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Meryl Natchez

Letting the Light in: ‘Recent Changes in the Vernacular’ by Tony Hoagland

9781893003170Tony Hoagland, like Jack Spicer, is a master of wielding the needle of irony to inject you with the pain of being an aware human being. (Re-reading Spicer’s letters to Graham Macintosh in the July 1970 issue of Caterpillar reminded me of their shared sensibility.) Hoagland has a particular ability to pinpoint the ills and contradictions of the American psychic landscape using deadly serious humor. This was already evident in poems such as “Hard Rain,” “Dickhead,” “Foodcourt,” “At the Galleria Shopping Mall,” and “America.” Perhaps no one else in the contemporary poetry landscape creates such pitch-perfect expositions of our national yearnings, naiveté, and delusions. He also has poems of infinite tenderness, such as “Beauty” or “The Color of the Sky.”

The best of Hoagland’s work shows his fearlessness, his willingness to probe his own demons, to expose himself in print. In the poems “Lucky,” “Sweet Ruin,” or “Phone Call,” for example, he dramatizes his own darkness, admits he is implicated, doesn’t shrink from self-exposure. He opens himself up in a profound way—the way letting light into a dark room allows you to see, and re-evaluate the tattered, rather humiliating furniture. (This has not been without controversy. His reaction several years ago to Claudia Rankine asking him about his poem “The Change” provoked a scathing response from Rankine, which you can read about here.)

His latest book, Recent Changes in the Vernacular (96 pages; Tres Chicas Press), displays these same qualities—humor, perceptive exploration of the American psyche, and a willingness to go deep into the unexplored personal. It’s tempting to quote whole poems; to let them speak for themselves, because it’s hard to get a sense of their range and depth in short bursts. Part of Hoagland’s technique is the layering of imagery, one sequence playing off the next. But other skills include the ability to create a simple exposition that exactly captures something you instantly recognize. In “Opening Night,” a poem about the opera house built by the generosity of the widow of an arms manufacturer, he comments:

… no one smells the gunpowder
hidden deep inside the curtains;

No one sees the blood congealed
around the legs of the piano

These lines seem simple, straightforward, inevitable. But the effect they produce is almost impossible to achieve. Like a skilled tightrope walker, Hoagland makes his acrobatics look easy. Hoagland notes in his poem, “Empire”:

It’s hard to write inside an empire.
The ink is made from the eyelids of mice…

You don’t say anything because you like your job;
you like your car and wife and life.

Yet somehow Hoagland can write about the empire from inside it, write of his own role within it, of his complicity, which makes us aware of our complicity. His vision is accurate, wry, unflinching. This excerpt from “Moisture” is typical:

The ice skater spins on her prosthetic leg, on national TV,
in her first performance since the accident

and wobbles once but does not fall,
as the audience rises to its feet to give her an ovation

and my tears drip down into my potpie chicken dinner
saving me the trouble of adding salt.

His ability to pick just the right detail—the potpie or the eyelids of mice—elevates the poems and gives them power.

Of course, not every poem hits its mark; some feel light, jokey, too easy. But as a whole, this book is a complex mix of pleasure and revelation. Who else could write a scene of a man dying of a heart attack in a bus on the way to Atlantic City and end it like this?

The tired state trooper can feel a headache coming on,
and the faintest sprinkle on his hairy arms, just a mist
descending from the shrouded Jersey sky,
just the faintest dreamlike of particulates…

—Now traffic will be stop and go
all the way to Party City—
that’s what he thinks, phlegmatically,
as a woman with cotton-candy hair

and what looks like a Corgi in her purse
stands up inside the bus
and slides down the aisle,
because there is a vacancy in Row Sixteen

and she feels lucky.

We are there with the tired trooper, the hopeful gambler, and that perfect detail—the Corgi in her purse. We are with them and of them, rueful observers as death exits down the interstate.

As for the personal, “The Age of Iron,” which opens Section II of this book, stands as one of Hoagland’s most masterful poems—one that I wish there were space to quote in its entirely. As it is, you’ll need to read the book.

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A Delicious Cocktail of Topics, Tones: ‘In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide’

81e1JQnEzOLBecause I love poetry, I always open a new book with some trepidation. I so much want it to be good, to be transformative, and as I turn to the first page I brace for disappointment. But from its intriguing title to its diminutive footprint In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide (McSweeney’s; 184 pages) sparkles. Honed from the archives of Poetry International by a trio of editors (Ilya Kaminski, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan), the poems span centuries and countries. Poets range from standbys such as Baudelaire, Celan, Neruda, Rilke, Walcott; to acclaimed living poets—Hirshfeld, Ryan, Zagajewski; to contemporary poets from multiple countries whose names and work you may not know.

So what binds the collection together? The editors have chosen poems that share a sensibility that combines wonder and literate despair. Most of the poems fit on a single page; very few are more than two. The poems share a straightforward diction combined with mysterious content. They tend to often end with a twist. The title poem by Malena Mörling that opens the book is a good example. Here is how it ends:

My arms and legs still work,
I can run if I have to
or sit motionless purposefully
until I am here and I am not here
the way death is present
in things that are alive
like salsa music
and the shrill laughter of the bride
as she leaves the wedding
or the bald child playing jacks
outside the wig shop.

That wonderful series of images left me short of breath, made me think, made me reread the poem from the beginning. I can’t remember when I have read through an anthology with such interest, anticipating the pleasure of each poem, I had to stop again and again to ponder the poem as if staring at the after image of a blaze of light, trying to define its source.

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Resisting Easy Definition: ‘My Private Property’ by Mary Ruefle

.…there is the poem as a unit-like thing, and then there is the poem that pervades existence, which is much more like the wind, and that is the poem everyone senses from time to time, whether they can read or not, whether they ‘care’ about the unit-like thing or not.—Mary Ruefle, from a 2013 interview with Andrew David King in Kenyon Review

It’s hard to define a poem these days. But whether you call the short pieces in Mary Ruefle’s new book, My Private Property (128 pages; Wave Books), poetry or prose poems or essays or flash fiction or mediations or whatever, I’m hooked on them. They “go down a treat” I might say if I were British and lived in the last century. And they are deceptively simple.

Simple, that is, until you try to figure out how she does it. How does she create a tone at once distanced and intimate? Straightforward and offbeat? Mary Ruefle’s mind is on display here in all its quirky richness. If you don’t know her erasure books, her essays, or her earlier books of more conventionally lineated poetry, starting with My Private Property will give you the essential flavor of her work.

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Accept the Flaws to Get to Beauty: ‘Syllabus of Errors’ by Troy Jollimore

9780691167688_p0_v1_s192x300Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.

As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding?

After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:

…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.

Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.

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