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Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

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Toward the end of the poem, the speaker describes a hug as something which ought to be a "masterpiece of connection." In her mind, then, it seems that a hug can tell a person a lot about the other person's feelings. It is notable, for this reason, that when she hugs her significant other, her companion and lover, she says, "I finish but keep on holding you." She says that she finishes, but not that they finish; her companion does not really seem to be an equal partner in this hug.

It is as though they receive the hug but do not return it in the same way. If fact, the speaker also describes her desire to hug her lover as being like a star that is so overflowing with light that it has to "shoot" some of it off; presumably, the hug is her attempt to "shoot off" some of her loving feelings toward her companion. Notice that it is not reciprocated in the simile.

Later, however, when the speaker hugs the stranger, the feeling of the hug is quite different. She says that

This is his and he's starting
to give it back so well I know he's getting it. This Hug. So truly,
so tenderly, we stop having arms and I don't know if my lover has walked away
Or what

There is something reciprocal about the feelings associated with this hug. This is not a star sloughing off some of its light and receiving nothing in return; the homeless man is giving something back to the speaker during this hug. This hug is true and tender and makes the speaker feel as if they no longer have arms and that they are sort of merging with one another in a really beautiful, emotional way. She's not even sure what is going on around them during this hug, if her companion is still there, if the woman is still reading the poem, and so on.

This is how hugs are supposed to be, and the contrast between her hug with her companion and her hug with this stranger is stark. Her companion's willingness to share her and her hugs with someone else was already quite revealing to her, and, in the end, she wonders where she will "go back to" when this cosmic, eternal hug is over. Her lover's lackluster hug and willingness to share her hugs with others seems to tell her that their relationship is over.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

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 her lover agrees to it, not feeling possessive of her. The speaker’s ordinary notion about love has been shaken: “love/ that nabs you with ‘for me/ only’ and holds on.”

She matches her lover’s nonchalance by hugging the stranger. This hug is the heart of the poem, and the woman gives it everything she has, although doubts creep in: “How big a hug is this supposed to be?” The man wears an overcoat, and “he is so big” she cannot reach her arms all the way around him. Instead, she “snuggle[s] in.” He returns the hug, the two of them acting “So truly, so tenderly” they transcend their bodies; the speaker even forgets her lover. Then she thinks of the houses on the street and possibly the people inside looking out at them.

Gallagher concludes the poem with several insights, some ironic: “a little permission is a dangerous thing.” In giving the hug so fully, she neglects her lover. Even so, she defends the intensity of the hug. If one is going to give a hug, it should be “a masterpiece of connection.” She is left with an “imprint” of the man’s coat button on her cheek, but when she tries to return to the way things were before, she is disoriented and can not seem to find “some place/ to go back to.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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 to discover that her lover does not regard her as his, that is, “exclusive as a nose to/ its face.” Gallagher’s word choice reinvigorates the cliché of something obvious being as “plain as the nose on one’s face.” Her lover’s surprising lack of sexual possessiveness propels her into the intimacy of hugging the stranger. This surprise generates more surprise.

Although hugging the stranger was not her idea, the speaker gets totally involved in it, so much so that in the last stanza she exhorts: “when you hug someone you want it/ to be a masterpiece of connection.” Speaking as an authority, the woman adopts metaphorical language: the hug is a “masterpiece,” a work of high order connecting one human being to another in a direct, sensuous, but ultimately nonsexual way. Gallagher compares the intensity of this connection to “the way the button/ on his coat will leave the imprint of/ a planet in my cheek/ when I walk away.” The stranger has left a mark on her, the roundness of his coat button suggesting “a planet.” In hugging him, she has entered another world. Coming back to the ordinary world, she has problems reentering and can not seem to “find some place/ to go back to.” There is no mention of the lover.