Tony Hoagland was the winner of the 1997 James Laughlin Award for his second collection of poems, Donkey Gospel (Graywolf Press, 1998). The jurors for the award were Yusef Komunyakaa, Heather McHugh, and William Matthews. William Matthews wrote the following citation.
Of the thirty-five poems in Donkey Gospel, nineteen have one-word titles, and six titles need only two words. One of those, "Honda Pavarotti," yokes an even more disparate pair of words than Donkey Gospel. Perhaps even more than he likes terse, nugget-like titles, the poet likes collisions between different dictions. One of his book's two epigraphs, from Jack Spicer, sports not only a gaudy crash between dictions, but another instance in which one of the dictions is religious:
You ask me to sing a sad song
How motherfucker can I sing a sad song
when I remember Zion?
So a Hoagland reader probably should take "gospel" at least as seriously as ironically. And of course the Spicer snippet suggests the possibility that a mixed tragicomic tone may be the via sacra for this poet.
I thought of the donkey Mary rode into Bethlehem, and then--I'm not proud of this but it's true--I thought of how stereotyped Hollywood players would pitch a new film on that subject ("It's a cross between A Member of the Wedding and Mr. Ed"). But a mixture of popular culture, literature, and religious yearning simultaneously parodied and longed for is what Hoagland's adroit, moving poems provide.
Of course, there are other donkeys than Mary's, including any local ass. Hoagland has passages that require his Bottom costume, like this one:
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 this one:
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, . . .
(from "Reading Moby Dick at 30,000 Feet")
The least interesting manuscripts my fellow judges and I read for the James Laughlin contest were to self-knowledge as Martha Stewart is to housework. They didn't allow doubt or stupor on airplanes or laughter at one's diligent self. They were smart. Some had got smart by subscription--they wrote theory-driven poems about desire and language, writing on the body, etc. Others knew what they felt, and with a consistent exquisiteness unknown in nature but possible, alas, in literature.
It's hard work being, and even harder work seeming, smart--the cost is eternal vigilance and we all sleep. But if you admit you're ignorant, you not only save calories but might also learn something. So Hoagland's joking professions of oafishness (e.g., see the quoted passages above) serve as clearings of the deck. And in a moment in our culture when it's apparently okay, judging by how many people do it, to make comments about "men" (not "some men") that would get you stoned if you made them about women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, et al., Hoagland's professions of oafishness are also an ironic preemptive strike against knowing what we feel and who we're better than. Probably oafishness also stands for the important role that blunder plays in thinking. The road to music is paved with "wrong" notes.
Here Hoagland's gloomy homage to Whitman, both thanks and a spell against grandiosity:
I sing the body like a burnt-out fuse box . . .
Another poem ends thus: As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.
That poem is titled "Adam and Eve," so the claim for "as long as" is huge, but these two lines that I've wrenched from separate contexts and yoked together are from the age of AIDS, which shadows a whole generation the way the bomb darkened that generation's parents.
Hoagland describes teen-age lovers whose "mission" (the title of the poem, in which the couple don't form the missionary position)
Is to make the other blow up first.
This time it's her, and her face
takes on the troubled, is-this-pain-
or-pleasure? look that people wear
when the train they're waiting for
comes through the station wall in flames,
the long legs of the water tower break
and desire drowns in its own destination.
Orgasm as a little death? More like a disaster movie. We walk in the shadow of death merely by having erotic lives.
Hoagland is capable of quiet fury, as in these lines that begin "Benevolence":
When my father dies and comes back as a dog,
I already know what his favorite sound will be:
the soft, almost inaudible gasp
as the rubber lips of the refrigerator door
unstick, followed by that arctic
exhalation of cold air;
then the cracking of the ice cube tray above the sink
and the quiet ching the cubes make
when dropped into a glass.
Or in these lines, that begin "The Replacement":
And across the country I know
they are replacing my brother's brain
with the brain of a man. . . .
But there's an underlying sweetness to these poems, and a gratitude for having survived so much human fecklessness (including, of course, one's own), and these complicate the poems' anger and puzzlement and rumple their severe surfaces. The resulting mixture has much of the complexity of a personality that willingly weathers its own perplexities and experience, rather than striking a pose of competence and trying to ride out the storm.