Tony Hoagland is one of the best of a new group of American poets who all share certain qualities: witty without being archly comic, accessible without being simple, political without being strident. Even the title of Hoagland's most recent book, What Narcissism Means to Me, tells you something about him. He can make fun of himself even as he makes fun of one of the common perceptions of contemporary poetry. He is comfortable using the phrases and words of popular culture, but often for ironic effect. And in his own way he is willing to engage weighty issues, serious themes. The title poem of this collection, for instance, has already achieved a certain fame, at least in the small circle of readers of contemporary poetry, for its casual self-presentation. It starts, "There's Socialism and Communism and Capitalism, / said Neal, / and there's Feminism and Hedonism, / and there's Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism, means the most to me." As the poem continues, we realize that we are overhearing the witty banter of several friends — Neal, Sylvia, Ann, Ethan, and the poet-speaker — as they prepare a summer dinner over a grill. The jokes abound, often sounding something like Woody Allen: "if you're going to mess around with self-love / you shouldn't just rush into a relationship." And then something changes. For some reason, perhaps the accumulation of idle banter, "Sylvia was weeping now." But the moment is not broken yet:
| and then the hamburgers were done, just as
the sunset in the background started
cutting through the charcoal clouds
exposing their insides — black,
delicious but unhealthy,
— the way that, deep inside the misery
Suddenly we've moved from the mundane into a troubling image, one that says something about our lives that strikes us with a slap of recognition.
Through the catalog of his friends and acquaintances, through the "rivers of bright merchandise" upon which "you are floating in your pleasure boat," Hoagland always comes back to ground us in a particular moment, to remind us of our place and time. Usually an image, deceptively simple, rises out of a narrative moment, and the image becomes the place where we can find the poetry. "The News," a poem late in What Narcissism Means to Me, begins with a geopolitical summary that sounds familiar enough: "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." This leads to certain memories of childhood that make up most of the poem, ". . . the terrible things that happen to you / and the terrible things that you yourself make happen." And that prompts thoughts of a tattoo, one of those things we do to ourselves:
| Yet the only tattoo I want
is of a fist and rose, together.
Fist, that helps you survive.
Rose, without which
you have no reason to.
Here again, his poem finds resolution in a statement that we find we can't disagree with.
Tony Hoagland reads from his poetry at Davidson Hall on the U-M Central Campus on Thursday, November 18.