Thanks to the recommendation of Naomi Jaffa (again) I had the smug pleasure of already knowing the work of Tony Hoagland at a dinner given by a friend recently. (I should say that the friend was Damian Furniss, and that he cooked perhaps the best curry I have ever tasted. I hear he is just back from India, which sounds like very good news indeed.) With Damian there was some serious poetic talent in the room: among others Ann Gray, Alasdair Paterson and Fiona Benson were all in attendance. It was far from a solemn evening. Its purpose was to meet and talk and eat and share the work of poets we had discovered and were excited about. Ann shared the amazing work of Matthew Dickman, who was new to me, and Damian read Tony Hoagland’s.
Before reading his Bloodaxe Selected Poems: What Narcissism Means To Me (2005), the book of Hoagland’s I bought and still adore is Donkey Gospel (Graywolf Press, 1998). ‘Jet’, below, is the first poem in the book. Usually on opening a new book of poems I jump in around page 23, but with this one I began reading on page 1 and did not stop until the end. I do this with very few books of poetry.
Any poem which begins in lines arresting as: ‘Sometimes I wish I were still out/on the back porch, drinking jet fuel/with the boys, getting louder and louder’ has my vote pretty much instantly. These and the lines which follow it contain an intoxicating mix of bravado, underage drinking and wistfulness which I feel unable to resist for one second. The poem casts a spell over me in clear words which portray ’empty cans’, men celebrating ‘their hairiness’ (this makes me giggle every time I read it) and ‘untrue tales of sex’.
But it is also about something other and more mysterious: ‘the big sky river rushes overhead,/bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish/and old space suits with skeletons inside’. It is no accident the poem is about summer, that time of endless possibility and ‘effervescence’, brought brilliantly to life in the description of the ‘crickets plug[ging] in their appliances in unison’ and the fireflies flashing ‘dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation/for the labyrinthine’.
The collection’s final poem, ‘Totally’, also uses the word ‘unison’, speaking cosmologically of ‘the whole world’. However, this poem also speaks of ‘dividedness’, and I think there is something of that going on in ‘Jet”s final stanza, where the tone turns elegiac:’We gaze into the night/as if remembering the bright unbroken planet/we once came from,/to which we will never/be permitted to return.’ What’s crucial here is not the wonderful lyricism, but those two tiny words ‘as if’. The speaker seems to be saying that, in fact, no real remembering is taking place at all, and not only that, but the beautiful planet the boys come from and do not remember is destined to remain unvisited.
Like the spoken tone and arrangement of the lines, this is devastatingly casual and final, offhand almost. Suddenly and dramatically the boys are twice distanced from the moment they inhabit so deeply, their memories dropped like beer cans, dimly aware as the poem ‘Hearings’ has it that ‘the truth is not the worst thing that could happen.’
Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth
and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,
and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, unusually constricted neck.
And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though
no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.
Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel (Graywold Press)