Northwest at Raven
A Curve in the Blue
An Essay by Terre Ryan
When I lived in New York City, I used to dance alone in the dark. I’d close my door, turn off the lights, and follow circles of Native American music around my room. I imagined I was already in Montana, dancing on the mountains of a muscular earth, and alone in the dark I could move with an animal grace that otherwise eluded me. The drums and flutes floated over the city’s traffic sounds, and as I danced I’d imagine the spine of the Bitterroot Range and forget about the brick wall opposite my window. I had two roommates, but our apartment was big and its walls were thick, and they never knew what I was doing.
I was having a love affair with my atlas. I’d fallen hard for Montana’s geography, and sometimes I’d cradle my map and try to imprint its features: highways like red spider veins, crumpled scars of mountains, frenetic riverbanks and blue lake basins. Sometimes I’d fall asleep with a volume of Richard Hugo’s poetry in my hands. “The day is a woman who loves you. Open,” Hugo wrote in “Driving Montana.” In his poems I heard the voice of an older brother calling down childhood hallways, beckoning me out toward a dream geography of mountains and plains. My mind followed that voice along Montana’s empty highways.
“You know, there’s nothing out there but mountains and K-mart,” a friend said, horrified, when I told him I was moving.
“Then I guess I’ll have everything I need,” I answered.
When people ask me why I came here, I tell them that I fell in love with the landscape even before I saw it; for westerners, that’s an old yarn. But it’s only half the story. The truth is that I’m chasing the ghosts of two dead poets—two dead teachers. “I think you should go to Missoula,” my teacher said, and then abruptly died. Well, it happened almost like that.
His name was William Matthews and he was the Director of the Creative Writing Program at City College of New York; I was a student in his Prosody class. By “Missoula,” Matthews meant the University of Montana, where his late friend, the poet Richard Hugo, had taught for several years. Matthews had visited Montana just a few months earlier, when he’d done a summer stint as a guest lecturer at Salish Kootenai College near the southern tip of Flathead Lake. “You know, the land out there is spectacular,” he recalled. Missoula, he said, was a good place—a writers’ town where I could study literature and live surrounded by mountains. And that was exactly what I wanted. “I think you should go to Missoula,” he said. He died a few days later, just three weeks shy of the end of the semester.
The biographers are recording the William Matthews stories for the generations that yearn after this lost poet. I can only remember the man who was my teacher: the soft timbre of his voice; bright gray eyes that were gentle and wise; a steel-edged wit that kept his students laughing. He was in his mid-fifties, but he already had an old man’s physique, with a slight paunch and a trick knee that gave him a permanent limp. Yet he radiated the enduring sexiness that comes with brains and a good sense of humor, and he galvanized the classroom with energy so potent it nearly shocked us. “You have to approach language with humility,” he told us, and I hungered after every check mark and comment he scrawled on my pages of poetry.
I was in his last class, the evening before he died. “Poetry needs big doses of reality to keep it from becoming a museum,” he advised us that night. It was his 55th birthday, but we didn’t learn that until we read the article in The New York Times. His heart gave out while he was alone in his home the following afternoon, but I missed the newspaper and didn’t find out for two more days. I didn’t know he was dead when I checked several of his books out of the library and took them home to show to my roommates—two very bright women who didn’t like to read poetry. “Look at this one. Hey, look at this one,” they kept saying to each other, passing the books back and forth.
“Maybe he’ll be like an angel watching out for you from heaven,” my sister said when I cried into the phone. Maybe. But more than anything else, I wanted to believe that Bill Matthews was off somewhere sharing a six-pack with his old pal, Richard Hugo, just as Matthews had said they’d done every night during the 1982 World Series, in the last days before Dick died.
