How I Learned to Stop Analyzing and Embrace “The Hug,” with Tess Gallagher

Monkey Prodigy Loves Hugs
The Monkey Prodigy Loves Hugs

I thought of the title “Saved by ‘The Hug,'” but that seemed just a tad too cute. There is something transcendent though in this poem. I wanted to title this post with something about becoming totally engrossed in the unexpected. I thought of the word “surrender,”‘ but there is no war in this poem. I considered the word “consumed,” but there is no sense of predatory feeding here.

Connotation is important, not just in poems, but in blog titles as well. Whatever word you choose brings to mind other words and other possibilities. That’s part of the beauty of the whole process, and it’s something that both the author and the reader bring to a text.

But today is Sunday, and since I sometimes, like today have a Sunday off from work, let’s be a little less scholarly and just enjoy a poem, shall we?

Last time we read a poem by Raymond Carver, which I had shared on another site earlier in the week. Thursday evening at Poetry Under the Paintings I was introduced to the poetry of Tess Gallagher, former spouse of Raymond Carver, and so it seemed the perfect time to feature “The Hug.”

Gallagher has a way of touching emotions in us without becoming maudlin or making us uncomfortable. Frankly, I wish more modern poets could do so. We are so afraid of being labeled “sentimental” that we are apt to avoid tenderness altogether. There is an element of modern poetry, or maybe I should say post-modern, that seems to want to excise emotion and portray the merely cerebral.

Even love poems are considered dishonest and unrealistic, if the pair doesn’t grow to hate or at least merely tolerate each other in the end. Best to stay away from emotion all together, right? What, are we from the planet Vulcan now? Perhaps that would be a good exploration, Mr. Spock of Star Trek, part Vulcan, part human, an allegory for the importance of a union between heart and mind.

Kirk and Spock Embrace
Kirk and Spock Embrace

Or if your poem is emotional, it should be darkly so. Depression, anger, and themes worthy of Dickens’ Bleak House are acceptable, but avoid kindness. But seriousIy, I do understand the concern here, the dread of being thought maudlin or god forbid, common. But if art is about being human (We do still call it The Humanities in college curriculum), then why not love? Why not tenderness?

But I said we’d just enjoy a poem, and here I am going on and on again.

Tess Gallagher was a visiting professor at Bucknell University, just about ten miles from where I live, and one of her Students was local poet Jan Pearson. Jan did such a beautiful job reading this piece Thursday night at Poetry Under the Paintings. I wish I had filmed it (though I will soon be sharing a video of Jan reading one of her own poems from that evening). My reading here is influenced by hers, her tone, her inflection just seemed to perfect, as if she’d written it herself. Here is my pale tribute to Jan’s reading.

(Tess Gallagher is pictured here with her former husband Raymond Carver.)

by Tess Gallagher

A woman is reading a poem on the street
and another woman stops to listen. We stop too,
with our arms around each other…

Suddenly, a hug comes over me and I’m
giving it to you, like a variable star shooting light
off to make itself comfortable, then
subsiding. I finish but keep holding
you. A man walks up to us and we know he hasn’t
come out of nowhere, but if he could, he
would have. He looks homeless because of how
he needs. “Can I have one of those?” he asks you,
and I feel you nod. I’m surprised,
surprised you don’t tell him how
it is — that I’m yours, only
yours, exclusive as a nose to
its face. Love — that’s what we’re talking about, love
that nabs you with “for me only” and holds on.

So I walk over to him and put my
arms around him and try to
hug him like I mean it. He’s got an overcoat on
so thick I can’t feel
him past it. I’m starting the hug
and thinking, “How big a hug is this supposed to be?
How long shall I hold this hug?” Already
we could be eternal, his arms falling over my
shoulders, my hands not
meeting behind his back, he is so big!

I put my head into his chest and snuggle
in. I lean into him. I lean my blood and my wishes
into him. He stands for it. This is his
and he’s starting to give it back so well I know he’s
getting it. This hug. So truly, so tenderly
we stop having arms and I don’t know if
my lover has walked away or what, or
if the woman is still reading the poem…

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
But when you hug someone you want it
to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button
on his coat will leave the imprint of
a planet on my cheek
when I walk away. When I try to find some place
to go back to.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. slpmartin says:

    Another excellent reading and post.


    1. Thank you, Charles. As always, I am honored.


  2. John says:

    Very good commentary … I fully agree with the sentiment that sentimentality is sort of taboo in Real Poetry. And, sometimes too much sentimentality can make a poem seem too flowery and sappy — it can be tough to find the balance between too much, and too little emotion. But, I suppose, too much emotion can be better than no emotion at all.

    Very good reading, David. Enjoyed it very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, John!

      I think it’s one of the major problems facing modern poets. That “head lopped off” feeling that Emily Dickinson talked about, that feeling so cold, no fire could ever warm us, comes from the bowels, probably a better word than heart. It takes intellect and soul to create that punch in the gut feeling, but how do we do it without overdoing it? The answer for some seems to be not to do it at all, but that kind of leaving me cold isn’t what Emily was getting at, I think. 🙂

      I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the reading!


  3. Reblogged this on The Dad Poet and commented:

    Perhaps it’s in poor taste to reblog your own blog post. Blame it on the fad of Throwback Thursdays, probably already fading. But this showed up on my Facebook feed this morning, a post from three years ago when I was living in Northumberland and regularly reading with the Poetry Under the Paintings peeps in Lewisburg. There are some nits I could pick, but I’m not about to rewrite the piece. I think this is worth talking more about. I will add though, that I’ve been reading more and more soulful poetry in print lately. It’s been a dang good year for that, and it gives this old man/boy hope.


  4. “The Hug” is a real poem with a stream of concisencess with a wonderful flow of questoins and feelings and I like that

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Me too. Full of questions rather than points of an argument.

      Liked by 1 person

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