With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Tony Hoagland was that rare literary phenomenon: a critically acclaimed poet who wanted to be understood by a general audience. Ann Humphreys, a former student of Tony’s, puts it this way: “He wrote clearly and without pretense, for everyone: not just for those lucky enough to be familiar with the canon.” By turns funny and sad, caustic and poignant, Tony’s poetry first appeared in The Sun in May of 2000, and he was a regular contributor for the past ten years. Though he frequently used humor to make his writing more accessible, he could still catch the reader off guard with a sudden shift in tone, ending a poem in a very different mood than where it began.
We were caught off guard when we heard that Tony had died last October at the age of sixty-four. Though we’d known he had pancreatic cancer, the loss felt sudden.
I never met Tony in person, but I had the pleasure of editing some of his poems. (Yes, we edit poetry at The Sun; it’s a delicate process that requires a special type of pencil.) Tony was a stimulating writer to work with and often receptive to our suggestions. He once commented that he must have been “in denial” about a dangling participle we flagged. But he would also stand his ground when it felt necessary, such as the time he sent us a poem that mentioned the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the notorious right-wing ideologue whose name is synonymous with the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s. Tony had written that McCarthy had died of mouth cancer, and after I pointed out that this wasn’t true, he replied: “Joseph McCarthy should have died of cancer of the mouth, and that’s good enough for me.”
That comment is an example of both Tony’s humor and the anger that sometimes came out in his work. He wasn’t afraid to be disliked, and he trusted the reader to understand that there is ugliness and beauty in all of us.
Of course, when Tony wrote, beauty more often won out. In “Into the Mystery,” published a little more than a year before his death, Tony writes of “a time of afternoon, out there in the yard / an hour that has never been described. . . . Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs, / happy because there never has been a word for this.”
He is being too modest here. Over and over, Tony gave us the gift that all great writing does: the words to describe that for which we have no words.
— Andrew Snee
Crossing the porch in the hazy dusk
to worship the moon rising
like a yellow filling-station sign
on the black horizon,
you feel the faint grit
of ants beneath your shoes,
but keep on walking
because in this world
you have to decide what
you’re willing to kill.
Saving your marriage might mean
dinner for two
by candlelight on steak
raised on pasture
chopped out of rain forest
whose absence might mean
an atmospheric thinness
fifty years from now
above the vulnerable head
of your bald grandson on vacation
as the cells of his scalp
sautéed by solar radiation
break down like suspects
Still you slice
the sirloin into pieces
and feed each other
on silver forks
under the approving gaze
of a waiter
whose purchased attention
and French name
are a kind of candlelight themselves,
while in the background
the fingertips of the pianist
float over the tusks
of the slaughtered elephant
without a care,
as if the elephant
had granted its permission.
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ball-peen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
Or whether he is just spin-doctoring a better grade,
And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money
That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and — this is the weird part —,
He gasped, “Thank God — those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart —
And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty” —
Which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,
And I look at the student with his acne and cellphone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,
And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”
But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?
All water is a part of other water.
Cloud talks to lake; mist
speaks quietly to creek.
Lake says something back to cloud,
and cloud listens.
No water is lonely water.
All water is a part of other water.
River rushes to reunite with ocean;
Tree drinks rain and sweats out dew;
Dew takes elevator into cloud;
Cloud marries puddle;
has long conversation with lake about fjord;
Fog sneaks up and murmurs insinuations to swamp;
Swamp makes needs known to marshland;
Thunderstorm throws itself on estuary;
Waterspout laughs at joke of frog pond.
All water understands.
All water understands.
Reservoir gathers information
for database of watershed;
Brook translates lake to waterfall;
Tide wrinkles its green forehead and then breaks through.
All water understands.
But you, you stand on the shore
of blue Lake Kieve in the evening
and listen, grieving
as something stirs and turns within you.
Not knowing why you linger in the dark.
Not able even to guess
from what you are excluded.
There is no single particular noun
for the way a friendship,
stretched over time, grows thin,
then one day snaps with a popping sound.
No verb for accidentally
breaking a thing
while trying to get it open
— a marriage, for example.
No idiomatic phrase for losing a book
in the middle of reading it,
never learning the end.
