Review | What Narcisissm Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland
                  (Graywolf Press, 2003)

What drew me to Tony Hoagland's poetry, when I first picked up a copy of Donkey Gospel, were his titles: "Dickhead," "Honda Pavarotti," "Fred Had Watched a Lot of Kung Fu Episodes." Usually, I choose a book of poetry by judging the first few lines from some of the poems. Here I read:

Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel . . .

I thought I saw my mother
      in the lesbian bar . . .
   ("Mistaken Identity")

I'm raking leaves and singing in my off-key voice
a mangled version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" . . .

The lines met the promise of the titles. Most of the poems in this 1998 book take place on the cusp of change—the political unrest and self-realizations of the 1960's and 70's in matters of love, identity and social placement, and they have an un-self-conscious immediacy that matches their subject matter. The narrator stands aside, watching events glide by, and interprets them with a sense of nostalgia, naïveté, and humor that I found immediately appealing. "But we couldn't tell the difference / between a personal disaster / and 'having an experience'" ("Fred Had Watched a Lot of Kung Fu Episodes"). "We called that fun in 1970, / when we weren't sure our lives were worth surviving" ("Memory As a Hearing Aid").

These poems don't explore the consequences of the narrator's experiences. There is, instead, an innocent expectation underlying each poem that everything will work itself out for the best in the end.

When I subsequently read Hoagland's first book, Sweet Ruin (1992), I discovered a good collection covering topics that should be expected in a first book of poetry: self-reflection, family relations, and love. I experienced Hoagland's own love of life through the honest directness of his poems, a directness that often finds its home in the sarcastic aside.

The cycle of these poems posits a deliberate destruction of our environment, as well as ourselves, as a reason for flight. They do not, however, necessarily promise flight as a path to salvation or redemption. In the poem "Emigration" this destruction takes the form of a sickness from which the narrator cannot escape:

Your skin turns yellow from the medicine,
your ankles swell like dough above your shoes,
and you stop wanting to make love
because there is no love in you,

only a desire to be done.
But you're not done.
Your bags are packed
and you are travelling.

Both earlier collections offer a vivid liveliness, full of questions about to be answered, situations hinting at a further elucidation. However, the ironic melancholy of Sweet Ruin and the sardonic flippancy of Donkey Gospel have more recently yielded to a voice that is threatened, threatening, and aggressive, sometimes downright nasty. If the first two books are friends who turn up with wine and wit, Hoagland’s new collection is a visitor of another stripe, more like an ex-friend, one with unresolved issues and a determination to tell what they are.


What Narcissism Means to Me is composed of four sections: "America," "Social Life," "Blues," and "Luck, " and volleys between the immediacy of self-realization and the modulation of revelations that happen only in retrospect. Hoagland sends us off on a tour through the personal landscapes of his own Country, and we are casually introduced to friends and family members, personal and national events, idiosyncrasies, racism, commercialism, and a wide gamut of not-so-nice emotions that define life in the United States. Hoagland approaches these poems with the same candid, wise-cracking wisdom he gave us in his previous books, but this time around, he surfaces with a more experienced and jaded persona.

In his published essay, "Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People," Hoagland explains:

The willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second-thoughts. There is truth-telling, and more, in meanness.

This meanness, however, is directed more toward himself rather than anyone else. And it is this blade of the "mean" knife that carves the sliced realizations from his everyday perceptions. What narcissism "means" to Hoagland is that through self-adulation one can afford to be mean (without worrying about the grievances of others) and elicit truths that otherwise are avoided in society. But the flip side of this position is that meanness is the cause and consequence of isolation.

The book’s first poems lay down Hoagland’s rules for reading the collection. "A Commercial for a Summer Night," the opening poem, introduces readers to a handful of the poet’s elite friends. (His friends are sprinkled throughout the entire book; new people are introduced and others are re-occurring characters.) Here, they are sitting on a porch during summer, watching television commercials with the sound turned off while making snide remarks about what they see:"Alex said, I wish they made a shooting gallery / using people like that," and "Greg said, That woman has a Ph.D. in Face." The commercial models become nothing more than objects the products are advertising. By the poem's end, Hoagland and his friends set out to search for whatever golden fleece of truth might exist in such a superficial society:

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 . . .

A definite distance, then, lies between the narrator and the world he scrutinizes, and to read these poems, we must keep in mind that distance.

Hoagland uses his cast of characters as a buffer between the narrator and the real world. In some cases, we are not given first-hand observations about events, and as with anything that gets siphoned through the grapevine, these reports make one wonder about the authenticity of such observations. Hoagland is fortunately aware of this tendency. In the same poem, he notes:

Then Greg said that things were better in the sixties
and Rus said that Harold Bloom said
that Nietzsche said Nostalgia
is a blank check issued to a weak mind

and Greg said,
          They didn't have checks back then, stupid . . .

