I just heard that Tony Hoagland died. He was only 64, younger than my mother. Pancreatic cancer. Hoagland’s poetry has been a central feature of my adult life, a kind of theme song playing in the background. Some of the best memories of my twenties and thirties consist of Anna-Liisa and I sitting around with friends, drinking wine, talking about life, the universe, and everything—and reading Hoagland’s poetry aloud till the wee hours of the morning.
I’ll never forget that moment, in the summer of 2000, when Kimberley Watson pulled out a dog-eared copy of Donkey Gospel. There were about a dozen of us sitting on the floor in my sunny Baltimore apartment. We’d been dancing all weekend at the Starscape Music Festival. The sun was coming up and we were coming down. Kim asked us if we’d like to hear a poem. We said yes and she began with a magisterial reading of “Grammar”. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her reading these two verses:
We’re all attracted to the perfume
of fermenting joy,
we’ve all tried to start a fire,
and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.
In the meantime, she is the one today among us
most able to bear the idea of her own beauty,
and when we see it, what we do is natural:
we take our burned hands
out of our pockets,
We begged her to read another. And then another. And another. And another. And, well, I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve probably given away hundreds of copies of Hoagland’s books to friends and family over the years, and I’ve assigned his books to dozens of classes at John Abbott College. The very title of my PhD dissertation—“Turning Horror Into Stories”—is taken from the last three verses of a Hoagland poem:
because death is something
that always has to be enclosed
by an elaborate set of explanations.
It is an ancient litigation,
this turning of horror into stories,
and it is a lonely piece of work,
trying to turn the stories back into horror,
but somebody has to do it
—especially now that God
has reverted to a state of fire.²
I inadvertently read a Hoagland poem on the air two weeks ago. It was on the Likeville podcast, during an interview with Christopher Wallace. When the subject of self-destructive behavior came up, I immediately thought of Hoagland’s chillingly accurate description of it in “Sweet Ruin”:
Maybe that is what he was after,
my father, when he arranged, ten years ago,
to be discovered in a mobile home
with a woman named Roxanne, an attractive,
recently divorced masseuse.
He sat there, he said later, in the middle
of a red, imitation-leather sofa,
with his shoes off and a whiskey in his hand,
filling up with a joyful kind of dread—
like a swamp, filling up with night,
—while my mother hammered on the trailer door
with a muddy, pried-up stone,
then smashed the headlights of his car,
and locked herself inside.
He paid the piper, was how he put it,
because he wanted to live,
and at the time knew no other way
than to behave like some blind and willful beast,
—to make a huge mistake, like a big leap
into space, as if following
a music that required dissonance
and a plunge into the dark.
That is what he tried to tell me,
the afternoon we talked,
as he reclined in his black chair,
divorced from the people in his story
by ten years and a heavy cloud of smoke.
Trying to explain how a man could come
to a place where he has nothing else to gain
unless he loses everything. So he
louses up his work, his love, his own heart.
He hails disaster like a cab. And years later,
when the storm has descended
and rubbed his face in the mud of himself,
he stands again and looks around,
strangely thankful just to be alive,
oddly jubilant—as if he had been granted
the answer to his riddle,
or as if the question
had been taken back. Perhaps
a wind is freshening the grass,
and he can see now, as for the first time,
the softness of the air between the blades. The pleasure
built into a single bending leaf.
Maybe then he calls it, in a low voice
and only to himself, Sweet Ruin.
And maybe only because I am his son,
I can hear just what he means. How
even at this moment, even when the world
seems so perfectly arranged, I feel
a force prepared to take it back.
Like a smudge on the horizon. Like a black spot
on the heart. How one day soon,
I might take this nervous paradise,
bone and muscle of this extraordinary life,
and with one deliberate gesture,
like a man stepping on a stick,
break it into halves. But less gracefully
than that. I think there must be something wrong
with me, or wrong with strength, that I would
break my happiness apart
simply for the pleasure of the sound.
The sound the pieces make. What is wrong
with peace? I couldn’t say.
But, sweet ruin, I can hear you.
There is always the desire.
Always the cloud, suddenly present
and willing to oblige.³
The episode aired on October 22. Tony Hoagland died on October 23. But I only got the news today. I didn’t know he was sick. I had no idea. There was no indication. None at all. The man was at the height of his powers, publishing a book every year or two, each seemingly better than the last: e.g., Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010), Application for Release from the Dream (2015), Recent Changes in the Vernacular (2017), Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (2018).
Call it a faith statement, but I firmly believe that his best work was ahead of him. Tony Hoagland was cut short in his prime. And this makes his death especially sad. Regardless, I should probably let Tony have the last word. This is from a poem he wrote about his father’s heart attack. It seems strangely appropriate at the moment:
When, like a mighty oak, my father fell,
chopped down by a streak
of lightning through his chest,
when he went on living at the height
of an adjustable bed,
below a chart of pulse and respiration lines,
then I understood what it meant to be a man,
and land on your back in the shadow
of all your solitary strength,
listening to the masculine tickertape of leaves
whisper judgmentally above you.
Weakness is so frightening. You speak
from the side of a sagging mouth
hear a voice you never wanted to produce
ask for some small, despicable, important
thing—a flexible straw, a crummy channel
change. I stared through the window,
across the institutional lawn,
seeking what to feel. Sparrows
darted to and from a single
emerald pine, a sort of bird motel
Light purred into the grass. I tried
to see all men as brief
as birds—inhaling the powerful oxygen,
flying the lazy light, having their afternoon
as sort of millionaires,
then at evening, to reenter the collective shade
and shrink, remembering their size. When I looked
for my father, when my father finally
looked for me, it was impossible. We kept
our dignity. But when did I learn
to leave everyone behind? When did I get
as strong as my old man? Out of your strength
you make a distance. Then you see,
and start to cross. You think
of what you want to say,
and you forget, deliberately.
Go back to the beginning. Think about it.
Take, if you like, all day.
—John Faithful Hamer
1. Tony Hoagland, “Grammar,” Donkey Gospel (1998).
2. Tony Hoagland, “Fire,” What Narcissism Means to Me (2003).
3. Tony Hoagland, “Sweet Ruin,” Sweet Ruin (1992).
4. Tony Hoagland, “Poem for Men Only,” Sweet Ruin (1992).