An eagerly awaited new collection of poems by contemporary favorite Tony Hoagland, author of Donkey Gospel
How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland?
With an economy based on flattery and self-protection?
and a sewage system of selective forgetting?
and an extensive history of broken promises?
In What Narcissism Means to Me, award-winning poet Tony Hoagland levels his particular brand of acute irony not only on the personal life, but also on some provinces of American culture. In playful narratives, lyrical outbursts, and overheard conversations, Hoagland cruises the milieu, exploring the spiritual vacancies of American satisfaction. With humor, rich tonal complexity, and aggressive moral intelligence, these poems bring pity to our folly and celebrate our resilience.
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About the Author
Tony Hoagland is the author of Donkey Gospel, winner of the 1997 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Sweet Ruin, winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.
Read an Excerpt
WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME
By Tony Hoagland
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2003 Tony Hoagland
All right reserved.
Commercial for a Summer Night That one night in the middle of the summer when people move their chairs outside and put their TVs on the porch so the dark is full of murmuring blue lights. We were drinking beer with the sound off, watching the figures on the screen-the bony blondes, the lean-jawed guys who decorate the perfume and the cars- the pretty ones the merchandise is wearing this year. Alex said, I wish they made a shooting gallery using people like that. Greg said, That woman has a Ph.D. in Face. Then we saw a preview for a movie about a movie star who is having a movie made about her, and Boz said, This country is getting stupider every year. Then Greg said that things were better in the sixties and Rus said that Harold Bloom said that Nietzsche said Nostalgia is the blank check issued to a weak mind, and Greg said, They didn't have checks back then, stupid, and Susan said It's too bad you guys can't get Spellcheck for your brains. Then Greg left and Margaret arrived and a breeze carried honeysuckle fumes across the yard, and Alex finished his quart of beer and Boz leaned back in his chair
and the beautiful people on the TV screen moved back and forth and back, looking very much now like shooting-gallery ducks- and we sat in quiet pleasure on the shore of night, as a tide came in and turned and carried us, folding chairs and all, far out from the coastline of America in a perfect commercial for our lives. America 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 ballpeen 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 cell phone 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? Argentina What I notice today is the aroma of my chiropractor's breath as he moves in over my supineness, asking me where I bought those shoes at the same instant that he wrenches my head abruptly sidewise to crack my neck with a noise like popping bubblewrap. It's January, no, it's February, it's Pittsburgh and I've been so twisted by craving and loneliness and rage, I feel like curling up on the floor of my room and crying, "You never loved me anyway, not ever!" though I'm not sure who I would be talking to. Kath says February is always like eating a raw egg; Peter says it's like wearing a bandage on your head; Mary says it's like a pack of wild dogs who have gotten into medical waste, and smiles because she clearly is the winner. And in Argentina, after the elections, we hear the old president won't leave office- literally, they say-they can't get him out of the office! He's in there with his little private army, eating caviar, squandering state money on call girls and porno movies- and if you've done any therapy at all, I think you'll see the analogy. How did I come to believe in a government called Tony Hoagland? with an economy based on flattery and self-protection? and a sewage system of selective forgetting? and an extensive history of broken promises? What did I get in exchange for my little bargain? What did I lose? Where are my natural resources, my principal imports, and why is my landscape so full of stony ridges and granite outcroppings? Having said that much, having paid a stranger to touch and straighten me, I walk out the door to my old car in the parking lot -which, after the slight adjustment of a spring shower, looks almost new again. The Change The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine. In the park the daffodils came up and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade. Sometimes I think that nothing really changes- The young girls show the latest crop of tummies, and the new president proves that he's a dummy. But remember the tennis match we watched that year? Right before our eyes some tough little European blonde pitted against that big black girl from Alabama, cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite- We were just walking past the lounge and got sucked in by the screen above the bar, and pretty soon we started to care about who won, putting ourselves into each whacked return as the volleys went back and forth and back like some contest between the old world and the new, and you loved her complicated hair and her to-hell-with-everybody stare, and I,
