What Are They Reading?
WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME.
By Tony Hoagland.
Graywolf. 78 pp. Paper $14.
For a man ostensibly telling us what narcissism means to him, Tony Hoagland sure lets his friends do a lot of the talking. But maybe that's the point. In other people, he sees himself. And we, in turn, see ourselves in this book, Hoagland's third poetry collection.
The book opens with "That one night in the middle of the summer/when people move their chairs outside/and put their TVs on the porch." And throughout, Hoagland gives voice to this array of people--folks who might drink beer on the porch, people of the America we know: "Boz said, This country is getting stupider every year"; "The French have it wrong, said Larry"; "Em said, 'My plans were changed for me.'"
Partly because they deal with the conversations we're having right now, these poems are accessible. Without compromising dignity or quality, Hoagland, who teaches at the University of Houston, writes in a way that touches readers, engages academics and excites other poets. When, after a few beers (on the porch, no less), a friend of mine listened to me read a poem from his previous collection, Donkey Gospel, she soon took the book from my hands. Then, she started reading aloud herself.
So, Hoagland can spark conversations. And the conversations he starts will be honest, since he is not too hip to treat his contemporary subjects with sincerity more than irony. In "Rap Music," he writes that "what I'm not supposed to say is that Black for me is a country/more foreign than China or Vagina," concluding that "this tangled roar" of rap music, of racial difference and preconception, "has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off/or actually mentioned and entered." He does not shy away from examining his own complicity--and ours--in the problems with which he contends. In "America," Hoagland remembers,
...what Marx said near the end of his life:
"I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future."
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable TV
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?
Hoagland writes of America, and then uses America's language to write of things more--dare I say--universal. His poems speak of suicide ("You stay alive you stupid asshole/Because you haven't been excused") and of smells ("and when they bump together in my nose/I want to raise my head and sing/I'm a child in paradise again/when you touch me like that, baby") with equal intensity. In doing so, they join the cries of the present.