Tony Hoagland was that rare literary phenomenon: a critically acclaimed poet who wanted to be understood by a general audience. Ann Humphreys, a former student of Tony’s, puts it this way: “He wrote clearly and without pretense, for everyone: not just for those lucky enough to be familiar with the canon.” By turns funny and sad, caustic and poignant, Tony’s poetry first appeared in The Sun in May of 2000, and he was a regular contributor for the past ten years. Though he frequently used humor to make his writing more accessible, he could still catch the reader off guard with a sudden shift in tone, ending a poem in a very different mood than where it began.
We were caught off guard when we heard that Tony had died last October at the age of sixty-four. Though we’d known he had pancreatic cancer, the loss felt sudden.
I never met Tony in person, but I had the pleasure of editing some of his poems. (Yes, we edit poetry at The Sun; it’s a delicate process that requires a special type of pencil.) Tony was a stimulating writer to work with and often receptive to our suggestions. He once commented that he must have been “in denial” about a dangling participle we flagged. But he would also stand his ground when it felt necessary, such as the time he sent us a poem that mentioned the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the notorious right-wing ideologue whose name is synonymous with the anticommunist witch hunts of the 1950s. Tony had written that McCarthy had died of mouth cancer, and after I pointed out that this wasn’t true, he replied: “Joseph McCarthy should have died of cancer of the mouth, and that’s good enough for me.”
That comment is an example of both Tony’s humor and the anger that sometimes came out in his work. He wasn’t afraid to be disliked, and he trusted the reader to understand that there is ugliness and beauty in all of us.
Of course, when Tony wrote, beauty more often won out. In “Into the Mystery,” published a little more than a year before his death, Tony writes of “a time of afternoon, out there in the yard / an hour that has never been described. . . . Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs, / happy because there never has been a word for this.”
He is being too modest here. Over and over, Tony gave us the gift that all great writing does: the words to describe that for which we have no words.
— Andrew Snee
Crossing the porch in the hazy dusk to worship the moon rising like a yellow filling-station sign on the black horizon, you feel the faint grit of ants beneath your shoes, but keep on walking because in this world you have to decide what you’re willing to kill. Saving your marriage might mean dinner for two by candlelight on steak raised on pasture chopped out of rain forest whose absence might mean an atmospheric thinness fifty years from now above the vulnerable head of your bald grandson on vacation as the cells of his scalp sautéed by solar radiation break down like suspects under questioning. Still you slice the sirloin into pieces and feed each other on silver forks under the approving gaze of a waiter whose purchased attention and French name are a kind of candlelight themselves, while in the background the fingertips of the pianist float over the tusks of the slaughtered elephant without a care, as if the elephant had granted its permission.
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials, And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is, He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ball-peen hammers, even then he feels Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds Of the thick satin quilt of America And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain, Or whether he is just spin-doctoring a better grade, And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night, It was not blood but money That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills Spilling from his wounds, and — this is the weird part —, He gasped, “Thank God — those Ben Franklins were Clogging up my heart — And so I perish happily, Freed from that which kept me from my liberty” — Which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad Would never speak in rhymed couplets, And I look at the student with his acne and cellphone and phony ghetto clothes And I think, “I am asleep in America too, And I don’t know how to wake myself either,” And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life: “I was listening to the cries of the past, When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.” But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable Or what kind of nightmare it might be When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river Even while others are drowning underneath you And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters And yet it seems to be your own hand Which turns the volume higher?
The Social Life Of Water
All water is a part of other water. Cloud talks to lake; mist speaks quietly to creek. Lake says something back to cloud, and cloud listens. No water is lonely water. All water is a part of other water. River rushes to reunite with ocean; Tree drinks rain and sweats out dew; Dew takes elevator into cloud; Cloud marries puddle; puddle has long conversation with lake about fjord; Fog sneaks up and murmurs insinuations to swamp; Swamp makes needs known to marshland; Thunderstorm throws itself on estuary; Waterspout laughs at joke of frog pond. All water understands. All water understands. Reservoir gathers information for database of watershed; Brook translates lake to waterfall; Tide wrinkles its green forehead and then breaks through. All water understands. But you, you stand on the shore of blue Lake Kieve in the evening and listen, grieving as something stirs and turns within you. Not knowing why you linger in the dark. Not able even to guess from what you are excluded.
