I've been unable to put down Hoagland's latest book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty and I've been trying to figure out why. I think the things I don't like about the book, in the end, are also what I love about the book. And it's precisely this sort of ambivalence that makes me respect Hoagland not so much as a poet, but as a human being. What I mean by this is that I find Hoagland's speakers to be so honest, unabashed, unafraid of expressing how they feel that the speakers make me feel very uncomfortable and it is this teetering on the edge of something, or risk-taking that I ultimately respect and admire.
I very much disliked the first poem in the book called "Food Court", which talks about (presumably) a Chinese American owner of a food court establishment called "Jimmy's Wok" who has "practical black eyes." Of course Chinese people are stereotypically described as being "practical", but I found the word "practical" to be a bit unfair. It's like describing every Caucasian man from the Midwest as having a red neck. On the other hand, I gave Hoagland credit for saying what he feels or what his speaker feels and observes. Hoagland pushes the envelope between what is often said in private and what is said in public. And if I think about the people I like most in real life, it's those exact types of people, not the staid, professional, or political people, but I'm attracted to those unafraid to rock the boat, to cause trouble, to say something important.
Many of the poems have a very powerful tone, a very masculine tone. I visualize an orator, standing on a podium, speaking his mind about any topic, whether that being love, Britney Spears, or "small rectangles of food" they serve at parties (I could be biased because I've seen him deliver lectures, read his poetry, and banter strongly back and forth with poets like Dean Young and Reginald Shepard at Warren Wilson many many times). I almost saw all the poems as actually being prose commentaries or prose Letter to the Editors. I felt like they could actually benefit from such a construct, almost in the way Wenderoth's Letter to Wendy's used the fast food comment cards as a sort of overarching structure.
I found many of the poems simultaneously tragic and funny, and I liked the tragic honest self-reflective poems best. Like the poem "Hostess", which talks about the speaker attending some event that starts with the description of the black dress of the hostess, that gradually moves into the dress as a trope for failure and ends like this: "And that, by the end of the evening,/I had found my disappointment,/which I hoped no one else had seen." It's moments like these, where the speaker dares to let himself be human and real, vulnerable, that I really liked.
What would be great to see in the future from Hoagland is more of a play on form, or formlessness, like the prose poem because I did wonder why his poems needed line breaks at all. It'd also be great to see him work with the longer poem, even a book-length sequence on some subject he feels strongly about. Or to reverse what he does so well--that oration-type of poem, to write poems that don't try to express any opinions, poems that almost seem to exist without a speaker behind them. But then again, who am I to give Tony Hoagland opinions on what he should be working on!
At the end of the day, one of my poetry teachers once emphasized the need for poems (and books) to be "memorable" and I can't get this book out of my head, which tells me that Hoagland has succeeded.