Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland
In his fourth collection of poetry, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland turns to the American landscape for answers to fundamental, humanist questions about the nature of democracy, spirituality, heartbreak, and identity. Rather than locating his interrogation in the stark regional environments so often chosen by American poets -- the industrial corridors of Chicago (Carl Sandburg) or the abandoned towns of the Pacific Northwest (Richard Hugo) -- Hoagland focuses on those oft-defamed, and certainly homogenized, temples of American freedom, so long neglected by poetry: the mall, the grocery store, the cafeteria, and the 7-Eleven. While these may seem shallow shelves from which to shop for meaning, the veneer of superficiality is precisely why Hoagland -- a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, a two-time National Endowments of the Arts grant recipient, and a 2000 Guggenheim fellow -- writes about them; pop culture is iconic, quotidian, and, as subject matter goes, democratic. As he cheekily posits in “Food Court,” the second poem in the collection, “If you want to talk about America, why not just mention / Jimmy’s Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium?”
If the question makes you queasy, then it’s achieving its goal. Rather than glorifying or decrying the American experience, Hoagland gazes unflinchingly upon the mundane and often ugly architecture of American consumerism, applying at times a nearly hysterical (and always comic) devotional language. In “Dialectical Materialism,” for instance, he writes:
My god there is so much sorrow in the grocery store!
You would have to be high
on the fumes of the piped-in pan flutes
of commodified Peruvian folk music
not to be driven practically crazy
with awe and shame
not to weep at the scale of subjugated matter.
Later in this same poem, the setting achieves self-conscious, allegorical significance when the narrator leaves the store and witnesses in row E 87 of a giant parking lot outside the Minneapolis mega-mall “a Ford Escort from Mankato” getting into a fender-bender with a “Honda from Miami; / and these personified portions of my heart.” This bold, self-proclaimed symbolism does not stop here, but continues, commenting on the nature of philosophy, capitalism, and accidents:
each of [the drivers] thinking
how with dialectical materialism, accidents happen:
how at any minute,
convenience can turn
into a kind of trouble you never wanted.
Theatrical, combative, and awe-struck, Hoagland’s irony is often used specifically to undercut the earnestness of his project. Both humor and meaning arise from unlikely pairings of the mundane with the profound. In “Big Grab,” a poem which begins by exposing the corporate dishonesty of continuing to advertise a bag of corn chips as “big” after making the cost-saving decision to subtract a few corn chips from every bag, Hoagland turns abruptly in the third stanza to spirituality: “Confucious said this would happen— / that language would be hijacked and twisted / by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department.” Though this commentary seems, at first, flip, Hoagland’s concern about language is genuine. In many of his poems, language evades meaning, making the boundary between the imaginary and the real increasingly elusive.
Hoagland is freshest when he reaches furthest, bringing unlikely emotions to events, as in “In Praise of Their Divorce,” in which he calls marriage “a kind of womb,” divorce “being born again,” and alimony “the placenta one of them will eat.” When his poems fail, and there are a few that do, it’s often due to a cliché of stance, as in “Plastic,” in which it takes him two and half pages to admit he prefers fallible humanity to moldable, stretchable plastic: the “pink elastic lips [of quarreling lovers], wrapped around the stem of the [Nalgene] container / were so much more beautiful than plastic.”
Where Hoagland is perhaps most daring is in his commentary on race, a subject few white poets explore with much vulnerability or depth. In his essay “Negative Capability, How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” from Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (2006) he speculates about why “racial anxiety, shame, and hatred” hasn’t been the subject of more American poetry:
To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame, and resentment. To speak in voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them.
At least four poems in the collection explore race explicitly (more do indirectly), and they work best when Hoagland follows his own advice and risks not only implicating himself, but convicting himself. In “Foghorn,” Hoagland describes the racial tension he feels when a black man sits beside him in a cafeteria:
the air suddenly fills up with secret signs,
like MLK and NBA, like KKK
and NRA, like DWB and NWA
and it gets hard to see through
all that smoke and burning shrubbery.
While Hoagland’s willingness to reveal his race-derived discomfort is laudable, it’s not always palatable. Consider, for another example, “Expensive Hotel,” which begins: “When the middle-class black family in the carpeted hall / passes the immigrant housekeeper from Belize, oh / that is an interesting moment. One pair of eyes is lowered.” The swift narrative intrusion, “oh / that is an interesting moment” makes the poem suddenly and unfortunately smug, placing Hoagland exactly where he doesn’t want to be, on the sidelines, safely distant from the action. While race is essential to Hoagland’s project -- a book about America would be incomplete without it -- his confidence on the subject can be off-putting and at times borders on self-congratulatory.
Hoagland’s critical, comic gaze interested me most when he shifted to the topic he knows the very best: poetry. The collection begins and ends with poems about poetry, and a few more are slipped between the malls, cancer, girlfriend, and race poems. The opening poem, “Description,” breaks down the components of a poem, revealing poetry -- like all other goods and services in the capitalist world he portrays -- to be nothing more than a commodity pieced together from ordinary ingredients. Trees, for example, “rustle over the house,” “excited / to be entering the poem,” and, with equally deadpan humor, human emotions are included in the recipe for a poem:
a place must be
reserved for human suffering:
the sick and unloved, the chemically confused;
the ones who believe desperately in insight;
the ones addicted to change.
This whimsically insightful deconstruction of poetry’s tools lets us know we are in the hands of an experienced poet, a poet who is not afraid to use his talents to manipulate and persuade us, and more importantly, a poet who is not afraid to reveal himself craftily and imperfectly on the page. But if Hoagland is capable of inserting a postmodern gaze into his work, he is equally skilled at taking it away. The second to last poem, “Muchness,” collapses ironic distance, restoring and reveling in the magic of language, the purity of longing:
It was your vanished boat
that gave the scene a shape,
with its suggestion of journey and destination.
And the narrative then, having done its work,
it vanished too,
leaving just its affectionate cousin description behind.
and loves for no reason.
While Hoagland is probably best known for his humor, I found his quieter poems equally affecting and smart. This book resonates and lingers, including, ultimately, both the reader and Hoagland in the moral messiness of living life as “Unincorporated Persons” in contemporary America, or as he calls it, “the Late Honda Dynasty.”
Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland