Tony Hoagland is a character. Having met him a few years ago at a reading, I can definitely say that the voice of his poems is his own. He has a certain amount of seriousness, that is interspersed with just the right amount of humor to avoid getting bogged down. His book, What Narcissism Means to Me, follows this technique fairly successfully.
The poems are divided into four sections (America, Social Life, Blues, and Luck), and overall the poems for each section actually correlate to the titles they have… a habit that some collections of poetry I have read in the past have failed to accomplish. The first section focuses on American culture and with the poem “America” Tony encodes some serious commentary when he says he remembers how he “stabbed my father in the dream last night,/ It was not blood but money/ that gushed out of him.” This is shortly followed by the comedic turn of his father saying “Thank god–those Ben Franklins were/ Clogging up my heart–.”
The second section deals with the speaker of the poems’ interactions with close friends. One particular poem, “Patience,” details the speaker being chewed out for his attitude. Rather than rise in anger, the speaker sits back and smiles knowing this is what he has needed to hear. The opening stanza really needs to be shown in its entirety here:
“Success is the worst possible thing that could happen
to a man like you,” she said,
“because the shiny shoes, and flattery
and the self-
lubricating slime of affluence would mean
you’d never have to face your failure as a human being.”
-Excerpt from Tony Hoagland “Patience”
The third section hits a far more dark stride with issues such as suicide. One poem in particular, “Suicide Song,” is written in a very intriguing way. The majority of the poem is written in the first person, allowing the speaker of the poem to confess instances of suicidal contemplations and why he hasn’t done it yet, ultimately asking rather humorously “And anyway, who has clothes nice enough to be caught dead in?” The poem then takes a dramatic shift and addressesthe reader in the second person saying “You stay alive you stupid asshole/ Because you haven’t been excused.” The surprising turn of perspective there made me shift in my seat and read the poem a few extra times, but it left me with a stronger sense of hopefulness than I received in other parts of the collection.
The last section of the book didn’t accomplish as much for me as the third. It predominantly deals with relationships and some tinges of experiences after someone’s death, but it ultimately reads like the second section of the book again.
Overall, this is a fine collection for anyone to read. The lightheartedness interspersed throughout each poem and section acts as a nice breather between some truly emotional and dark content. I find it hard to realize, in writing this review, that so much darkness actually pervades this book, because really, when I had initially finished reading it, I felt rather happy and well entertained. If you want some serious content, that relieves any built up tension through some clever humor, check out this book.
3/4 – Worth checking out