Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Review: Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty: Poems, by Tony Hoagland

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty: Poems
by Tony Hoagland
Graywolf Press
90 pages

I owe my thanks to - who else? - Serena from Savvy Verse and Wit for introducing me to the work of contemporary poet Tony Hoagland.  Back in July, Serena featured his poem "Description" in her Virtual Poetry Circle. (Even though I don't comment as much as I'd like to, I love the Virtual Poetry Circle and read every poem she posts for it.) A few weeks later, Serena reviewed this collection, which further intrigued me.

And then there it was, not even a week or so later, when I noticed Unincorporated Persons in the Honda Dynasty on my library's New Books shelf.  (I absolutely love that feeling of seeing a book "out in the world" that you've read about on a book blog.)

Tony Hoagland, a contemporary poet, now joins Billy Collins and Edward Hirsch as one of my favorites.  Like the others, Hoagland has the ability to take the everyday minutia of life and turn it into a commentary on society ("Plastic") and our culture ("At the Galleria").  Pop culture in particular gets special treatment from Hoagland ("Poor Britney Spears")  as does a cement truck barrelling down the road ("Cement Truck"), events in the news ("Summer"),  a weed on the side of a building ("Complicit with Everything"), a crowded food court at lunchtime ("Food Court") and individuals passing by in the hallway of a hotel ("Expensive Hotel").

These poems make you grin broadly, cringe slightly (there's a few graphic phrases in a few of these), and laugh out loud. All of them make you think about the stuff, the moments, and the people that make up this crazy life of ours.

For his work, Hoagland has been honored with the Jackson Poetry Prize, among other accolades. It's a prize (with a $50,000 award) that honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit but has not yet received major national acclaim. Here's how the prize judges described his work:

"It's hard to imagine any aspect of contemporary American life that couldn't make its way into the writing of Tony Hoagland or a word in common or formal usage he would shy away from. He is a poet of risk: he risks wild laughter in poems that are totally heartfelt, poems you want to read out loud to anyone who needs to know the score and even more so to those who think they know the score. The framework of his writing is immense, almost as large as the tarnished nation he wandered into under the star of poetry."

Back to Serena's blog. In her Virtual Poetry Circle, Serena highlighted one of the best poems of this collection ("Description"). ("A bird with a cry like a cell phone says something to a bird with a cry like a manual typewriter.")  I'll direct you over to her blog to read the rest, while leaving you with two other of my favorites, "Big Grab" and "Nature."

I love "Big Grab" for its dead-on commentary about the changing use of language in our culture and the misleading way words are twisted to serve whatever purpose we need them to be. And even though I wasn't a playing-in-the-woods kind of kid as a child, "Nature" takes me right back to my old neighborhood, before the McMansions gobbled up our woods and spit them out as a cul-de-sac of dreams. 

"Big Grab"

The corn-chip engineer gets a bright idea,
and talks to the corn-chip executive
and six months later at the factory they begin subtracting
a few chips from every bag,

but they still call it on the outside wrapper,
The Big Grab
so the concept of Big is quietly modified
to mean More or Less Large, or Only Slightly
                                                           Less Big Than Before.

Confucius said this would happen -
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department

and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to size up a horse by its teeth
or when it is best to shut up.

We live in that time that he predicted.
Nothing means what it says,
and it says it all the time.
Out on route 28, the lights blaze all night
on a billboard of a beautiful girl
covered with melted cheese -

See how she beckons to the river of late-night cars!
See how the tipsy drivers swerve,
under the breathalyzer moon!

In a story whose beginning I must have missed,
without a name for the thing
I can barely comprehend I desire,

I speak these words that do not know
where they're going.

No wonder I want something more or less large
and salty for lunch.
No wonder I stare into space while eating it.

And this one:

I miss the friendship with the pine tree and the birds
that I had when I was ten.
And it has been forever since I pushed my head
under the wild silk skirt of the waterfall.

What I had with them was tender and private ,
The lake was practically my girlfriend.
I carried her picture in my front shirt pocket.
Even in my sleep, I heard the sound of water. 

The big rock on the shore was the skull of a dead king
whose name we could almost remember.
Under the rooty bank you could dimly see
the bunk beds of the turtles. 

Maybe twice had I said a girl's name to myself.
I had not yet had my first weird dream of money. 

Nobody I know mentions these things anymore.
It's as if their memories have been seized, erased, and relocated
among flowcharts and complex dinner-party calendars.

Now I want to turn and run back the other way,
barefoot into the underbrush, 
getting raked by thorns, being slapped in the face by branches.

Down to the muddy bed of the little stream
where my cupped hands make a house, and 

I tilt up the roof 
to look at the face of the frog.

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