In Montana, I believed, I’d find America. I’d find Dick Hugo’s lonesome, ramshackle towns surviving beneath skies wide with promise. I’d taste the evergreen air of the mountains. In springtime, the ice would break up and meltwater would shatter the stones in my chest and grind them down to powder. I’d find poetry in gas stations and general stores and earnest cattle grazing in pastures. But most importantly, I’d find the answer to some promise—some vision—that Matthews had had for me, and I’d pick up the old scent of Hugo’s footprints.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I asked myself during the first few weeks of classes at the University of Montana. Nights, during the class break, I’d walk outside and sit at the foot of the university’s bronze grizzly bear and look up at the stars. I’d lived the last five years in Manhattan; you don’t see many stars when you live in a big city. In this western sky, the constellations hung at unfamiliar angles over the shadowy hump of Mount Sentinel.
That I could have made a mistake in coming to Montana seemed inconceivable. I had wanted to come here with every fiery, electric atom of my being; had I remained in New York, I might somehow have short-circuited and died. But I felt like an idiot in class—the stupid girl, the misfit writer-type among a select group of literary scholars who passed the class time discussing critical theory. Little of it made sense to me, and I sat in class feeling as though a stream of theory were circulating about the room. Richard Hugo’s portrait hung on the back wall of the classroom. I wanted to turn around and ask him, “Do you get this? Does this make any sense to you?” I kept trying to bring the discussions down to a practical level, but every comment I made fell noisily as a rock tossed into a river. My classmates would pause and look at me, and then the stream of theory would resume its course, undisturbed, as the ripples of my rock-toss faded. I thought about dropping out. “Give it a semester,” I told myself. “Give it a year.” I’d always felt like a dodecahedron in a world of round and square pegs, anyway. Why should I have expected Montana to feel like a homecoming?
“What the hell am I doing here?” I asked the stars and the bear, night after night. What had I expected to find here, anyway—the ghosts of the poet-teachers? All I heard was their silence. The wind rolled colder over the mountain and one evening, as I left class, the air was drenched with the deliciously resinous smell of conifers. I inhaled deeply, and the tension I’d carried out of the classroom dissolved; my body relaxed. “This is why I came here,” I thought. Then I remembered the trucks I’d seen lumbering through town, loaded with storied trees stacked up like scrolls of the dead. And I realized that what I smelled was the blood of trees; their scent was drifting down Hellgate Canyon from the Bonner mill.
Weekends, now, I pick up the ghost trail, following my map and the signs the poets left. “The day is a woman who loves you. Open.” Make that a man, for me, and I’m driving Montana, too. I pass the Stimson Lumber Company in Bonner, and roll down the car windows to breathe in the forest smell rising from the mill yard’s mountains of wood chips. I drive into Milltown and crawl through neighborhoods that hug the edge of the highway. I examine old trailer homes down the road from the mill, and wonder about the lives inside them. A rusty chain-link fence encircles a yard with a vacant swingset. At the western edge of town I find a small, monied enclave; the trailer homes on this street are new and freshly painted. One has a gas grill out front; another has Palladian windows. Outside Milltown’s Hope Baptist Church, a sign invites passersby to “Come Inside and Get a Faith Lift.” I drive back out to the highway, feeling suddenly ashamed. I’ve been combing these neighborhoods like a voyeur. I’m no Dick Hugo. Who the hell am I to try to scratch poetry out of other people’s stories—the husks of other people’s lives?
On a gray winter Saturday I head west, playing chicken with a snowstorm that’s expected later that day. I cross over Magpie Creek and follow the Clark Fork through the mountains, past ranches where black and white belted cattle graze like herds of bovine Oreos. I drive toward Paradise; I want to see what a place called Paradise looks like. I imagine that Paradise is a remnant of Eden; that the land is brown with a shifting sea of buffalo; that the people are naked and their skin glows with bloodfire beneath the winter sky. I envision eating lunch in Paradise, and wonder what one actually eats in a place called Paradise—buffalo burgers with a slab of tomato and a logjam of greasy fries? Or fresh figs and big, pulpy strawberries that dribble sticky juice over your tongue and chin? Paradise, I find, is tiny—hardly more than a blink. The town is an enclave of small homes blossoming out from the north side of the highway, opposite the railroad tracks and the river. The place seems deserted, except for the cars and trucks passing through on their way elsewhere. There’s one bar—the Pair ‘o Dice—at the western end of town, and I think about stopping there. It’s a Dick Hugo kind of joint—the sort of place that’s a living poem. But there are no windows, and I don’t like to walk into a bar alone if I can’t see, from the street, who’s inside and what’s going on.
