Monday, April 12, 2010

Monkey and Poetry Convergence: Tony Hoagland edition

I just finished reading Tony Hoagland's new collection of poems Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty and I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that monkeys are mentioned in three of his poems. The first is in the poem "Poor Britney Spears" when he writes about the pop star:
Oh my adorable little monkey,
prancing for your candy,

with one of my voices I shout, "Jump! Jump, you little whore!"
With another I say,

in a quiet way that turns down the lights,
"Put on some clothes and go home, Sweetheart."

The next is in "Disaster Movie," which features a jet crash:
It must have been Borneo, or someplace tropical like that,
because vines had strangled the propellers into stillness,
rust was already licking the battered silver wings--

monkeys had commandeered the cockpit
and were getting drunk
on the miniature bottles of vodka and Jack Daniels,

wearing the orange safety vests backwards
and spinning in the empty swivel chairs.

The last is in "Powers," which includes the lines:
What are we but monkeys who learned to drive cars,
who have the freedom to read or not to read

And now for the bad news. Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty is probably Hoagland's weakest collection of poems to date. I've been a fan of Hoagland's work for years and have all of his books (minus his latest chapbook), so it pains me to say this. And I don't know, maybe it's me. Maybe Hoagland and I have grown apart. But there's something about many of the poems in this book that seems too predictable, too "aren't I clever," perhaps.

For example, in "Dialectical Materialism" he mentions "the pretty cashier with the shaved head and nose ring," and I had the uncontrollable urge to roll my eyes. This kind of supposed paradox is classic Hoagland, but I feel like he's done it before. And maybe it would have been fine in, say, 1993 when his first book came out and when women with shaved heads and nose rings were more unusual. And maybe I just inhabit a life where that kind of thing is more commonplace that it is for others.

Some of the poems feel phoned in, while others come across as preachy. Like the Britney Spears one mentioned above. I can't help but feel like it's a condensed essay written for a women's studies or human sexuality class. Same thing with "Plastic," but substitute an environmental science course.

There are some really good poems, though, don't get me wrong. "Romantic Moment" for one, "The Story of the Father" for another. Then there's "Sentimental Education," my favorite, which begins:
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knife

pried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in time of war.

"The ones who survive," he told us,
looking at us hard,
"are the ones who are willing do anything."
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

And that's why I will still look forward to the next Tony Hoagland book. Amen.

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