Still Cranky After All These Years (But Wiser)
Reviewed by Brian McKenna
Tony Hoagland, “Application for Release from the Dream”
2015, 98 pages, softcover, $16.00
Like it or not, oneself is always the test case for the human condition. // The baby starts out as a luminous jellybean of god / and gradually transforms into a strange, lopsided growth (41). –Tony Hoagland
While not exactly the stuff personal mantras are made of, this fatalistic but funny bit of glass-half-poison thinking from the poem “Airport” in Tony Hoagland’s new collection, “Application for Release from the Dream,” does convey the enduring temperamental thrust behind one of contemporary poetry’s most prolonged, rigorous, and comedic self-exams. Over the course of 20-plus years and four previous full-length poetry collections, Hoagland’s poems—tonally dexterous, rhetorically inventive, rich in evocative imagery—have exposed the conflicted humanity at the heart of this lump-giving life. His narrative poems and lyrical meditations have often looked outward to look inward, scrutinizing the deformities and excesses of American culture and offering his perceptively excoriating take on human relations as a way to self diagnose. Collections like “Donkey Gospel” (1998) and “What Narcism Means to Me” (2003), with the raw power of their individual poems, the pinballing eclecticism of their subject matter, as well as their cameos by a whole coterie of Hoagland’s friends and characters, were books memorable for the cacophony of their disparate parts rather than the conversation cultivated between them.
In his fifth collection, “Application for Release from the Dream,” Hoagland changes this formula, doing a bit of addition by subtraction. The guest speakers and third-person portraits that colored previous collections are largely sidelined in order to allow in-depth focus on the fallout from more personally consequential relationships, such as those with his ailing but still combative father and his relationship to the memory of his failed marriage. The result of this paring down of other speakers and characters is a collection more unified in its ruminations. This reconfiguration, possibly brought on by impending senior-citizenhood, has intensified Hoagland’s interrogation of the muse. Now witnessing time concretely bear out truths previously felt only in the abstract, the Hoagland persona—idiomatic yet erudite, arch yet humane—has grown less emotionally guarded and more expansively reflective. As he writes in the poem “Eventually the Topic”: “Eventually the topic turns out to be Time, Time and the self” (17). It’s this sincere recognition of the self’s ultimate lowercase-ness that adds a metaphysical undercurrent to Hoagland’s typical concerns with the dynamics of consumption, gender, race, desire, politics, and memory.
Hoagland’s new poems often have a more ambient feel to them, using the poems to expose the tensions of the human condition rather than using them as an occasion for a linear march towards resolution. Through his complex layering of image, tone, and rhetoric, Hoagland convincingly replicates the conflicted humanity of his speaker. When this approach works, as it does in the book’s impressionistic opener, “The Edge of the Frame,” his poems feel like they’ve been transplanted onto the page fully grown from the hothouse of his imagination. Written in his characteristically long, terraced lines with as much rhythm as the idiom will allow, the poem showcases Hoagland’s poetic resourcefulness as well as the metaphysical concerns of the collection. In it, the speaker, who has begun consulting biographies and taking antidepressants to try and recapture some semblance of personal momentum and curiosity, confronts the frustrating limits of knowledge:
What is a human being? What does it mean?
It seems a crucial thing to know, but no one does.
From my window, I can see the oak tree in whose shade
the man from UPS parks his van at noon
to eat his lunch and read the ads for Full Body Asian Massage.
“You will conquer obstacles,” that’s what the fortune cookie said;
first I crumpled it up, then went back later to retrieve it from the trash.
Midnight, walking down Cerillos Avenue, alone,
past the auto dealerships and thrift stores,
past the vintage neon of the Geronimo Motel.
Someone’s up late, painting the inside of Ernie’s Pizza Parlor,
which will be opening in June.
As I walk by, all I can see
is the ladder, and two legs near the top, going out of sight. (5)
Though clear and logically ordered, the poem’s images are also laden with symbolic potential, infused with dreamlike energy from the jump-cut layering they receive. From these few representative images—the UPS man enjoying the routine sensual comforts of his lunch break, the speaker’s existential hedging, and the “vintage neon” glow of the street’s past bordering on its entrepreneurial future—Hoagland creates a floating world of desire and limitation.
The poems here are at their strongest when Hoagland is exploring the contradictory desires that govern human experience. Whether he’s describing how “the smell of fresh bread / makes the mourners salivate against their will” (80) in “Note to Reality,” or finding a way to not be hostile towards a life “that dips you in time like a teabag / over and over and pulls you up / each year a slightly different color” (75) in “Summer Dusk,” Hoagland captures the bewildering confluence of the present, where urge and memory intrude on intent. Coming from such a willful speaker, this newfound acceptance of contradiction and inner multitude seems almost Whitmanic.
This shift in outlook, however, doesn’t do away with the compelling volatility that’s made Hoagland’s past work so engrossing. He remains fully aware that knowing all the angles doesn’t mean you won’t be angry or otherwise stymied by life’s accumulations. In the very Glückian dramatic monologue, “Wasp,” Hoagland shows this ability to use subtle accretions and agitations of tone to render moments of deep feeling without oversimplifying them. In the poem, the speaker, still fuming after an argument, repairs to the roof of his house to nail down shingles with a can of wasp spray in tow, ready and willing to dowse anything that needs killed:
Don’t speak to me, please,
about clarity and proportionate response.
