Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, By Tony Hoagland

Lines of pain-filled truthfulness

Hugh Thomson
Wednesday 29 June 2011 00:00
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To be an accountant of the heart", writes Tony Hoagland in a poem of the same name, "is the loneliest job in the world". It is not one which Hoagland shirks. These are unflinching poems, looking at personal failure and human frailty: the man who returns from the funeral of his suicide son and burns all photographs of him, to his wife's horror; the ageing lovers who go through the motions; a poem called "In Praise of Their Divorce". Pain moves round these subjects "like smoke", and knows "exactly what to do with human beings/ to stay inside of them forever".

Hoagland made his name in Britain with the 2005 anthology What Narcissism Means to Me. This new volume can't quite match the energy of Narcissism, with its viscerally shocking poem about the power he feels over his invalid mother. But it shows that few poets now can match his direct engagement with the reader and his refusal to avoid the inconvenient truth. Perhaps Hoagland feels the signal-to-noise ratio of modern America is worsening: "Nothing means what it says/ and it says it all the time."

Despite his often painful subject matter, it would be wrong to think of him as a miserabilist. "In Praise of Their Divorce" celebrates the possibilities the ex-spouses now have, "flying away from their dead world,/ the burning booster rocket of divorce falling off behind them,/ the bystanders pointing at the sky and saying, Look". And he has a zest for small-town life. There are poems here about Britney Spears, about "Jimmy's Wok and Roll American-Chinese Gourmet Emporium", about the joy of driving a cement truck (one can almost hear Homer Simpson say, "I wonder what that one does?" as he looks at a black lever), and the perplexity of the "light brown African-American who discovers he is Irish from his DNA".

Hoagland may remind some readers of Billy Collins, the recent American Poet Laureate. His lines have the same loose-limbed length and also walk the difficult tightrope between whimsy and revelation. But whereas Collins's poems are like helium balloons that can take off, untethered, Hoagland's are more likely to explode in your face. With this new collection, he confirms his place as one of the most vital and engaged poets working on either side of the Atlantic.

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