I head into Plains, where I pull over and get out and walk along the main street. There’s a promising stream of people flowing into the Mint Bar; I can see the crowd inside through a big front window. I take a seat at a table at the far end of the room. It’s a generic place with gray Formica tables and industrial gray carpeting. Newly varnished beams are planted across the ceiling. At the next table sits a longhaired man with an Irish-style cap slanting over his forehead. He wears the cap all through lunch, and for no particular reason I decide that he’s a divorced truck driver home between runs. He’s having lunch with a boy of eight or nine—I figure the kid is his son—who’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt even though it’s dead cold outside. I’m cribbing from Hugo now, so I run with it. Across from me, a family of four sits gathered around a table. The parents are young—in their thirties. The woman cuts her own hair, and her brown eyes are big and full of shower steam and damp sheets as she regards her husband. No wonder he looks so contented. The kids are face-deep in their burgers. On the far side of the room a small woman perches at a table, laughing with her family. She has country-singer hair, the biggest hair I’ve seen since coming out West, incongruously huge atop her petite frame. Her curls are so large and stiff that I can see the freshly painted walls—convent white—right through them. Outside the snow starts coming down hard.
After lunch, I retrace the road along the river, back through the mountains. The radio stations crackle with static; everyone sings about love. On the pop stations, love lasts forever. The country singers are more cynical, or realistic—they know that much of love is really like mopping up after a train wreck. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s been a while.
Another day I slip into a window of sunshine between storms and head up to Salish Kootenai College. Just before I reach the campus, I pull into a Conoco station. I walk inside and pass the snack area, where a man reclines in one of the booths, smoking, with his legs stretched out and his back propped against the window. When he sees me his head snaps up; he’s on alert, and he eyes me with a predator’s bold stare as I pay the cashier. I’m only inside a few minutes, but when I get back in my car, my hair and clothing reek from the stench of his cigarettes, as if he’d musked me.
The college campus is deserted, and I wander around the neighborhood, looking for sign of Matthews. The only people I see have their backs turned toward me as they talk to one another or walk into their houses. There’s a dead cat stretched out on the sidewalk; its fur is black and mottled, and some of its teeth are bared, as if it were snarling. It looks as though it has been dead for some time. I turn the car and head south, back toward Missoula.
Montana is my home now, not just a map with a dream attached to it, and I drive through this landscape following the directions the poets left behind. I don’t know what I expect to find—if I imagine that poems and men will rise up, hard and real, out of the living ground. I don’t know if I’m looking for teachers or brothers or lovers. I know only that I’m tired of sleeping with books.
On my way home I turn into the National Bison Range and cruise along the park’s winter drive—a gravel ribbon slicing through windburnt slopes and stretching toward the big, rough teeth of the Missions. I scan the brown hills hopefully, searching for buffalo, and sight a small herd of bison-shaped rocks that tell the truth only when the sun shoots their shimmer straight back at my eyes. I pull up beside Mission Creek and get out of the car; it’s so quiet that the gravel barks beneath my boots. I spot a hawk gliding on the warm winter air, and I raise my binoculars and watch him soar over the valley. I can’t identify him, but I know better than to trust these eyes, anyway. These are the same eyes that just picked out a gathering of buffalo in a cluster of boulders—the same eyes that envisioned a man at the front of his classroom, laughing with his students and teaching poetry forever. I lower the glasses and gaze after the hawk; he wheels and becomes a curve in the blue. Then I lose him in the big sky.