I couldn't help wanting the white girl to come out on top, because she was one of my kind, my tribe, with her pale eyes and thin lips and because the black girl was so big and so black, so unintimidated, hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation down Abraham Lincoln's throat, like she wasn't asking anyone's permission. There are moments when history passes you so close you can smell its breath, you can reach your hand out and touch it on its flank, and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre, but I could feel the end of an era there in front of those bleachers full of people in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes as that black girl wore down her opponent then kicked her ass good then thumped her once more for good measure and stood up on the red clay court holding her racket over her head like a guitar. And the little pink judge had to climb up on a box to put the ribbon on her neck, still managing to smile into the camera flash, even though everything was changing and in fact, everything had already changed- Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone, we were there, and when we went to put it back where it belonged, it was past us and we were changed. When Dean Young Talks about Wine The worm thrashes when it enters the tequila. The grape cries out in the wine vat crusher. But when Dean Young talks about wine, his voice is strangely calm. Yet it seems that wine is rarely mentioned. He says, Great first chapter but no plot. He says, Long runway, short flight. He says, This one never had a secret. He says, You can't wear stripes with that. He squints as if recalling his childhood in France. He purses his lips and shakes his head at the glass. Eighty-four was a naughty year, he says, and for a second I worry that California has turned him into a sushi-eater in a cravat. Then he says, This one makes clear the difference between a thoughtless remark and an unwarranted intrusion. Then he says, In this one the pacific last light of afternoon stains the wings of the seagull pink at the very edge of the postcard. But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication? Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes? Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches? with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches? and the undertone of rusty stationwagon? His mouth is purple as if from his own ventricle he had drunk. He sways like a fishing rod. When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension. When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt, he makes himself an expert. Then he stands there with a glass in his hand staring into nothing as if he was forming an opinion. What Narcissism Means to Me There's Socialism and Communism and Capitalism, said Neal, and there's Feminism and Hedonism, and there's Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism, but I think Narcissism is the system that means the most to me; and Sylvia said that in Neal's case narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking. And Ann, who calls everybody Sweetie pie whether she cares for them or not, Ann lit a cigarette and said, Only miserable people will tell you that love has to be deserved, and when I heard that, a distant chime went off for me, remembering a time when I believed that I could simply live without it. Neal had grilled the corn and sliced the onions into thick white disks, and piled the wet green pickles up in stacks like coins and his chef's cap was leaning sideways like a mushroom cloud. Then Ethan said that in his opinion, if you're going to mess around with self-love you shouldn't just rush into a relationship, and Sylvia was weeping softly now, looking down into her wine cooler and potato chips, and then the hamburgers were done, just as the sunset in the background started cutting through the charcoal clouds exposing their insides-black, streaked dark red, like a slab of scorched, rare steak, delicious but unhealthy, or, depending on your perspective, unhealthy but delicious, -the way that, deep inside the misery of daily life, love lies bleeding. Impossible Dream In Delaware a congressman accused of sexual misconduct says clearly at the press conference, speaking right into the microphone, that he would like very much to do it again.
It was on the radio and Carla laughed as she painted, Die, You Pig in red nail polish on the back of a turtle she plans to turn loose tomorrow in Jerry's backyard. We lived near the high school that year and in the afternoons, in autumn, you could hear the marching-band rehearsals from the stadium: off-key trumpets carried by the wind, drums and weirdly smeared trombones: a ragged "Louie Louie" or sometimes, "The Impossible Dream." I was reading a book about pleasure, how you have to glide through it without clinging, like an arrow passing through a target, coming out the other side and going on. Sitting at the picnic table carved with the initials of the previous tenants; thin October sunlight blessing the pale grass- you would have said we had it all- But the turtle in Carla's hand churned its odd, stiff legs like oars, as if it wasn't made for holding still, and the high-school band played worse than ever for a moment -as if getting the song right was the impossible dream. Parade Peter says if you're going to talk about suffering you have to mention pleasure too. Like the way, on the day of the parade, on Forbes Avenue, one hundred parking tickets flutter under the windshield wipers of one hundred parked cars. The accordion band will be along soon, and the famous Flying Pittsburgettes, and it's summer and the sun is shining on the inevitable flags- Something weird to admire this week on TV: the handsome face of the white supremacist on trial. How he looks right back at the lawyers, day after day -never objecting, never making an apology. I look at his calm, untroubled face and think, That motherfucker is going to die white and right, disappointing everyone like me who thinks that punishment should be a kind of education. My attitude is like what God says in the Bible: Love your brother, or be destroyed. Then Moses or somebody says back to God, If I love you, will you destroy my enemies? and God says-this is in translation-, No Problemo. Here, everyone is talking about the price of freedom, and about how we as a people are united in our down payment, about how we will fight to the very bottom of our bank account. And the sky is so blue it looks like it may last forever and the skinny tuba player goes oompahpah, and everybody cheers. In the big store window of the travel agency downtown, a ten-foot sign says, WE WILL NEVER FORGET. The letters have been cut with scissors out of blue construction paper and pasted carefully to the sign by someone's hand.
Excerpted from WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME by Tony Hoagland Copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland. Excerpted by permission.
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