Sunday, June 29, 2008
I'd say that the "treadmill" I refer is evidence of the confinement Hoagland is writing about; what's for certain is that at this moment, the experience recollected in the poem, he wants out of the life he no longer has empathy for. I don't think the poem is political in the way some have suggested, although it starts that way. Rather, the first stanza is set up as a situation that will be contrasted against the narrator's increasing unease, and with the final stanza, he alone in the room with a television blaring with the sound off, we find him relating not to the righteousness of the cause, but only to the gathered anger and rage itself. All these angry faces seemed ready to burst out of their confines, spill over, render their former social relationships meaningless. What appeals to me is not the sense this makes as an argument rather than the sense it gives of the sensation of being closed in and set upon, and the increasing level of the instinct of fight-or-flight.
The poem had been criticized for making use of political reference in order to make a self-centered confession, but saying that Hoagland's use of a politics situation is narcissistic is a little shallow. Hoagland's narrator is responding to the jacked-up reporting and manipulated images of the situation, an editing style designed to ratchet up the viewer's anxiety level; Marcuse discusses this when he refers to the Thanatonic desire, which is the desire to consume, engineered by marketing, to deny an impending sense of doom. The poet here is on the money and accomplishes the task of getting at a common malaise that is an obvious under current in a materialist culture.
The poem, though, is primarily about the narrator's own plight.It's an efficient dialectic the poet puts across here.Remember that his unraveling is triggered, by implication, by a media hyped reports of a coup in the Middle East, cause of the turmoil not disclosed. It sets the tone for the rest of his day, which he was obviously anticipating with dread. After he is saturated with the alienating currents of the memorial service, he returns from the local to the global, witnessing angry televised protests, feeling it as rage about to spill over or explode from the box containing it, and recognizes at once that he isn't the only one who feels like this. He indeed does relate to something larger than his own unease; he realizes the discomfort is shared, the rage is same whatever the language.
Lastly, the last stanza about the pall bearers is choice. Sometimes attending funerals seem like reruns of old tv shows, as the causes of death and the tributes and regrets expressed in grief seem interchangeable after awhile. You get the feeling that you're watching a teaser trailer of an upcoming feature, your own demise. Hoagland's wit is appreciated here.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
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.
Friday, May 16, 2008
I wanted to like Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Story of the Father” more than I did, if for no reason other than the description of the father burning the photographs reminds me of a potent scene in Reynolds Price's bittersweet novel Love and Work. In the novel, a middle aged English professor finds life closing in on him as he tries to balance the demands of organizing a literary festival at his college, becomes more estranged from his wife, and quite suddenly has to realize that he has to close the house of his recently deceased parents. The professor is an especially loathsome schmuck, self involved, resentful of the needs of work and family on his time and patience. Coming upon boxes of old family photographs, the beleaguered teacher throws them into a metal trash can and sets them on fire and it is there, watching the photos curl and bubble and finally obliterate the youthful faces of his dead parents that he looses it, breaking into tears, confronting the frustrate, clenched assholism of his current life. Price is a splendid writer, not one to over describe or tell you with an excess of verbal flair how to read the scene; he is very able to get across the tension, the unspoken dynamics of a situation without so many metaphors or flashing similes and allows the scene to make you think of some of your own touchy circumstances. Empathy is the word.
Hoagland's poem is all editorial, though, a clinician's report of a depressed patient. Whatever the intent, this poem is etherised upon the table.The writing is actually better than "a clinician's report", but there is the sense that what was over written in first draft was cut back but with the full intention of keeping the poem weighted with two generations of family grimness; the over writing still shows in lines that hope to be clean and elegant in their lack of qualifying distractions.
How quiet the suburbs are in the middle of an afternoon
*****************when a man is destroying evidence,
breathing in the chemistry of burning Polaroids,
watching the trees over the rickety fence
****************seem to lift and nod in recognition.This would be expected in a Rick Moody novel, who has tried to revive the darkly humorous melancholy of John Cheever with writing that combines battling metaphors and inclusions of botched, deadwood imagery, so glaring in his novels like Ice Storms and Purple America, the kind of writing that is a stall for time until the author can finesse a transition. Hoagland's lines here are self conscious to the degree that he expects to gain respect for telling an anecdote so close to the Everyman’s grief-sick heart, but this poem seems no less a template of sad tale telling than what one is likely to hear or say when no can figure out what the proper words are when trouble arises and troubles formerly smooth waters.
Hoagland sticks with fussy details that he writes about as if he were still mentally arranging their order as he settles for the one among many unsatisfying options. The contained and compressed form of the poem might well be his trouble, as these are details that fit a short story or a novel where family interaction and private rituals emerge in a more expansive narrative. You read lines like these and wonder what Richard Ford or Russell Banks might have done if they were used in the length of a novel;
Over and over I have arrived here just in time
to watch the father use a rusty piece of wire
to nudge the last photo of the boy
************into the orange part of the flame:
the face going brown, the memory undeveloping.
It is not the misbegotten logic of the father;
it is not the pity of the snuffed-out youth;The writing is fine as is, but the effect is toppled with a narrator’s remark, a summary that draws attention to the rote dynamics, as well as showing a writer trying to condense a bulkier cargo of ideas.
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
This is a sentence that begins a work of fiction, along the lines of “Call me Ishmael” or “They through off the water truck at noon”, a fast and arresting introduction to a character that then tells of his immediate situation and then recounts the events that have brought him to his present vantage point. Hoagland’s attempt to crystallize the unspoken alienation, anger and stunted grieving with phrases that don’t introduce character but rather attempt a wistful acceptance of what cannot be explained leaves too many things unattended to. This poem is a Dagwood sandwich that spills from between the bread slices.