The Change

Tony Hoagland - 1953-2018
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine. 
In the park the daffodils came up 
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies, 
        and the new president proves that he's a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year? 
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde 
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama, 
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, 
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge 
     and got sucked in by the screen above the bar, 
and pretty soon 
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return 
as the volleys went back and forth and back 
like some contest between 
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair 
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare, 
and I, 
         I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top, 
because she was one of my kind, my tribe, 
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big 
and so black, 
                        so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation 
down Abraham Lincoln's throat, 
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.

There are moments when history 
passes you so close 
                you can smell its breath, 
you can reach your hand out 
                                    and touch it on its flank,

and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre, 
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people 
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent 
then kicked her ass good 
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court 
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge 
                          had to climb up on a box 
to put the ribbon on her neck, 
still managing to smile into the camera flash, 
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone, 
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged, 
it was past us 
and we were changed.

 


 

Listen to Claudia Rankine respond to Hoagland's poem >

More by Tony Hoagland

Jet

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, usually 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.

Lucky

If you are lucky in this life, 
you will get to help your enemy 
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub 
half-filled with water 
which I had made just right, 
I lowered the childish skeleton 
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed 
her belly and her chest, 
the sorry ruin of her flanks 
and the frayed gray cloud 
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed 
book open in my lap 
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs, 
my mind filled up with praise 
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck 
that would offer me the chance to pay 
my heavy debt of punishment and love 
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet 
in the uncomfortable air 
between the wheelchair and the tub, 
until she begged me like a child

to stop, 
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing 
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life, 
you will get to raise the spoon 
of pristine, frosty ice cream 
to the trusting creature mouth 
of your old enemy

because the tastebuds at least are not broken 
because there is a bond between you 
and sweet is sweet in any language.

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet

At this height, Kansas 
is just a concept, 
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section 
of my neighbor's travel magazine. 
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance 
between myself and my own feelings 
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York, 
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval 
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch 
those planes engrave the sky 
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration 
of good men, 
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie 
to the stewardess's pantyline, 
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something 
much bigger and probably 
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it, 
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt 
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up, 
rushing through the world for sixty years 
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large, 
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door, 
until you had forgotten 
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod, 
with a mad one-legged captain 
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind 
spitting in your face, 
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves. 
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew 
cry out like a gull, 
Oh Captain, Captain! 
Where are we going now?