TONY HOAGLAND is not a poet who sees himself as above anything. Rather, he is inside it all: “I too am made of joists and stanchions, / of plasterboard and temperamental steel, / mortgage payments and severed index fingers, / ex-girlfriends and secret Kool-Aid-flavored dawns.” From pop culture to the mundane, from the glittering Britney Spears to the undeniable hulk of a cement truck, Hoagland wades through the noise and confusion of American material culture with a mixture of awe and disgust. His language — personal, inviting, unpretentiously graceful — pulls the trusting reader along behind, unsure at times whether to laugh or cry.
It would be hard not to see Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty as in many ways a critique of contemporary culture. Hoagland wanders through the grocery store and the mega-mall, seeing beneath all the Muzak and bright colors and splashy ads the fraught and complex web that strings across the globalized world.
You would have to be high
on the fumes of the piped-in pan flutes
of commodified Peruvian folk music
not to be driven practically crazy
with awe and shame,
not to weep at the scale of subjugated matter.
In the mall, the speaker watches his nine-year-old niece “swinging a credit card like a scythe / / through the meadows of golden merchandise.” Observing this, Hoagland remembers the ancient gods who transformed mortals into various flora and fauna to teach them a lesson —”so we were turned into Americans / to learn something about loneliness.”
The poet makes clear: we are estranged from ourselves, from each other, and from the rest of life. And yet this is not a finger-shaking, but the lament of someone who acknowledges he too is tangled up in what repulses him. Hoagland is concerned with complicity and complacency and also with the intense detachment and loneliness that seems to pervade our culture. Such subjects might be difficult to swallow if it weren’t for the smart humor Hoagland frequently brings to his writing. “One could probably explain the whole world in terms of Plastic,” he muses in the same poem in which he contemplates a dissolving relationship and the pervasiveness of what he dubs “Interpersonal Adhesive Malfunction.”
Nor does he focus exclusively on the ugly. He can’t — because he is in love with life, whom he addresses in the poem “Barton Springs”: “It was worth death to see you through these optic nerves, / to feel breeze through the fur on my arms, / to be chilled and stirred in your mortal martini.” No doubt it is a dirty martini, but Hoagland is prepared to take the whole thing.