Ultimately, the poems force us to discover and invent our own realizations based upon another's perceptions and assumptions, and in some cases our perceptions are based on another's perceptions that rely entirely on yet another person's perceptions. But in poems as event-specific as these, these multiplying statements lend the central voice an objectivity that enables the reader to assume the role of nonparticipating spectator. The poet shares the space of these poems with a variety of other characters, and in this fashion the reader is asked to make his own observations in company with the poet. We are cast as characters, too.

At times, however, in What Narcissism Means to Me I feel excluded, as if merely eavesdropping on the conversations that the poet is enjoying. He makes me feel as if I am afloat on a raft even farther away from America's shore than the one inhabited by Hoagland and his friends.

By offering multiple perspectives rather than a single narrator as ways of illuminating events, Hoagland continues his process of breaking down the wall between narrator and author. When he flippantly drops in the first names of his friends so casually when restating what they say, I can't help but make the assumption that the first-person commentaries in the poems are Hoagland’s own. In poetry, it's always worth keeping in mind that the author and a poem's narrator are two separate entities, but here, the candor of the speaker leaves little room for such a distinction.

The second poem, "America," continues to up the ante in the dissatisfaction the author feels for his country, and "Commercial for a Summer Night" his country's inescapable commercial virulence, its fashion dictates:

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
Where you can't tell the show from the commercials . . .

A few stanzas later:

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 . . . "

We are back on our raft off America's shore watching the even less fortunate victims drifting out beyond us and nearly beyond all help, those who have willingly taken the plunge into this sea of consumerism. Hoagland's response? Turn up the television and drown out their cries.

When the consequences of commercialism are laid out in the poem "Argentina," and Hoagland confronts the superficial lives some of us lead, he has no choice but to form his own alternate structure, making use of the detritus he has found along the way:

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?

He asks: "Where are my natural resources, my principal imports, / and why is my landscape so full of stony ridges and granite outcroppings?" He leaves a chiropractor's office and walks to his car, not a shiny sport utility vehicle as society would dictate, but an old comfortable car "which, after a slight adjustment of a spring shower, / looks almost new again." With this spring shower the narrator is able to recover his soul and shake his finger as a warning to the corrupt.

The poems in this first section give us a macrocosm of a society where the vapid television shows and the capitalistic ideals of the American dream do not have enough weight to add up to authentic tragedy—they are merely the symptoms of a spiritual void.


Section two, "Social Life," on the other hand, swoops into that society and focuses on individuals. Hoagland now engages the friends and acquaintances that populate the pages. However, the poems of this section don't always quite meet the challenges raised by the strong predecessors in "America."

The first poem, "Social Life," revisits the poet’s preoccupation with isolation. We find the narrator attending a gathering where friends are busy mingling, and he questions the communal pleasures of his species. Because of his social awkwardness or perhaps his antipathy to such events, the speaker mentally breaks free from the affair:

I prefer the feeling of going away, going away,
stretching out my distance from the voices and the lights
until the tether breaks and I

am in the wild sweet dark . . .

He never rejoins the party; instead he compares humans to nature, and nature, with its good manners and quietness, prevails.

Halfway through this section, the poet’s control loosens. Some of the poems seem too forced and over the top. In "Appetite" we find the speaker dining with two other friends, one of whom has "one of those diseases / known by its initials." Attemting to reveal his grief to us without fully accepting his friend's fatal disease, Hoagland writes:

There's a recently amputated rose
in a jar at the table center
and in the kitchen, just this minute,
a lobster with my name on it
is being carried toward a kettle,
which doesn't bother me.

Hoagland picks up this trope of a fleur du mal once more, a few stanzas later, when he conveys an unnecessarily gothic vision:

I can see the blackness hidden
in the tissues of the rose,
the sooty funereal procession just setting out
from the frail, veined
                       edges of each petal,

But then the poem pulls back:

and the pimples on the busboy's chin
ripen toward their bursting
                       moment of perfection.

Eventually, the narrator forgets about the rose and the lobster sacrificed for moments of pleasure and joviality and begins to focus on his dying friend. However, the only way for the author to achieve this empathy is by concentrating on himself and—in the sense of the book’s title—by punishing himself:

And in the jungle of my brain
I can hear the thought now
            chewing on the underside
of other thoughts,

and under them, the humming, shifting feelings
which feed on anything . . .

