Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg by Richard Hugo

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley Vintage Contemporaries book cover

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (Vintage Contemporaries, 1988).

One poem, found in James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss

I read The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley in its Vintage Contemporaries edition, probably about the time it was published, in 1988.

The Last Good Kiss is a detective novel, more or less, and though I don’t remember much of it I do recall loving the fabulous poem that serves as its epigraph (and from where the book’s title comes), “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.

I know nothing about Hugo, but while digging up the book cover image I came across a blog post that mentions the book and also the illustration, by Rick Lovell:

Last Good Kiss book illustration by Rick Lovell

Last Good Kiss illustration by Rick Lovell.

Kudos to Vintage Contemporaries, who also first published David Foster Wallace‘s Broom of the System, and also published Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter and Charles PortisNorwood, among many others.

You can read more about Vintage Contemporaries on this blog post, “Vintage Contemporaries”.


0 comments for “Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg by Richard Hugo

  1. March 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Really love the story in this poem and the images…thanks for sharing it.

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