There is no expression — in English, at least
— for avoiding the sight
of your own body in the mirror,
for disliking the touch
of the afternoon sun,
for walking into the long flatland
that stretches out before you
after your adventures are done.
No adjective for gradually speaking less, and less,
because you have stopped being able
to say the one thing that would
break your life loose from its grip.
Certainly no name that one could imagine
for the aspen tree outside,
its spade-shaped leaves
spinning on their stems,
working themselves into
a pale-green, vegetable blur.
No word for waking up one morning
and looking around,
because the mysterious spirit
which drives all things
seems to have returned,
and is on your side again.
I just wanted to write and say,
in case you are hit tomorrow by a truck
or are swept from the beach by a freak wave;
or in case your ex-wife decides
to take her own life
right after taking yours;
or in case you go to the doctor,
who finds a lump in your neck,
and you are carried swiftly out onto the terrible waters
of clinics and infusions
and I never see you again —
I just wanted to say,
Bon voyage, my friend, my dear and former friend.
I just wanted to confess
how much you meant to me back then,
before I learned to hold my love in check
thanks to my tutorial with you.
Thank God I got those holes sealed shut
through which every passerby
could see my neediness,
and thank God I banished you
into that frozen part of me
where nothing moves or breathes.
And yet it’s funny, isn’t it?
Our weakness can never be eliminated;
neediness is part of what we are.
Living is a kind of wound;
a wound is a kind of opening;
and even love that disappeared
mysteriously comes back
like water bubbling up from underground,
cleansed from its long journey in the dark.
Right in the open, there it is,
waiting for someone to arrive
and kneel and drink from it.
Do you have a twenty-foot extension ladder?
Let’s get it out of the garage.
I want to put this birdhouse up on one of the evergreens
that stands off your back deck.
I’m going to use long tenpenny nails to fasten it to the tree
and some kind of wire strapping, too.
I want it to stay there for a long time.
I want you to notice it season after season —
how the mother bird keeps
flying in and out of the little knothole that I drilled
to where the baby birds stretch their mouths wide open
in a ferocious pink bouquet.
If I am no longer here for some reason,
I think you will still see me occasionally reflected
in the incessant activity of the birds
flying in and out of the birdhouse —
always coming and going just like I did,
not wishing to become too well-known,
or to ever stay long in one place.
And yet the birdhouse will say something different about me:
it will say that I lived here.
It will be a thing that I made with my hands
on a specific afternoon, working for hours
in my garage, with paint streaks and sawdust on my clothes,
and that I took the trouble
to hang that little domicile
high on the trunk of your particular tree
with a knowledge of how life always moves on
and yet leaves something behind as well
with something alive inside it.
You might say that memory itself
is a piece of real estate,
a residence with a private entrance
and a mystery inside
like this small château
painted blue with orange spots on it,
hung twenty feet high — a thing, for a while,
out of reach of the predator, time.
All poems and copyrights by Tony Hoagland. “Candlelight” is from Donkey Gospel, copyright © 1998. “America” is from What Narcissism Means to Me, copyright © 2003. “The Social Life of Water” and “Special Problems in Vocabulary” are from Application for Release from the Dream, copyright © 2015. All reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press. “Message to a Former Friend” and “Birdhouse” are from Recent Changes in the Vernacular, copyright © 2017. Published by Tres Chicas Books and reprinted by permission of Kathleen Lee.
Read more by Tony Hoagland in our digital archive.
I would never have read the work of Tony Hoagland had it not been for The Sun. Thank you for introducing me to his creativity and imagination. I have made a donation to The Sun in his memory, to support the next poet to come along whose work will move me to tears.
In his poem “Message to a Former Friend” [March 2019] Tony Hoagland writes, “Living is a kind of wound; / a wound is a kind of opening; // and even love that disappeared / mysteriously comes back.” Those words were so profound, I had to put the magazine down for the day and let them rest for a while in me.
Tony Hoagland’s six poems in your March 2019 posthumous tribute confirmed his brilliance and prompted me to look at old issues and read his previous work. I also bought one of his books, Recent Changes in the Vernacular, and expect I’ll be buying more in the future. I’m saddened by his passing but thankful for his talent.