This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
In his newest poetry collection, Application for Release from the Dream (Graywolf Press), Tony Hoagland comes across as a bit of a cranky old cuss, but instead of waving a cane at the kids on his lawn it’s a whip-smart tongue lashing away at the disgrace of twenty-first century American consumerism, disconnection, and militaristic chest-thumping. If he’s headed toward becoming a codger, it’s of the lovable and wise variety, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of codger to be.
Hoagland’s verses spark with irascible humor and bristle with intelligence. He is granted permission for his criticisms by merit of more than merely being right, which we can agree is no permission at all in our current fear-soaked and product-obsessed culture, but by the fact his critical eye is most often turned directly in upon himself. There is a self-loathing at work here that does not exclude simultaneous hedonism. Hoagland regularly references the depression he has often lived under, and it is from here this misery and permission both spring. He makes no apology for the often conflicting thoughts that tumble out as he looks upon himself, whom he seems to love and hate with equal vigor, and as he looks upon his friends and country, about which the same is true. As he says in Wasp (page 48):
“a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized Narrative Inside;
prone to frequent sideways bursting
of one feeling through another”
The book begins, appropriately, with a reflection on misery, his own and that of others.
“Joseph Cornell collected souvenirs of places he was miserable in,
which pretty much was everywhere he went
I read biographies because I want to know how people suffered
in the past; how they endured, and is it different, now, for us?”
– The Edge of the Frame, page 5
In reading many of these poems there is the sense of someone who has survived himself, survived what has been slung at him, by stubbornness and spit more than anything else. Yet that scraping struggle has yielded great insight. It has given him a sense of priority and perspective, as when he has bumped into an old friend who is no longer a friend, and upon parting reflects:
“…I think we share a feeling of relief,
an unspoken recognition
that we have reached the end of a pretense.”
– There Is No Word, page 77
That struggle has given him the ability to breathe in and claim moments of beauty, an unwillingness to waste one good second on this earth: “This winter sky is flat, gray and stretches out forever, / a pure performance of the verbto yearn.” (Eventually the Topic, page 17) It has given him tremendous resilience, the ability to survive and to hug himself for doing so, even if the hug is in the form of a fetal flinch; in Little Champion he compares himself to a species of butterfly that survives in the brutal desert by drinking animal urine (a wry humor is present in the grimmest of Hoagland’s poems). Perhaps most clear of all in this collection, it has given him a first rate bullshit detector, a refusal to bow to the ridiculous strictures we must strap around our minds to keep on pursuing the unsustainable middle class dream. Hoagland looks at America, land he still loves despite itself, and sees the greed, the plastic imitation of experience, the aggressive militarism and myopic nationalism that coat this beautiful land, and he cannot lie to it no matter how it lies to itself. Still, he is not without hope for us. In one poem he says the following:
“When I compared humanity to a flower growing in the shadow of a
it may be that I was being unfair to flowers.”
– Misunderstandings, page 30
And yet in another he holds out hope that America might one day slip from its king-of-the-hill status and take its place with the other nations, learn forgiveness and contentment, stop pounding its chest,
“sit on the porch with the other countries,
in the late afternoon
and talk about chickens and rain.”
– Ode to the Republic, page 9
That’s a long game though, and Hoagland knows it. He doesn’t withhold anger, even tinged with humor though it remains, in his indictment of modern society. At the end of the poem A Little Consideration (page 43) in which he has ranted about pollution, the deceptions of the political process, beauty standards, his issues with feminism (a problematic side topic in the book we won’t cover here), the frustrations of technology and the impersonal tangle of phone calls required to fix them, and the false peace afforded by resolutely pursuing comfort in a consumerist culture, he concludes:
“We’re not goddamn babies anymore.
We just want to be manipulated with a little fucking consideration.”
Perhaps the central poem of the collection, and certainly my favorite, is Crazy Motherfucker Weather (page 21). It displays Hoagland’s tone and skill and profane irritability in all their delicious glory. It begins:
“Taking the car out of the rental parking lot,
almost getting fender-bended by the guy in the BMW
speaking capitalist Cro-Magnon into his cell phone;
wondering whether the time has come
to get a gun;
already starting to look forward to my lethal injection–
Or I hang up the phone
in the middle of a conversation
at the moment it no longer interests me,
having reached some limit of what can be
What happens next?
Am I entering the season of tantrums and denunciations?
My crazy motherfucker weather?
From there his interrogatives continue but they are pointed outward, never inward at the misanthropy he has just so lovingly revealed. “Knowing it is a sin to waste / even a smidgen of this life” he wonders whether there is some third option between resignation to the toxic dream presented to him and “going around the bend” and losing grip on his own humanity. What does Me mean, and can it possibly entail more than biological imperative and social obedience? Is there a thing called love? Should anything curtail “the wild imperative of self”? Nothing is resolved here. It is all screamed and sobbed out into “the authentic blue glory of the sky,” unanswered and unreturned. But it aches with the mournful, lovely tone of life lived awake to both beauty and pain.
Application for Release from the Dream is a collection that made me laugh in places and broke me clean in two in others. Hoagland has laid his misery and wisdom bare on these pages.