Tony Hoagland writes about the self as if the self was some poor sucker he tortured in high school only to look into the mirror one day and find that same, poor sucker staring back at him, both beaten and threatening, sympathetic and unimpressed. In this, his newest collection, pluckily titled What Narcissism Means to Me, that tender yet resilient self travels through the world as if on a reconnaissance mission, easing into and meditating on the state of being human, plunging time and again into the pockets of the messed-up, American soul, fumbling for our substance at this particular—particularly distressing—cultural moment. More often than not, what starts out as rumination on the self opens up to make a larger political statement. Hoagland, who begins teaching in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program in January, returns again and again with gorgeous stanzas, giving it to us straight, the good news and the bad.
Among the collection’s many charms is the deceptively easy way the poems achieve their chummy, heightened intimacy with the reader. How can we hesitate to enter a poem that begins as casually as, “I was feeling pretty religious / standing on the bridge in my winter coat / looking down at the gray water” (“Disappointment”)? And how could we stop after the first few lines when the first few lines are, “Maybe I overdid it / when I called my father an enemy of humanity” (“Phone Call”), or “Sometimes I like to think about the people I hate” (“Hate Hotel”), or “The big country beat the little country up / like a schoolyard bully, / so an even bigger country stepped in / and knocked it on its ass to make it nice” (“The News”)? Hoagland most often seems to be working off the top of his head, leaning in to address his reader as if over a beer—that’s his magic—when really it’s a highly sophisticated use of rhythm, tone, and a masterful arrangement of sounds that makes poems like “Social Life” unravel beautifully in syntax:
After the first party peters out, like the gradual slowdown of a merry-go-round, another party begins and the survivors of the first party climb onto the second one and start it up again.
Hoagland possesses a brilliant, nimble sense of humor, and while he uses it to great effect, he never flaunts it for its own sake. My father, a bartender all his life, once told me the secret reason bartenders are funny. “Listen,” he said, “you don’t want to make people laugh while they’re in your bar; you want to make them laugh so they’ll stay there.” Hoagland seems to work by the same rule: his poems aren’t funny, he is, and so we want to stay there, in his poems, in his presence, and listen to what the man has to say.
What the man has to say is a lot. Much of this collection speaks boldly to difficult political issues: race anxiety; homophobia; the “nightmare” of feeling disempowered, even complicit, in the face of capitalism. And really, these are the bravest, most complicated pieces in the collection; they neither spin away from their subject nor rage aggressively toward it. Instead, these poems take their reader through the many layers of their anxieties. Hoagland is a poet uniquely talented in sustaining his inquiry, delving deeper, picking up strands and weaving them in, but always, always with the aim of finishing what he started. We get the impression that, between the first and last line, the speaker himself has come to understand something large, has been humbled or empowered or changed. This is not to say these poems resolve themselves. Nor is this to say Hoagland simply asks questions from atop his moral high horse and then answers them. Instead, when most successful they present a kind of starter question, usually a biggie, like: How do we come to terms with our inherent racism? They then hold their breath, go under, and come up not with an answer, but with another, larger question, and a more weighty set of implications. In their honesty the poems assure themselves the sympathy of the reader and then, in the end, hand their questions off, as in the last lines of the poem “Rap Music.” After meditating on the fact that the loud rap music coming from the car next to his is getting in the way of his meditation on the fear and foreignness he feels toward black culture, he fakes us out and ends big:
and it makes me feel stupid when I get close like a little white dog on the edge of a big dark woods I’m not supposed to look directly into
and there’s this pounding noise like a heartbeat full of steroids, like a thousand schizophrenic Shakespeares killing themselves at high volume—
this tangled roar that has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off or actually mentioned and entered.
In the poem “America” he starts out indignant and cynical, nearly crotchety:
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is…
Then, after some deft turns, he does it again, easing around to see the argument in a wholly different, highly self-implicating light:
And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either.
Hoagland often makes himself like a fly on the wall, recording conversations, party chatter, passing remarks. His poems are like a film in which the director makes sure all his friends get cameo roles. Fortunately, he has lots of brilliant, witty friends, who say things like, “that woman has a Ph.D. in Face.” In nearly every poem he quotes a friend, or mentions one, or mentions the absence of one, and for the most part this works to create that patented, chatty tone. We feel welcome. Within an individual piece, the attribution of lines to others is never anything less than brilliant (there is in fact a short, sparkly riff on attribution itself in the poem “Commercial for a Summer Night”). But after reading the poems together this cozy trick tends to lose a bit of its freshness. I began to feel that if “Kath said” or “Neal said” or “Greg said” or “Sylvia said” one more pithy, quotable thing they’d deserve credit under Hoagland’s name on the book’s cover.t their finest turns the poems in this collection shimmer with their own casual elegance. We get the impression that Hoagland wrote these poems quickly; they are fevered and seem to arrive at their destination by mere serendipitous wandering. We enjoy sensing the poet taking great leaps down an untrammeled path, getting lost and coming back and getting lost again just for the hell of it. Most of all we enjoy the universal appeal of the poems—their straight talk and their humility, their American complexion, their expansiveness. Hoagland is one of those wonderful poets who—because his talents are so great, his poems so well crafted—makes it look easy.
The sculptor Robert Morris once created a piece of art by recording the sounds of himself building a box—the racket of the saw and hammer, the quieter moments of measurement and fitting. When he was done, he put the tape recorder inside the box, pressed play, and sealed it. He called the piece “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making.” I think that’s what you get with Tony Hoagland’s collection—not only the easy pleasure of the poems themselves, but the pleasure of entering the life that led to their creation and coming out the other side changed, somehow more new than old, “dripping,” as Hoagland puts it, with “the amniotic fluid of history.”
Carrie Fountain is a student at the Michener Center for Writers at UT.