Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland, Bloodaxe, 96pp, £9.95 (paperback)
Tony Hoagland is still something of an unincorporated poet as far as the European press is concerned, despite the fact that in America he is now often favourably compared with such eminent poets as the former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Hoagland’s poetry has a lot to offer the reader in search of a writer whose comic verve, wit and intelligence are such that he is able to accomplish the feat of submerging you in the gritty, sometimes seamy, sand of modern life with its sea of bobbing plastic. Hoagland will thrust your face into the stifling steam of America’s controversial recent history, pop the slug of childhood trauma into your mouth, make your head spin inside the churning wonders of a cement truck that has become a ‘thick-skinned grunting beast’. He can put you through the various stations of the via dolorosa of divorce (and its unforeseen delights), slide you into the skin of a Brazilian leopard frog being pummelled ‘lightly against the surface of our pond’ by its tongue-wrapping mate, make you ride the crashing aeroplane of his allegories through the jungle of his dreams, have you endure all this and more, and still allow you to come out feeling enlightened, amused, enraptured and revitalised.
Perhaps the only downbeat is for readers wading through Hoagland’s jungle in the hope of finding Seamus Heaney crouching in a clearing, slicing the turf of language or weaving alliterative lianas. In their ironic context, such poems as ‘Sentimental Education’ and ‘Romantic Moment’ make it clear that Hoagland is not that kind of poet: he has inherited his nation’s love of sceptical, wise-cracking, conversational poetry that uses sound effects rather sparingly, and therefore perhaps all the more effectively. Although you may find Hoagland’s verbal voltage a little low at times, this occasional plainness of diction is also what makes his poems so democratically accessible, intimate and engaging.
When Hoagland enters the past to write about such subjects as parents, his use of understatement makes the poems look as if they are coated with a thickly transparent layer of pain. As in previous collections, his paternal poems have the riveting effect that you get when reading Sharon Olds’s mesmerising renditions of the Terrible Father. The ending of one of these offers a good example of Hoagland’s obliqueness, and his propensity to offer moments of contemplation that are laced with what one might put in the oxymoronic category of ‘humane cynicism’. Of a father burning photographs of his suicidal son, he concludes:
It is not the misbegotten logic of the father;
it is not the pity of the snuffed-out youth;
it is the old intelligence of pain
that I admire:
how it moves around inside of him like smoke;
how it knows exactly what to do with human beings
to stay inside of them forever.
In Real Sofistikashun, a collection of literary essays published in 2006, Hoagland argues in favour of the creativity derived from giving vent to meanness in poetry. It is certainly one of the factors that make his collections so gripping, even if one feels there is a little needless cruelty at times: his swipe at the celebrity singer in ‘Poor Britney Spears’ recalls Martin Amis’s eye-opening, and yet perhaps unnecessarily personal, depiction of the topless model known as Jordan in his desire to condemn the contemporary obsession with silicone-worship. At other times, Hoagland’s indulgence in acidulated mordancy is self-directed, bearing poignant confessional fruit:
and next thing I remember, I’m working for a living
at a boring job
that I’m afraid of losing,
with a wife whose lack of love for me
is like a lack of oxygen,
and this dead thing in my chest
that used to be my heart.
The propensity to over-indulge in the secretion of male hormonal steroids is regularly addressed in Hoagland’s poems. In Hard Rain (2005), male violence and its effects on history are described as follows: ‘A pool of testosterone is spreading from around their feet/it’s draining out of them like radiator fluid/like history, like an experiment that failed’. Yet then, in this collection’s poem entitled ‘Demolition’, Hoagland’s poetry indulges in the harmless, vicarious experience of watching the entire contents of a condominium being dropped down a plastic chute: ‘I may be a grown man but that doesn’t mean/I don’t enjoy/the ingenuities of violence against matter’. Hoagland focuses in a captivating way on what it is like to have this extra dose of testosterone circling round the heart. The least one can say is that there is no sign of androgen deficiency in his work: ‘We gaze at the destruction and linger/the way a woman might stare awhile/at a tooexpensive dress/in a big store window’.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hoagland’s work is his willingness to address taboo subjects such as gendered or racial identity in America. The risks Hoagland takes in the poems that consider this second touchy topic are sometimes considerable and one can see how the KKK might attempt to appropriate these texts the way the IRA attempted to co-opt Seamus Heaney’s complex political poems in post-partition Ireland. But any attempt to assimilate Hoagland or Heaney to racist or extremist causes is twisting their poetry out of its path.
‘The Change’, one of Hoagland’s most intriguing poems on the subject of race relations, is to be found in his collection of new and selected poems, What Narcissism Means to Me (2003). It stands as the racial equivalent of Heaney’s understanding of ‘the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge’ in less stark, though still disarming terms. Hoagland’s poem is interesting because of its equally divided sympathies. ‘The Change’ describes a tennis match between an African-American tennis player and her ‘little European blonde’ opponent. Although the speaker is spellbound by the way the African-American is ‘hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/down Abraham Lincoln’s throat’, he admits to feeling instinctive (and therefore unpatriotic) protectiveness towards the young European woman along racial lines and also because she is being utterly defeated during the match. The poem ends with a meditation on the delicate nature of transitional moments in the balance of demographic dominance: this is where the poem runs the risk of being misunderstood as nostalgic about white supremacy even though it is ultimately only giving voice to the strange new prospect of becoming a minority, having had the high hegemonic ground for so many centuries.
Unincorporated Persons has two captivating poems that deal with the same sensation of being passed out and left behind, what one might call ‘replacement anxiety’. ‘The Story of White People’ describes the perception of the contemporary Caucasian as ‘deficient, leached out, spent, colourless,/thin-blooded, indefinite –’. Another poem, ‘Foghorn’, recounts the experience of a man giving a fellow-American man a welcoming smile in a cafeteria. It begins without specifying their colour (a technique sometimes used in the opening moments of fiction aimed at the neutralisation of racial prejudice) only to foreground the issue of race relations in the third verse:
But when a black man and a white man
turn their glances on each other,
the air suddenly fills up with secret signs,
like MLK and NBA, like KKK
and NRA, like DWB and NWA
– and it gets hard to see through
all that smoke and burning shrubbery.
After having waded, with some awkward eloquence, through the thickening alphabet soup with which he feels the air of the canteen is saturated, the speaker concludes in a somewhat cryptic way that his greatest wish is to commune fraternally. As you will find when you pick up this collection, Hoagland has a propensity to puff up clouds of metaphor that unsettlingly both colour his discourse and obscure it simultaneously. Although this figurative density fits the theme of this particular poem, with its insistence on mental obfuscation, the volleys of powerful metaphor sometimes run the risk of fudging the issue, but this is also what makes it poetry rather than prosaic discourse. Hoagland always manages to turn ugly situations into finely-cut diamonds of poems, albeit diamonds partly left in the rough.
Hoagland’s new collection is as imaginative and challenging as his previous ones and deserves to be placed on the UK’s list of top-selling poetry collections. Indeed, one would dearly hope to see his readership expanded by having also placed this collection with a British publisher such as Bloodaxe.