13 July 2009

Little Oceans by Tony Hoagland

Little Oceans by Tony Hoagland. Hollyridge Press. 2009. 39 pages. $10. Reviewed by P. Nelson The wacko right-wingers on shortwave radio are wrong – not necessarily about guns (everyman’s ideal son or Lost Father, I forget which) or taxation (legal robbery) or the Federal Reserve (semi-organized crime). No, they are wrong about paper money being worthless. In fact, your generic greenbuck has a commodity value of about 3 cents as a piece of competent (if aesthetically ghastly) engraving on good stock. And you’d do far worse than to send one of those odd objects (one denominated TEN) to Hollyridge press for the purchase of Tony Hoagland’s chapbook Little Oceans, though they will probably prefer Paypal, an oxymoron if there ever was one. And the point of this arch arabesque is that it is exactly the kind of gratuitous riff you won’t find in Hoagland’s sober, judicious (and for all that) engaging etudes. Honest work, with the ego as a point of view, not a spotlit stage for narcissistic crooning of the ole mi-mi-mi. Of the 27 poems all have social or broader relational concerns, save one and that one, surely taxonomically, is entitled “Personal”. Audaciously, there are two poems (“Home of the Brave”, “The History of White People”) that address race dynamics from the now novel (one might almost say colorful) perspective of the straight white man. ‘After so long seeming right, as in/true, as in clean as in smart, / … after so long being visitors/ from the galaxy Caucasia/now they are starting to seem a little/deficient, leached out, spent, colorless/ thin blooded, indefinite as in being too far and too long / removed from the original source of whiteness.” Hoagland understands that disciplined free-verse works when it is delineated to the shape of thought, measured by the poet’s distinctive (silent) voice; in this case, relatively short lines lenghtening unto long sentences. Not such a hard thing you'd think except so many makeurs-(did I say fakeurs?), do it poorly. The chapbook is, in the best sense, a quick read, fluent, informing and fault free (which is perhaps a different state of grace from “flawless”). Lyric poets are easily classified as hard or soft landers: the former step into a pirouette and accelerate before spinning out to the resoundingly conclusive footfall. Soft types like Hoagland can fool you when you turn the page and find two more lines to a poem you thought was ended. Opps! But with Hoagland that’s a mere typographical accident and no misstep by a poet who eschews the Big Gesture and Five Act Structure; it is the quiet voice of a serious man who prefers to draw you in rather than call you out. It’s a delicacy and refinement of a quintessentially and ever rarer American kind that is hard to represent adequately in short quotes. "In summer there was something in the selfhood of the wasps /that wanted to get inside the screened-in porch./ It sent them buzzing against the wire mesh, / probing under the eaves,/ crawling in the cracks between the boards./Each day we’d find new bodies on the sill:/ little failures. Like struck matches:/shrunken in death, the yellow/color of cider or old varnish.” A certain kind of entirely legitimate reader will miss the arc and buzz of stylistic fireworks. But flash-in-the-pan pyrotechnics illuminate, reflectively, only themselves while it is the pond itself, day-lit, even-tempered, capacious and world holding, deep, but calling not attention to its depth that we most value. A Little Ocean. This one well worth the sacrifice in passing trade of your $10 and three cent paper boat.