“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 speaker identify himself as a Montanan. “Big Canada,” he says, “map maker’s/ pink, squats on our backs.”
Next Hugo recalls the imagery of two of Montana’s unique animals. He makes a witty connection between one of the map’s colors, “Glacier Park’s green,” and his “envy” of the reclusive grizzly bears that live there, then he describes how “antelope sail/ between strands of barbed wire and never/ get hurt” on the eastern Montana prairie. Subsequently, over the next fifteen lines, he turns his attention to the people who live within the state’s borders.
First, Hugo alludes to Billings and Great Falls, the state’s “two biggest towns,” describing them as “dull deposits/ of men getting along,” who never miss church and censor “movies and books.” Second, he calls Helena and Butte the state’s “two most interesting towns,” claiming they “have the good sense to fail.” Then he turns to charging Montana’s population with alcoholic immaturity (“There’s too much/ schoolboy in bars”) and with greed (“too much talk about money.)” There follows an oblique comparison of Montana with a Kafkaesque Poland, and suggestion that with “so few Negroes and Jews,” the usual scapegoats of urban America, Montanans have been “reduced/ to hating each other, dumping our crud/ in our rivers, mistreating the Indians.”
Returning to the map, Hugo notes how its color, white, aptly connotes “winter, ice.” The description is used as a transition to Italy, where the snow is more distant and less threatening (“It’s white here too/ but back of me, up in the mountains”) and the wild animals of Italy, “obsequious wolves,” are not as ferocious as Montana’s grizzly bears.
Finally, as if pining for Montana’s roughneck violence, Hugo tweaks the Italians, saying, “No one fights/ in the bars filled with pastry.” Then he concludes with a general quizzical observation on the romance of the West: how, on the night before, “the Italians/ cheered the violence in one of our westerns.”
Forms and Devices
The style of “A Map of Montana in Italy” is in many ways typical of the whole body of Hugo’s poetry. Although Hugo studied with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington in Seattle, the younger poet never adopted Roethke’s broad interests in rhymed, formal verse, such as the villanelle, kyriel, and limerick, each of which Roethke employed quite successfully. Instead, Hugo seems to have discovered his own voice early and stayed with that voice throughout his life.
Hugo’s voice is one of little modulation and tightly controlled pitch, a uniquely characteristic drone. Writing in “Richard Hugo: Getting Right,” from a book-length collection of essays entitled Local Assays: On Contemporary Poetry (1985), Dave Smith says that Hugo’s “music has always been insistent and derived from Anglo-Saxon sonic practices. He loves a strongly stressed line, usually three to five stresses, whose density and intensity is always willing to risk overwhelming the ear.”
“A Map of Montana in Italy” aptly fits Smith’s description. The poem’s rhythm is irregular, a good example of free verse; however, while the lines seem to be measured in length predominantly by the eye, the poem still generally scans into five hard stresses per line, or an irregular pentameter.
Also typical of Hugo’s style is this poem’s use of alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. In his excellent collection of lectures and essays on poetry and writing, The Triggering Town (1979), Hugo writes of his interest in repetitive sounds. “When I was a young poet,” he says, “I set an arbitrary rule that when I made a sound I felt was strong, a sound I liked specially, I’d make a similar sound three to eight syllables later. Of course it would often be a slant rhyme. Why three to eight? Don’t ask. You have to be silly to write poems at all.”
Note how in the following lines Hugo adheres to his rule of sound, stitching words together based in large part upon the repetition of the consonants b, m, p, and g, and the vowel sounds short i, short a, and long e:
Big Canada, map maker’spink, squats on our backs, planning bad wintersfor years, and Glacier Park’s green with my envyof Grizzly Bears.
Later in the poem, Hugo gets away from sweet-sounding lines and speaks in a voice that is more matter-of-fact and prosaic. Lines 24 and 25 read: “Each year, 4000 move, most to the west/ where ocean currents keep winter in check.” There is much less music in that line. And the concluding three-and-a-half lines of the poem read:
No one fightsin the bars filled with pastry. There’s noprison for miles. But last night the Italianscheered the violence in one of our westerns.
Except for a repetition of the f in fights and filled, and the p in pastry and prison, this section of the poem is much less alliterative. It is also less condensed; in those last three sentences Hugo uses the definite article (the) three times, when he only needed it once. The sentences are short, declarative, and rather dry. The poet’s voice seems to have fallen completely away from its beginning high lyrical tone to a flatter, prosaic depression.