On Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

Joanna Klink

As I sit here at my desk in Northwest Portland, in a lime-green apartment full of skylights, sandwiched between Tin House Magazine and Tin House Books, reading the dynamic and very brave poems my grad students at Portland State are writing—I find myself thinking, in the most basic terms, about what it means to be instructed by a poem. What are we talking about when we say we turn to poems for instruction?

Richard Hugo is the presiding poet-spirit in the M.F.A. program where I usually teach, The University of Montana.  From my (weirdly sunny) perch here in Oregon, casting a long glance back at my home state, I want to consider one of Hugo’s most-celebrated most-anthologized poems, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” from his 1973 volume The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, in the hope of finding some provisional answers.

The poem opens with “You might come here Sunday on a whim.” (you can read the entire poem at the end of this post) The “you” in that first line seems to be a visitor, not unlike the poet himself, who, in his essay “The Triggering Town,” recommends to fellow poets that it might help “to use scenes (towns perhaps) that seem to vivify themselves as you remember them but in which you have no real emotional investment other than the one that grows out of the strange way the town appeals to you, the way it haunts you later when you should be thinking about paying your light bill.”

So you (the visitor, the poet, the speaker, the reader) come here some Sunday to take a look around, and although you’re not from Philipsburg, the town still makes some claim on you.  “Say your life broke down” is the first indication that what follows is a vision; you have to go there in your imagination and walk the streets, and try out—or try on—a life.  Whatever whim brought you here, there’s nothing remotely whimsical about the town, with its numbing failures, its streets “laid out by the insane” Philipsburg is in the last stages of collapse, constituted almost entirely of dilapidated, gutted structures, and eerily emptied of people.  A few isolate souls remain:  the jail’s single prisoner, a couple of local drivers (maybe driving in circles around the block, pathetically gunning their engines), the old man who was twenty when the jail was built, and a waitress.  There are mostly men, because the “best liked girls…leave each year for Butte.”

Life flows out of Philipsburg; the hotels were closed because people stopped coming; even the single prisoner doesn’t know why he’s “in,” why he’s been held back—and yet you’ve come here looking for something. Where is everyone? The poem tells us that the only surviving institutions are churches and bars, and yet we find out later that nobody’s in the churches:  the church bell rings and no one comes. In a sense, the town’s buildings are just as alive—just as dead—as the citizens themselves: the jail turned 70 this year. Evidence of the late stages of decay is everywhere. The huge mill is in ruin but “won’t finally fall down,” the economy is in shambles, and what’s left beyond these few persisting husks of life are the most impoverished human emotions:  rage, hatred, failure, defeat, scorn, and further beneath these—fueling these, perhaps most primal—boredom.

These are the degrees of gray, the filth itself, imaginatively entered and described, and they hold out the central challenge of the poem, which is not so far from what American citizens and readers and poets are facing today. What, beyond rage and boredom, is left of us?

Philipsburg’s past is nothing but a souvenir, and there seems to be some suggestion in the poem that, however specific and vivid, memories themselves won’t sustain you.  That one last good kiss, that one last good year (the 1907 boom), those eight once-productive silver mines (“going” in a way that the town’s current citizens can’t seem to), the very springs beneath the dance floor—each memory is “resolved” into a single, sweeping, generalizing, impersonal final gaze, figured here as a field of “panoramic green” that surrounds the town and is literally being eaten away by cattle. Boredom or memory: both do away with the vital, burning particulars, and Hugo hints that our eyes themselves are compromised, “two dead kilns” like two dead eye-sockets looming over the town, trying to grasp at something that once fed them. “Isn’t this your life—that ancient kiss / still burning out your eyes?” These are extinguishing fires—the fires that, like the forces of anonymity, wipe you out, slowly eating away at your spirit until you succumb.

This whole town, your whole life, announces nothing but its defeat, and the church bell announces its defeat, and all the empty houses ring with defeat.  And no one is responding to the call:  no one comes. This is a crisis of human response, and it is also the province of poetry. As Hugo understood, poems are at their most essential responses, genuine responses to a call that comes from outside the self—from the broken, spite-driven world. And so this speaker pushes on, hoping for some kind of instruction, some sense of purpose. What will suffice?  Are magnesium and scorn “sufficient” to support a town, a life? What can support your life, any life, given that the world will not offer you certain things—the “towering blondes, good jazz and booze,”—given that your desires will not be met?

And then a response arrives.  It is the first real action or undertaking on the part of the speaker in the poem: “Say no to yourself.”  It echoes the original “Say your life broke down,” and seems to mean, in this deepened context:  say no to your life breaking down; no, this isn’t enough; no to some part of your spirit that just wants to be extinguished. And the whole poem starts to pivot around that no.

Say no to yourself.  The old man, twenty

when the jail was built, still laughs

although his lips collapse.  Someday soon,

he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.

