The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Tess Gallagher’s “The Hug” moves through four stanzas relating an experience of the female speaker giving a hug to a stranger and coming to an illumination about the human ability to connect. Central to the poem is the speaker’s relationship to the lover taking a walk with her when this experience occurs. Their closeness sparks the stranger’s request to receive one of the hugs the woman gives to her lover. Curiously, the speaker appears lost at the end of the poem, the hug over, her lover not much of a presence anymore.

Serendipity characterizes the poem’s movement. Events seem to just happen, and one thing follows another. The oddity of a woman “reading a poem on the street” is not remarked upon. The lovers, “arms around each other,” stop and listen; the street life is free-flowing and “open.” The only ominous note is the contrast to the houses surrounding them: “no one is entering or leaving.”

This stasis is offset by the woman’s sudden desire to hug her lover: “a hug comes over me.” She feels emotion; she acts, being spontaneous and loving. So attractive are her actions that a male bystander approaches and asks, “Can I have one of those?” The speaker is baffled by this man and wonders where he came from. His sudden appearance is as serendipitous as the sidewalk poetry reading or the speaker’s desire to give her lover a hug. She says she is “surprised” at this request but even more taken aback that...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gallagher’s poem is conversational and depends little on traditional poetic devices, though there are some. The image of the houses in the first stanza seems initially just incidental background. They are self-contained houses with “no oneentering or leaving.” If there is no departure, there must not be a journey; thus the houses function as a contrast to the speaker who makes a journey of self-discovery. The houses reappear in stanza 3 as if to remind readers of their stolid presence.

Stanza 2 contains two similes. The desire to hug her lover “comes over” the woman “like a variable star shooting light/ off to make itself comfortable, then/ subsiding.” A “variable star” would be like the Sun going through periodic solar storms because of the pressures of internal gases. Solar flares exude an enormous amount of energy and may even interrupt communication systems on earth. There is no way to predict them. Likewise, Gallagher’s simile places emphasis on the spontaneous quality of the woman’s feelings. One does not know why the hug occurs at that particular moment. It must have something to do with the poem being read on the street by another woman. No overt connection is made in the poem, however. The hug is inexplicable, “like a variable star.”

The second simile speaks of the relationship between the two lovers as being defined differently by the lover’s acquiescence to the stranger’s request. The woman is surprised...

(The entire section is 456 words.)