Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Richard Hugo is often labeled a “regional poet,” and there are strong regional elements in “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir.” The poem is specifically located in the Mission Range of the Rocky Mountains, and readers outside the Pacific Northwest might have difficulty with such references as those to the Dolly Varden trout, a predatory species known in the West as a bull trout. Donna Gerstenberger, in Richard Hugo (1983), observes that the Indians in Hugo’s poems become “symbols for the dispossessed and the despairing.” Hugo identifies himself with such symbols throughout his poems.

Hugo has described “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir” as a “revenge poem,” written from his pain and anger over a woman who jilted him and married another man. In the course of the poem, however, he exorcises the demon that has possessed him and filled him with self-destructive feelings of guilt and failure. Accordingly, the poem may be said to begin in psychological illness and end in a direction tending toward health. The dominant images of death yield to an almost comical metaphor of renewed sexual vigor.

Hugo spells out the autobiographical context of this poem in an essay from The Triggering Town (1979) entitled “In Defense of Creative Writing Classes.” Yet it is more than a confessional cleansing ritual. Its richness has to do with the varied images and metaphors and with what might be called mythic and archetypal motifs of renewal and the return of fertility after the sterile death of winter. The ritualized symbolic death of the “lady” is similar in nature to that of the Fisher King encountered in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In that poem, Eliot draws on the ancient sacrifice of the Fisher King to assure the restoration of the land. Eliot closes his poem with apocalyptic references to a culture that disintegrates as the Fisher King, an “arid plain” at his back, shores up “fragments” against his “ruins.” In the conclusion to this poem, however, Hugo associates himself with the forces of revival and renewal.