The world is a can of contents under pressure;
a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized Narrative Inside;
Prone to frequent sideways bursting
of one feeling through another
—to stare into the tangled midst of which
would make you sick and dizzy as those wasps,
then leave you stranded on the roof
on a beautiful day in autumn
with a mouth full of nails,
trying to transplant pain
by hammering down-down-down
on a house full of echoes. (48)
One gets the impression that isolating himself to do some hostility-fueled home improvement is actually a more evolved response to confrontation than he’s used to. Whether the speaker is addressing the person he’s upset with or trying to keep his own conscience from dogging him, the tone of the first two lines makes it clear that his boiling over has become exhaustingly predictable. The syntactic inversion of the word “please” emphasizes this. At the same time, we also know he feels the wastefulness of spending a beautiful autumn day turning swallowed anger into hammer blows. Isolation, self-control, helplessness, missed opportunity, it’s these kind of messy feelings bursting through one another that gives Hoagland’s poems their convincing contours.
While it’s true that Hoagland’s discursive and idiomatic style doesn’t allow for much in the way of lyrical compression, it’s tailor-made for replicating the interplay of speculation, fantasy, and fact that puts readers in the headspace of his self-aware speakers. Hoagland often uses this approach to expose the psychic drama percolating under the veneer of social behavior, as he does in “The Roman Empire,” a poem about the unspoken rules of interaction at play when a man passes a woman walking alone on the street:
each time a man and woman pass, each
time a man and woman pass each
time a man and woman pass
each other on an empty street,
it is an anniversary—
as if history was a cake made from layer after layer
of women’s bodies, decorated with the purple, battered
faces of dead girls.
A visitor from outer space, observing us
from some hidden vantage place
would guess at some terrible historical event
of which our politeness is the evidence—
the man, attempting to look harmless;
the woman trying not to seem afraid.
Look at that dogwood tree flowering nearby, with a bird in it.
After you. No, after you. (24)
The breeziness of its tone, the waltz-like enjambment of the repeated lines, and the ease with which the speaker’s macabre metaphor and image-making come to him, all contribute to the disturbing disparity between his thoughts and his behavior. While the components of such plainspoken pastiche may not have the music or individual integrity to linger in the mind, the pleasures of Hoagland’s composite approach are immediate and obvious.
This is not to imply that Hoagland has a laissez faire attitude toward diction and syntax; exacting word choice and order figure prominently in Hoagland’s ability to elicit squirms of self-recognition. The poem “Summer,” with its handy deployments of idiomatic language and its use of syntax to shadow action, does just this. In the poem, the predatory species known as the summer tourist is observed in its natural habitat:
It’s summer. No one needs therapy for now,
or a guide to the aesthetics of collage
—laughing as they walk past the acupuncture clinic,
and Orleans Fish and Chips,
then double back to the Omega store
to look more closely at those shoes.
People like to buy. They just do.
They like the green tissue paper.
They like extracting the card from its tight
prophylactic sheath, handing it over,
and getting it back.
They like to swing the bag when they stroll away.
They like to stash the box in the car. (6)
First off, who hasn’t, ashamedly or not, circled back like a greedy crow to the consumer carrion of “those shoes?” There’s such palpable desire crammed into that little word “those,” as if this type of desire should be totally familiar to anyone who has ever coveted a pair of shoes. With another seemingly simple word choice, Hoagland creates a narrative remove by avoiding use of the first-person plural, choosing to say that “People like to buy” instead of “We like to buy.” That narrative remove turns the tourists into a species to be observed and classified by their behavior. Then, by using short, staccato statements to break down the pleasure of purchase to its most basic and recognizable elements, Hoagland mimics the syntax of transaction. Long before the poem makes any hunting analogy explicit the groundwork is laid.
When the humor in these poems arises as a natural evolution of image, diction, and rhetoric as it does in the poem “Summer” or in the darker “The Roman Empire,” the results feel fresh and fully developed. By contrast, in poems like “His Majesty” and “December, with Antlers,” whose raison d’être seems to be the venting of hostility for the sake of entertainment, the humor begins broad and the conceit quickly wears thin. Both poems begin by asking questions that are pretty hard to care about, let alone write a meaningful poem about. Consider these opening lines from the poem “His Majesty”:
What does His Majesty Mr. Boombox-in-My-Jeep think
as he drives the beach road every night, at two a.m.,
under the bleached shell of the summer moon,
assaulting all the houses with his rude tunes? (63)
While complaining about loud music does appear to be a valid part of the life cycle, Hoagland’s speaker spends nearly the first three quarters of the poem spewing impotent invective. If the poem was meant to reaffirm the speaker’s curmudgeonly street cred, it succeeds wonderfully by having him lob stale bits of cringe-worthy characterization, at one point calling the driver: “Atilla the Hun, in your combat-camouflaged new Jeep, / white boy pretending to be black, or underprivileged, or street” (63). However, when the ending tries to turn this false king and disturber-of-the-Floridian-peace into an emblem for all the contemporary noise standing in the way of contemplation, it’s clear that this isn’t the case. It’s then that the poem does what most of the poems in the collection don’t do, it feels forced rather than forceful.
If the slightness of this poem and a few others distract from the searching nature of the collection, they do so temporarily.
By nearly any measure, Hoagland has written one of his most solid collections. In “Application for Release from the Dream,” he’s managed to make subtle amendments to his approach without diluting the unmistakable voice and skewed imagination that have drawn readers to his work. Time and the self have indeed become the topic, or, rather, how one can endure the spasms of selfhood and stomach the endless annotations of self-consciousness, while also paying proper attention to the world around him. As the speaker, awaking refreshed from a slate-cleaning sleep, says in the final lines of the collection’s title poem, “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed” (11).
Brian McKenna received his MA in creative writing from Central Michigan University and is currently working on a chapbook, “The Trades.” He has contributed poetry reviews to The Rumpus and NewPages.