Special Problems In Vocabulary
There is no single particular noun for the way a friendship, stretched over time, grows thin, then one day snaps with a popping sound. No verb for accidentally breaking a thing while trying to get it open — a marriage, for example. No idiomatic phrase for losing a book in the middle of reading it, and therefore never learning the end. There is no expression — in English, at least — for avoiding the sight of your own body in the mirror, for disliking the touch of the afternoon sun, for walking into the long flatland that stretches out before you after your adventures are done. No adjective for gradually speaking less, and less, because you have stopped being able to say the one thing that would break your life loose from its grip. Certainly no name that one could imagine for the aspen tree outside, its spade-shaped leaves spinning on their stems, working themselves into a pale-green, vegetable blur. No word for waking up one morning and looking around, because the mysterious spirit which drives all things seems to have returned, and is on your side again.
Message To A Former Friend
I just wanted to write and say, in case you are hit tomorrow by a truck or are swept from the beach by a freak wave; or in case your ex-wife decides to take her own life right after taking yours; or in case you go to the doctor, who finds a lump in your neck, and you are carried swiftly out onto the terrible waters of clinics and infusions and I never see you again — I just wanted to say, Bon voyage, my friend, my dear and former friend. I just wanted to confess how much you meant to me back then, before I learned to hold my love in check thanks to my tutorial with you. Thank God I got those holes sealed shut through which every passerby could see my neediness, and thank God I banished you into that frozen part of me where nothing moves or breathes. And yet it’s funny, isn’t it? Our weakness can never be eliminated; neediness is part of what we are. Living is a kind of wound; a wound is a kind of opening; and even love that disappeared mysteriously comes back like water bubbling up from underground, cleansed from its long journey in the dark. Right in the open, there it is, waiting for someone to arrive and kneel and drink from it.
Do you have a twenty-foot extension ladder? Good. Let’s get it out of the garage. I want to put this birdhouse up on one of the evergreens that stands off your back deck. I’m going to use long tenpenny nails to fasten it to the tree and some kind of wire strapping, too. I want it to stay there for a long time. I want you to notice it season after season — how the mother bird keeps flying in and out of the little knothole that I drilled to where the baby birds stretch their mouths wide open in a ferocious pink bouquet. If I am no longer here for some reason, I think you will still see me occasionally reflected in the incessant activity of the birds flying in and out of the birdhouse — always coming and going just like I did, not wishing to become too well-known, or to ever stay long in one place. And yet the birdhouse will say something different about me: it will say that I lived here. It will be a thing that I made with my hands on a specific afternoon, working for hours in my garage, with paint streaks and sawdust on my clothes, and that I took the trouble to hang that little domicile high on the trunk of your particular tree with a knowledge of how life always moves on and yet leaves something behind as well with something alive inside it. You might say that memory itself is a piece of real estate, a residence with a private entrance and a mystery inside like this small château painted blue with orange spots on it, hung twenty feet high — a thing, for a while, out of reach of the predator, time.
All poems and copyrights by Tony Hoagland. “Candlelight” is from Donkey Gospel, copyright © 1998. “America” is from What Narcissism Means to Me, copyright © 2003. “The Social Life of Water” and “Special Problems in Vocabulary” are from Application for Release from the Dream, copyright © 2015. All reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press. “Message to a Former Friend” and “Birdhouse” are from Recent Changes in the Vernacular, copyright © 2017. Published by Tres Chicas Books and reprinted by permission of Kathleen Lee.
Read more by Tony Hoagland in our digital archive.