My friend, who I liked to call Beezer, had an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth, hiked her butt onto the edge of the pool table and took a shot, sinking the number she had called. Before her next shot she took a big drink. I told her, “Is this the day we chase the bad mothers from the bar and send them sobbing for home?” My butchering of a line from Richard Hugo’s poem “White Center” made her laugh. Her husband had stayed home to watch their two daughters. She didn’t smoke or drink except maybe soda or water, but liked to hang at the grad student parties.
We liked that line, but I wondered what the good people of White Center thought about it and the poem in general. More specifically the White Center of that time. We write of places and of people in ways that may not be flattering because it was a shitty place or the person didn’t act very nicely, but we have the obligation to write how the conditions and actions we lived through. I’m sure the boosters of particular places get riled up when somebody says something derogatory about their town no matter how shitty the town. (Listen up Bako, you’re coming up soon.)
I believe it helps when writing in that vein to try and mine it for what good may have come out of the situation or to find humor in it. Hugo says in that poem “I walk this past with you, ghost…I remember everything wrong.” This gives him a way to say sure it was crappy, but it could all be wrong in how he experienced it and processed it. He was a flawed conduit of memory, but aren’t we all.
He also owns it when he wraps up “I feel no shame kicking the loose gravel home.” He was of that place and had no choice. He wrote it as it was and laid it bare without either rhapsodizing it or turning away from it like a bad mother slugging back whiskeys at two in the afternoon. We can only say this was the place as it left an impression on us at that time and that’s the best we can do as writers. Let the readers make up their own minds. Tell it good or bad, smoking or not, but along true lines like the eight ball off the side bumper, rolling for home in the corner pocket.
I don’t have my books with me or I’d type out the poem. Dang it anyway. Maybe later.