#tobyreads: When the Narrative Circles Itself


I’d heard Richard Hugo’s name mentioned for a while as a writer whose work I should check out. Most recently, I was reading Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering, due out in the fall on Tin House, and found a lengthy essay using Hugo’s poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” as the jumping-off point for a long meditation on America, economic collapse, and national anxiety.  This was the mephorical straw to my to-read list’s camel’s back, and I ended up ordering his essay collection The Triggering Town from WORD a few days later.

It’s a short but potent collection: taken mostly from lectures he’s given, Hugo delves into concepts of meaning and structure, often looking back at his older poems and finding certain works wanting. In some, he conflates memoir with literary analysis, contrasting certain impressions of a place or time with how he chose to write about then at one point, and how he might do it differently now. Sometimes brutally honest, and intellectually rigorous, I found a lot to savor here. (Huge thanks are due to Mairead Case for the recommendation.)

I’m an admirer of the chapbooks that Caketrain has released over the years, given that they’ve included work from the likes of Sarah Rose Etter, Matt Bell, and Stacey Levine. I ordered Megan Martin’s Nevers from them not long ago; here, too, are surreal stories that play with language and sometimes take a sinister turn. There’s a slightly metafictional quality to some of the short pieces in here: both wrestling with questions of language as a story element and looking at the society of writers in an unexpected way. At its best, the richness of its language blended with its irreverence makes for some quietly thrilling moments.

Also in there, I read Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which I think was my first time reading work of Carter’s that wasn’t short fiction. (I am not proud of this.) The plot initially seems straightforward: at the turn of the 20th century, a journalist investigates a winged aerialist to see if her claims of being half-swan are true. There’s a journey across Russia by train; there are secret histories and power struggles and looming revolutions in abundance. But Carter doesn’t take the expected route: within this inherently compelling story are a number of others nestled within it, with questions of time, identity, and change looming in the distance.

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