetry and writing, The Triggering Town. Here, although Hugo proffers both philosophical comment and practical advice on the art of writing, he offers more: himself as example, glimpses into his own emotional make-up. This open quality comes, perhaps, from years of striving for the same openly emotional quality in his lyric poetry (Hugo is best known as a poet) which requires a kind of soul-baring. Writing about the genesis of a poem, for example, Hugo admits psychological problems: "Years later in psychoanalysis... " He demands of other writers that they reveal their secret selves also; the true writer, he maintains, attains a healthy perspective, a healthy remove from himself, by writing:
"However a poet feels about himself, he feels it in such a way that at moments he can play with the feeling."
While these are not personal essays, they reveal a good deal of personality. Hugo's voice is an appealing blend of humor, modesty and arrogance. ("To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance--not in real life, I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write.") Unassuming, he announces that he will tell stories that illustrate some of the problems involved in writing, but adds he won't "press the point." And he does not; his stories express his point more vividly than any explicit statement could. As the personal voice in the essays takes on a philosophical tone, thinking merges into story which merges back into thinking about the large--and small--issues of life. (15) "Ci Vediamo" illustrates Hugo's modest willingness to share his experiences--those that reveal both positive and negative qualities--and his ability to extrapolate broader meaning from experience. One day in Italy during World War II, struggling to find his way back to base, his leave almost expired, he sat down in a field, ready to give himself up to the land; later, while he was on the road again, a young woman stopped him and asked him to sell her his cigarettes, which Hugo refused to do.
In thinking about that day, Hugo comments on the workings of memory and on its lessons: The memory came back unexpected to "remind me how hannonious and peaceful we can feel, came back unwelcome to remind me how we learn little from our positive experiences, how we slip back too easily into this ungenerous world of denial and possession. "
As are both Doig and Maclean, Hugo is also haunted by memory, particularly memories of his youth.
One of his central concerns in The Triggering Town is in exploring "how memory and the imagination modify and transform experience." In two poems about that day in Italy, we see how Hugo's memory of the same event differs at different times. He talks about not only the usual fictionalizing of experience that the imagination indulges in, but also the fictionalizing accomplished by memory. In the earlier Centuries Near Spinnazola, he describes how the "music and motion" of the wind in the field where he sat down hypnotized him, drawing him into itself, giving him a sense of peace: "This is where the day and I surrendered as if the air were suddenly my paramour." In a later poem, Spinnazola: Quella Cantina La, Hugo remembers the incident differently, and reinterprets it: "A field of wind gave license for defeat."
Significantly, it is the landscape in both cases that provides the impulse for the narrator's feelings: in Centuries Near Spinnazola, the "stroke of grass on grass/ on grass across the miles of roll" releases his "urge/ to hurt or love"; in the second poem, "honest fields" display our secret selves, "reveal us in their winds. "
The landscapes here are not, obviously, Western. And these essays on writing are not obviously essays on Western landscape. Yet they do reveal the landscape of Hugo's mind, formed by his years in the west. Much as the qualities of the beauty and harshness of the western landscape are displayed on its bare surface, so it is the surface of Hugo's work--his avuncular story--tone, his way of weaving argument or statement into his stories--or, better, of revealing the point a story makes in telling it--that most matters. A surface plainness in diction, sound and sentence structure echoes the toughness of (16) the bare western landscape, but also underlines the fragility and sensitivity of Hugo's voice. In his essays as well as in his poetry, Hugo displays his sensitivity to the land, and its central place in his work.
The essays of these three writers demonstrate a special significance of place, of landscape, on the mind and character of the beholder. The sense of the merging of self and place that these writers reflect on is seen as a crucial point in life which in turn allows for reflection. In their attempts to come to terms with the meaning of individual lives, the meditative stories from the memories of Doig and Maclean and Hugo take on universal significance with the humor, humility and honesty of their telling.