Buzzed Books #37 by Amy Watkins
Tony Hoagland’s Application for Release from the Dream
I enjoyed the second half of Tony Hoagland’s fifth poetry collection, Application for Release from the Dream (Graywolf Press, 2015), so much that I almost felt guilty for how critical I was of the first half.
Many of the poems in the first half of the book have a thematic counterpart in the second half. For example, one of the poems in the first section is “Special Problems in Vocabulary,” a poem about the limitations of language. It begins:
There is no single particular noun
for the way a friendship,
stretched over time, grows thin,
then one day snaps with a popping sound.
Those lines could almost be an early draft of one of the last poems in the book, “There Is No Word”:
…we have reached the end of a pretense
–though to tell the truth,
what I already am thinking
is that language deserves the credit–
how it will stretch just so much and no further;
how there are some holes it will not cover up…
The book contains several of these pairs–two poems about language, two poems about his father, two poems about divorce. I’m not certain whether the later poems are meant to be further reflections on the themes or answers to the earlier poems. I’m not sure if I would respond differently to the early poems upon a second reading, but in all these pairs, I prefer the second poem.
Both halves of the book contain plenty of Hoagland’s signature humor. He gives the business to corporate tools, uptight academics, clueless suburbanites, his father, his ex-wife, and the fool who blasts his radio at 2 in the morning. In the second half of the book, he turns his wit on himself. “Summer Dusk,” for example, is as close to a pastoral as you’re likely to get from Hoagland. It begins, “I put in my goddamn hearing aid / to listen to a bird…” The poems in the second half in particular are funny, a little melancholy, sometimes a little mean, but they work because they “aim up” or, better yet, aim in.
In “The Story of the Mexican Housekeeper,” his father recalls “family friends” who “hired a woman from across the border, // then kept her hostage for seven years.” The poet/speaker is disgusted that his father apparently finds the story amusing, but when the exploited woman appears near the end of the poem, he imagines her anger directed at him, not his father or even her captors: “she’s mad as hell / not at my dad, but me–yelling // that she doesn’t want to be in this poem for one more minute.” Does using the story in the poem make him complicit in her exploitation? The poem doesn’t answer that question, but it is full of a powerful tension worth exploring.
Like much of Hoagland’s work, these poems “balance on the fence / between irony and hope.” It’s a difficult position to maintain gracefully. When he does, the poems are wry, challenging, and emotionally complex.
Pair with: a Princeton, a pre-Prohibition drink of Old Tom gin layered over chilled port. It’s pretty. It’s classy. Its two flavors don’t totally mix.
Amy Watkins (Episode 124, 161, 164) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. Her chapbook, Milk & Water, was published in 2014 by Yellow Flag Press.