Friday, December 07, 2007

Tony Hoagland Warms Up the Crowd in Vermont

Poet Tony Hoagland's reading at the Vermont Studio Center this evening kept the crowd giggling, chuckling, and occasionally exploding with full-volume guffaws. He opened with a poem he said he'd writen in response to Robert Pinsky's quoted assertion that "American poetry would be much more widely read if it had more sex, violence, and jokes in it." Hoagland's responsive poem, called "People Magazine," is crammed with celebrity names, and the lively reactions in the crowd helped keep the town-hall-style building warm (a feat in itself). He followed up with "A Meditation on the Entity Known as Britney Spears." And then he teased the writers in front of him by saying the following poem was directed to the oversensitive among them (ahem!):

I Have News for You

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don't interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don't walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures irrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their tuberous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others' emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
unpacking the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after love or fame or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;

Thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you:
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.

Between poems, Hoagland played with the old-fashioned atmosphere of the hall in Johnson, Vermont, where he admitted he felt he should be gathering the town into some political movement, like banning all heterosexual latte shops in town.

But despite the teasing and satire, the poetry was tight and pointed. Within each line, the next word would arrive as if inevitable - yet be surprising at the same time. And each full-length poem mirrored this care and precision.

Hoagland's two final offerings belonged to what he called "landscape poems": ones that wrestle with time and space and keep getting deeper. "A Color of the Sky," the longer of the pair, drew the most attention, and I heard someone ask for a copy. So here it is:

A Color of the Sky
by Tony Hoagland

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn’t make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I’d rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it’s spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It’s been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.

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