Eulogy for Richard Hugo

We both wore masks. Mine over my mouth
Was there to catch each word, each dangerous breath
Before it reached the man sitting in bed
And found its way through his defenseless blood.
His mask was a royal bruise across his chest
(Where one lung labored, labored hard as Christ
To cure the marrow that had turned against him)
And the swollen flesh of a face, once lean and handsome,
Now stretched past guilt and fear, past innocence
And courage into a skin-tight radiance.
While blood hung on a scaffold, dripping warm
And slow to its cold future in his arm,
He talked of jobs and money and old games,
Of letters and love, good humor and bad dreams,
Of what he’d learned, in pain, about his lives,
Of struggles between his better and bitter halves.
For thirty years I’d known a starving child
Inside him, tough and subtle, shrewd and squalid,
Who shared his body, glaring through his eyes
And balking at the cost of wretchedness.
Outside, he wore a life intensely human
And over that, at times, like a mad shaman,
The skulls of enemies and skins of beasts,
Tatters of beggar boys and family ghosts —
Sacred disguises. “What 1 do is me”
Became for him “What 1 seem, we all may be.”
These struggling selves made poems, did without
The gibberish of God, grudge-matching wit,
The urge to pose or maunder, prattle or preach,
And sang blunt beautiful American speech
In voices none of us had heard before
Whose burden was “We can grow up through fear.”
He spent his days in search of a hometown
Where he could be class hero and class clown,
Unknown and famous, friendly and alone:
Wearing his old school colors, the gray and white
Of ashes, he lies there now, its laureate.☺
—David Wagoner