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'What Narcissism Means to Me' by Tony Hoagland

Hoagland's poetry provokes with sharp voice, nasty impulses

Sunday, January 11, 2004

By Mike Schneider

If books are cold but sure friends, this one is zanier, zestier and colder than most, the kind of friend -- the best kind -- who's interested in what makes you tick and who likes to provoke, usually with a well-aimed wisecrack.

"What Narcissism Means to Me"

By Tony Hoagland

Graywolf Press

($14 paperback)


Tony Hoagland, who teaches at the University of Houston, spent most of the past two years on the creative writing faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. Many of these poems took shape in Pittsburgh, and a few are set here.

His previous collection, "Donkey Gospel," won the 1997 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. It also won wide attention among poets and established Hoagland as a distinctively sharp-witted, sweetly self-knowing, accessible voice.

His third picks up where "Donkey Gospel" left off. Among memorable book titles, this one deserves a place near Simone Signoret's "Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be."

As a sly, one-line poem, "What Narcissism Means to Me" dives straight to the book's soul. What does it mean, Hoagland ponders, indirectly and often directly -- as in the visceral nightmare of his tour-de-force "America" -- to be "Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds/ Of the thick satin quilt of America"?

Set in Pittsburgh, "Argentina" typifies Hoagland's propensity to let thoughts travel, like an essay, but with illuminating leaps and turns.

Starting from a whiff of his chiropractor's breath, "Argentina" moves to the heartbreak of February in Pittsburgh:

Kath says February is always like eating a raw egg;
Peter says it's like wearing a bandage on your head;
Mary says it's like a pack of wild dogs who have gotten into medical waste;
and smiles because she clearly is the winner.

And then, with a sideturn to the news from Argentina, the poem merges the personal and political as they've never been merged:

How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland?
with an economy based on flattery and self-protection?
and a sewage system of selective forgetting?
and extensive history of broken promises?

Hoagland's penchant for uncompromising looks in the mirror manifests also in his willingness to indulge nasty impulses -- hatred, for instance -- unusual for poetry, especially American poetry.

For those "who think I am supposed to end up in a room by myself/with a gun and a bottle full of hate," one poem ("Reasons to Survive November") announces that "I hate those people back/ from the core of my donkey soul/ and the hatred makes me strong/ and my survival is their failure."

In an essay, Hoagland argued that in poetry, unlike in human social life, there's a place for the truth-telling inherent in meanness, "the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts."

This voice, says Hoagland, has been nearly banished by poetry's "culture of Nice-ism." One needs to go back, perhaps, to Poe's macabre revenge tales for an antecedent in American literature, or maybe no further than Dylan's anti-romance love songs.

Pop song awareness suffuses Hoagland's poetry and is part of its frequent humor. Think of a Zen master equipped with rock lyrics.

Some may recall Hoagland's March 19 appearance at Club Cafe on the South Side -- a speak-out against the war in Iraq. Poignantly, the first reports of bombs on Baghdad flickered from the bar TV as poets read. Hoagland took the stage late, the crowd already saturated with poetry, noisy with talk and clinking glasses. Within a few lines, with poems from this collection, he silenced the place.

For those present, including this writer, it was as if Hoagland's "meanness" -- as in "Hate Hotel," a creepy movie of a poem -- was the right answer, maybe the only one, to the evening's palpable sadness and pain, itself a pale shadow of the pain that rained on people as he spoke:

Sometimes I like to sit and soak
in the Jacuzzi of my hate, hatching my plots
like a general running his hands over a military map --
and my bombers have been sent out
over the dwellings of my foes ...

Mike Schneider is a poet who lives on the South Side.

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