The old man, with whom the speaker appears engaged in conversation, is still able to laugh although his lips are collapsing around his mouth (The rhyme between “still laughs” and “collapse” suggests that this laughter is hardly carefree. And the description of the old man’s puckered mouth seems to be a kind of cruel parody of the “ancient kiss” that reminded the speaker of a time when he felt alive.). We don’t know, then, if an actual conversation is taking place, or if this old man is simply laughing and the speaker is imagining the old man’s thoughts. On the weird border between an actual and an imagined exchange, the moment is especially charged because the landscape of the poem thus far has been intensely desolate and solitary. This is the last remaining shape of human contact, even if it only takes place in the speaker’s head.  And out of this exchange comes what is to my mind the most crucial line in the poem, in all its visceral immediacy: You tell him no. This phrase is of a different order than “Isn’t this your life”—where the speaker is articulating something he already feels to be true—and it goes beyond “Say no to yourself,” where the refusal is somehow more general and more exclusively directed at the contents and choices of the speaker’s own life. Here, the speaker is simply—and extravagantly—refusing a stranger’s death, or more specifically, refusing the man’s resignation in the face of death. (“Someday soon, / he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.  You tell him no.”)

One of the things that makes this gesture so striking is that it’s undertaken on behalf of another:  it’s not the speaker’s life in question, but it might as well be his.  And the speaker’s refusal is striking because it’s outrageous:  nobody can say no to death, and certainly someone like this old man, about whom we know nothing beyond his apparent physical decay, is perfectly correct in maintaining that at some point, perhaps soon, he’ll go to sleep and not wake up. What we seem to be witnessing, then, is the sudden assertion, on the part of the speaker, of some buried or latent force of will—a will made manifest at the point of greatest urgency and threat of vanishing. I refuse your death; I insist against all plausibility, against everything I know to be true about the world, that you not succumb. And with this gesture Hugo puts his voice into a stream of beautiful, agonizing speech, a whole company and history of voices—the voices of poets who rage against death and against the habits, conventions, and dull, languishing routines of the self that threaten to make us die every day.

With “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” as in so many of his poems, Hugo offers us a city-map straight into, through, and—in a very fleeting, tenuous way—out of despair.  Some bedrock defiance of death is in you; you have a stake in life, this man’s and your own. “The car that brought you here still runs.”  There is money to buy lunch with; you can still eat.  Someone’s bringing you food:  there is company, you’re being served. And, as if to accentuate these reminders of worth, the very materials of the world seem to be making themselves present.  Although mined from elsewhere and so not supporting Philipsburg, the money is silver (gray, but lit—gray, but still burning), and like the silver of the change itself, the waitress’ red hair is “lit,” casting a red-gold, almost hallowed light against the wall.  There’s a flicker of the erotic among these newly luminous surfaces (Hugo pairs “silver” with “slender”), and we feel how hard-fought are the color and the light against that thick, lingering backdrop of obsessive grays.  Something at once small and tangible and ethereal and shimmering has appeared:  the light from the waitress’ red hair seems to spread to the wall itself, as if the confines of that space were, however quietly, expanded and transformed.  And all the eroded surfaces in the poem—from the meaningless grid of streets to the outward collapse of machines and concrete and persons—seem to momentarily give way to this singular illumination that is no reminder of a past life, but altogether of the present; that is not made of abstract, future desires, like the town of “towering blondes,” but of a glow that seems to emanate from this one woman, right now, in this last space on earth. However temporary it might be, it’s here, and it’s real. The poem never suggests that it will last: but that it happened. For a moment, the world was lit from within.

The poem follows an arc from the “last-one” sense of things in the first two stanzas (that last one kiss, the last one prisoner, the only restaurant) to the “no one” of stanza three, to the “no” of stanza four, and comes to rest on the apparently casual “no matter” of the final phrase. No matter wretchedness and degradation, no matter rage and hopelessness and constant, corrosive defeat:  some piece of life, some premonition of our worth, survives. “Call it,” writes Hugo in his essay “In Defense of Creative Writing Classes,”

the obsessive and irresistible love of being alive, if you can stand the rhetoric.  It is born of the certainty we will disappear fast enough…No matter how justified our despair, we still live in a world where circumstances that make death preferable to life are limited by our revulsion.  When moments that support our awareness of ourselves and each other, fond or sad,…insist, some of us would not deny them any more than we would deny our lives.

Joanna Klink is the author of three books of poetry, They Are Sleeping, Circadian, and Raptus. She teaches poetry at The University of Montana and is currently the Tin House Writer-in-Residence at PSU.


Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg

by Richard Hugo


You might come here Sunday on a whim.

Say your life broke down.  The last good kiss

you had was years ago.  You walk these streets

laid out by the insane, past hotels

that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try

of local drivers to accelerate their lives.


Only churches are kept up. The jail

turned 70 this year.  The only prisoner

is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now

is rage.  Hatred of the various grays

the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,

The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls

who leave each year for Butte. One good

restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.

The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,

a dance floor built on springs—

all memory resolves itself in gaze,

in panoramic green you know the cattle eat

or two stacks high above the town,

two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse

for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.


Isn’t this your life?  That ancient kiss

still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat

so accurate, the church bell simply seems

a pure announcement:  ring and no one comes?

Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium

and scorn sufficient to support a town,

not just Philipsburg, but towns

of towering blondes, good jazz and booze

the world will never let you have

until the town you came from dies inside?


Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty

when the jail was built, still laughs

although his lips collapse. Someday soon,

he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.

You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.

The car that brought you here still runs.

The money you buy lunch with,

no matter where it’s mined, is silver

and the girl who serves your food

is slender and her red hair lights the wall.