Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

Maps and references to towns on maps appear in many of Richard Hugo’s poems. Hugo uses maps as anyone may use them: to dream about, move toward, and discover new territory. Thus, many of his poems become word maps for places themselves. Hugo’s poems display psychological and social landscapes, as this poem does for Montana. It is the feel of Montana’s size and natural beauty, its isolation from the rest of the world, its sense of abandonment, and its frontier violence and restlessness that Hugo hopes to survey in “A Map of Montana in Italy,” especially as these are seen from a perspective of relative serenity in the Old World.

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Hugo made three important trips to Italy. The first came during World War II, when he served as a bombadier in the Air Force. On the second, in 1963, he obsessively returned to the places he had known during the war. In an essay entitled “Ci Vediamo,” Hugo relates how, centering on the war and the places he had known during the war, he meets an Italian soul mate named Vincenzo, who tells him, “Of all the Americans here during the war, you’re the only one who ever returned.” First Vincenzo bursts into tears, sobbing. Then Hugo responds, matching Vincenzo “sob for strangulated sob.” On his third trip to Italy, from 1967-1968, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship, Hugo wrote “A Map of Montana in Italy” and many other poems that went into The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir. As a result, Hugo wrote of Montana in this poem from the perspective of a returning American serviceman, scholar-poet, and tourist.

The poet’s tone seems to be colored by several conflicting emotions: nostalgia for home; pride in Montana’s physical beauty, wildness, and vigor; disgust for its juvenile bluster; anger over its restrictive behavior; and an underlying cynicism about the modern frontier state and the way its history is viewed by Hollywood. The poem’s theme hinges not only on how Hugo views the wild, cold, tough, isolated, and depopulated map of Montana, but also on how it contrasts with Italy.

Hugo portrays Italy as a nonviolent place, entertained nevertheless by Hollywood’s myth of violence in the West. He claims that Italy’s “most ferocious animals” are “obsequious wolves,” meaning that they are submissive, obedient, or servile. Italians themselves are not merely peaceful and civilized; saying that their bars are “filled with pastry” is like calling them cream puffs. Hugo’s statement that “There’s no/ prison for miles” seems ironic, as though he were disappointed that Italians are law-abiding citizens.

The final sentence of the poem serves to focus the double edge of Hugo’s sentiment. He is as saddened by the reality of Western life as he is by those gullible enough to enjoy a romanticized version of its violence. Furthermore, the safety of civilized life in Italy strangely mirrors the pathos Hugo sees in contemporary Western life, where crimes, such as polluting rivers and mistreating Indians, are not at all like the bold outlines of good and evil pictured in Hollywood Westerns. Hugo’s poetic persona is often one of the tough guy, reminiscent, as Hugo himself noted, of Humphrey Bogart’s film image. In “A Map of Montana in Italy,” Hugo’s tough persona never flinches from exposing Montana’s nihilism and abuse, characteristics that create a parallel toughness in the poet’s voice.

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