Ch-paa-qn Peak Sunset
Romancing Hard Drinking with Hugo and Hemingway
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
– Ernest Hemingway
“You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
on the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon. The owner,
fresh from orphan wars, loves too
but bad as you. He keeps improving things
but can’t cut the bodies down.”
– Richard Hugo, The Milltown Union Bar
When I read “The Milltown Union Bar” for the first time, I actually looked around furtively, wondering who had been watching me that day last year when I walked into an empty, but welcoming bar in Missoula. There were the same cheesy dioramas etched in glass above the long, dark-stained wooden bar, a smattering of honest drunks, and a stranger’s warm invitation to sacrifice your own cares at the same altar that has served so many others before you.
Fifty years ago, Richard Hugo walked into a different bar after moving to Missoula. Fifty years later, I, too, find myself in a strange city, the same city, fearfully staring down a brand new life.
And I bled along with Hugo as I read the poem once, and again, and again.
Now it is politically correct to shake our heads and deplore the brilliant writers of the past for their drinking habits, without which, surely they would have shown even greater genius? Surely now, in the twenty-first century, we are more evolved.
What was wrong with Hemingway, or Hugo, drinking his way to the other side of the pane, so that he could continue to live, to write, to hurt. To bleed. Now we are expected to do yoga, eat kale, and bond with nature on long hikes to keep our creative demons at bay. I like most of those things. But I also like walking into a bar where I don’t know a soul, and leaving with a new story, or a new friend, or an inexplicable connection to place and time. Or simply enjoying the exquisite burn in my throat and sweet, charcoal aftertaste of my favorite elixir – the sweet brown nectar of both Lionel Hutz and my inner voice.
So the next time I walk into my Milltown Union Bar, I will look around. And perhaps Hugo will be on my right, and Hemingway further down the bar to my left. And we will live, and hurt, and drink, and bleed. Because sometimes, a person knows suddenly, and inexorably, that “you could love here.”
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