The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Map of Montana in Italy” is a lyric poem in free verse, arranged into a single stanza of thirty-four lines. It is the opening poem in Richard Hugo’s fourth book of poems, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, and it is dedicated to Marjorie Carrier.

The poem is written in the first person, in the present tense, the voice distinctively Hugo’s. It is rather flat in tone, with subdued emotions. Although the syntax is simple and rather prosaic, the poem’s style is tight, direct, and without extraneous words. The situation of the poem is that Hugo (who lived in Missoula, where he taught at the University of Montana from 1963 until his death in 1982) has come upon a map of Montana while he is touring in Italy. Perhaps the map has been tacked up on a wall, or maybe it is in an atlas open upon Hugo’s lap.

The poem begins with two descriptive, though incomplete, sentences: “On this map white. A state thick as a fist/ or blunt instrument.” The third sentence is complete but brief, straightforward, metaphoric, and declarative: “Long roads weave and cross/ red veins full of rage.” The long and often undeveloped gravel or dirt roads of Montana are printed in red, symbolizing to Hugo that anger is a statewide characteristic. The introductory style of these sentences suggests that the speaker wishes to impress the reader with tough talk, as though he is in a pugnacious mood. Not until the poem’s fourth sentence does the...

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