Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"CONFINEMENT" by Tony Hoagland: the desire to smash the box

The misery of the individual in crowds is the theme here, and death itself is the only release available to the harried sole who wants an end their unceasing trudge on what has become a grueling, repetitious treadmill.Tony Hoagland is a writer I like because of his skill at constructing what begins as conventional narrative--in this case one suspects he is about to go into a jejune broadside about power corrupting absolutely--and then changing course ever so, to go with a counter narrative from his own life. "Confinement" goes from the global to the local with a swiftness of association that's substantiated by Hoagland's attention to small but telling details, and his particular skill at drawing distinctions and then erasing them. There is what we take to be the description of televised news headlines of a coup

The dictator in the turban died and was replaced
by a dictator in a Western business suit.
Now that he looked like all the other leaders, observers

detected a certain relaxing of tensions. Something in the air
said the weather was changing,
and if you looked up at the sky and squinted, you could almost see

the faint dollar signs embossed upon the big, migrating clouds

And then the abrupt transition to the narrator's real time doings, snapped from a gaze of silent news headlines to his actual task of trying to get to a funeral on the other side of town. There is something of what-the-hell happening here , with the conventionally phrased anti-politician rhetoric of the first sequence and the WHAM! segue that comes without warning, but there is something; it's about the details, the creeping , scarcely contained dread that creeps through the body as one observes themselves in a crowd gathered to the departed, a brother in law who had large appetites and bad habits that caused his demise and forced this ritualized grieving on his family and associates. The anxiety of trying to think of nice things to say about someone you scarcely knew to people you're not especially interested in is credibly conveyed here;

And Barney was dead, big PartyBoy Barney,
famous for his appetite and lack of self-control—
—now, needing an extra-large coffin,

as if he was taking his old friends
Drinking Eating and Smoking
into the hole with him.

—So what hovered over the proceedings that afternoon
was a mixture of grief and vindication—
like a complex sauce the pallbearers and aunts

were floating in, each one thinking,
"Oh God! I told him this would happen!"

I like the way Hoagland alternates between his terse narration and the overheard remarks of the other mourners, the babbling, weeping, beseeching voices that are confounded with the death of someone in their concentric spheres of association. Escape is the theme here, a need for release from what imprisons the body , whether socially, addictively, physically, and Hoagland's observes , toward the end, he finds an empty room with a television turned on, sound off, recalling the coup presented in precis in the first stanza. A hit , a palpable hit, an undeniable aha, eureka, a small but actual moment of clarity reveals itself, in a flash of insight;

Even with the sound off,
not even knowing the name of the country,
I thought that I could understand

what they were protesting about,
what had made them so angry:

They wanted to be let out of the TV set;

This is the closest most of us will come to a zen moment where we find ourselves witnessing the thing itself and not the confines or shadows of our perceptual filters as they mold our experience into something useful for a consumer economy; this is about getting caught up in more demands on our energy than our mind or our soul can stand, those requests , entreaties, commands from outside ourselves that continue to resound even as we feel our autonomy being crowded out of consideration.It doesn't matter what killed his brother in law, it doesn't matter what style of suit a dictator wears, it matters little what mourners think they should have done or what the departed might have thought after the eulogies are read, there comes the time when one all the events and material things in the world cease to have delineated meanings and rational purposes and come to instead symbolize the crushing burden one feels in the extremity of radical self-consciousness. The reason for the televised protests wasn't what our beleaguered soul related to, it was the energy that needed release, violent release. He wants out of the box as well. Escape is the issue, and it doesn't matter to. 

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