#228. A KIND OF WORK WE HAVE BEGUN IN ORDER TO COMPLETE. Tony Hoagland died in 2018, leaving behind seven collections of poetry as well as four books of essays and one collaborative work of translation. A posthumous eighth collection, Turn Up the Ocean, has now been published by Graywolf Press. His first books, Sweet Ruin and Donkey Gospel, introduced an already distinctive and recognizable voice, marked by a vernacular ease, an irony more bemused than corrosive, and a runaway knack for simile. He has had a way of letting the enormities of the contemporary world—the sneering nastiness of our politics, the dangers of our intrusive technologies, climate change—into a poetry that still refuses despair. Over the years the voice has changed very little, only to have deepened with experience, illness and age; the poems still go down like chocolates, but linger with the slowly revealed moods and flavors of a great vintage red. He has his mockery’s targets: the ghastly fantasies of masculinity (in a bar with male friends, he writes “It’s so primordial / I feel my chest grow hairier / with every drink.”), the collisions of heterosexuality, new age posturings (“Why does the New Age seem so often like a patient in intensive care, / in a delicate condition, requiring giant infusions / of illusion and charity to stay alive…”), the substitution of technology and success for actual lived life. But there is too an appealing and kindly impulse to mock mockery, or to know his collusions in the general silliness: “On the other hand, isn’t it some kind of ultimate foolishness / to scold cheerful people who in a way are the pilgrims of our time / about the folly of their happiness? / I ask you—what kind of folly is that?” In “Dante’s Bar and Grill,” in his last book, when the cancer was closing the doors on him, he finishes: “And, being a timid man, / I was going to stay with them / no matter what I was told, / even if it meant that we were going, / all of us, together, straight down to hell.” In his last collections, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God and Turn Up the Ocean, he combines panic with calm, humor and quick invention with his sense of mortality: something we have to recognize as courage. In “Sunday at the Mall,” evoking his coming death, he writes: “Crouch by the body if you want / --but sweetheart, the point I’m making is: / don’t worry don’t worry don’t worry: / those wild birds will never be returning / to any roost in this world. / They’re loose, and gone, and free as oxygen.” It’s in these last pieces we may notice again that the natural world, with all the interferences we have given it, is background and part of Hoagland’s own steadying strength. “Peaceful Transition,” the last poem is Hoagland’s last book, ends:
It’s important that we expire.
It’s a kind of work we have begun in order to complete.
Today out of the north the cold wind comes down,
and I go out to see
the neighbor’s trash bins have toppled in the drive.
I see the unpicked grapes have turned
to small sweet raisins on their vine.
I see the wren has found a way to make its little nest
inside the cactus thorns.
Collections by Tony Hoagland:
Sweet Ruin. University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
Donkey Gospel. Graywolf, 1998.
What Narcissism Means to Me. Graywolf, 2003.
Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. Graywolf, 2010.
Application for Release from the Dream. Graywolf, 2015.
Recent Changes in the Vernacular. Graywolf, 2017.
Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God. Graywolf, 2018.
Turn Up the Ocean. Graywolf, 2022.