The narrator continues stripping away the layers of thought until, finally, he has descended into a personal void. He has searched for a way to understand and accept the fatality of his friend's disease and, in the end, mentally has buried himself alive instead.

A major shift in tone characterizes the next poem, "Reasons to Survive November." This piece might be Hoagland at his most campy, and by this I mean (after glancing at Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp)" that the poem contains a certain degree of artifice and over-exaggeration that emphasizes stylization. And with this emphasis, the poem's content suffers. The tone here is colorful and loud and boldly announces itself in the first stanza where November is compared to a train wreck that "crashed into a million trees, / flaming the leaves, setting the woods on fire." Next, the narrator undergoes a bout of paranoia:

I know there are some people out there
who think I am supposed to end up
                         in a room by myself

with a gun and a bottle full of hate . . .

Maybe he knows who these people are, or perhaps he is only imagining them. Nevertheless, something goes tragically wrong and the poem crosses the line from the virtue of his "narcissism" into solipsism:

But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure . . .

The usage here is not terribly original—I can't help thinking that these lines might be a mantra taken from a self-help book.

I agree with Hoagland when he wrote, "When a poem becomes aggressive, it arouses an excitement in us." But Hoagland is skating toward cliché here, and the ice is breaking. The excitement has been lost. Without keeping the poem's anger in check and by avoiding subtlety altogether, the poem falls into melodrama, and the narrator succumbs to a fit of histrionics.


However, the third section, "Blues," includes some of the strongest and, using the poet’s terms, the most narcissistic poems of the book. Hoagland employs different musical genres as themes in many of these poems: country, rap, blues, and heavy metal. But the poems that stand out here take the same subject as those that failed in the previous section: hate.

In the poem "Hate Hotel," the narrator discovers himself arriving in the territory of paranoia and hate he had sketched in "Reasons to Survive November." Here, the speaker has the obsessions of a serial killer and the victims seem to encompass all of mankind. In fact, the speaker is so far removed from society, there in his hotel, that he appears to be a malicious deity ordained to cause strife in a world that deserves it. This "Hate Hotel" resides on some sandy boardwalk among other famous hotels—"Heartbreak Hotel," "Hotel Insomnia," and "Hotel California" to name a few—in a resort town whose main attraction is isolation and where there is a gun in every nightstand drawer. No doubt this poem is a warning that self-isolation to such a degree is indeed the root cause of hate.

Two poems later, Hoagland writes finis to isolation with the wonderful "Suicide Song." It might seem logical that the speaker who is filled with so much hate would at least attempt suicide, but Hoagland has another plan: "But now I am afraid I know too much to kill myself / And I am too knowledgeable now to hurt people imprecisely." And what is this knowledge?

No longer do I live by the law of me,
No longer having the excuse of youth or craziness,

And dying you know shows a serious ingratitude
For sunsets and beehive hairdos and the precious green corrugated

Pickles they place at the edge of your plate.

Most importantly, however, "who has clothes nice enough to be caught dead in?" He has been ironically redeemed by the very society he had shunned and wished destroyed.

Other poems in this section temper its tone; the poems are less indignant. The hate subsides to quiver below the surface, and the narcissistic meanness is kept in check. Hoagland and his friends have begun paddling their raft back toward America's coastline.

In "Fortune," the speaker is having dinner in a Chinese restaurant with some friends when the orange slices and fortune cookies arrive:

And the fortune cookie too
Which offers you the pleasure of Breakage
and then the other pleasure of Discovery,

extracting and reading the little strip of paper
with a happiness that you maybe conceal . . .

With his anger in check, the speaker breaks open a cookie to extract its fortune for the same reason he once destroyed those around him: to gain happiness. He discovers that what lies hidden in his unhappiness is his mistrust of others.


"The News," the first poem in "Luck," the book's final section, circles back to restrike notes introduced in its earliest poems. Here, after the experienced catharsis of "Suicide Song," the book's narrator is a deeper, more self-reflective person. And because of this change, he wants to interrogate his previous dissatisfactions.

The poem returns to late summer. The speaker is again on his porch reveling in the season's sensations. But now he acknowledges, "This year illness just flirted with me, / picking me up and putting me down," causing a period of self-reflection and re-definition. The poet revisits the trope of a rose; where previously, in "Appetite," a dying rose symbolized death and confusion, it now becomes a talisman of strength and joy—as a tattoo:

of a fist and rose, together.
Fist, that helps you survive.
Rose, without which
you have no reason to.

In "Spring Lemonade," the narrator empathizes with a friend who has left her husband. He reflects:

Then there's a period of quietude and rue,
when you want to crawl inside yourself,
when you prefer ugliness to hope.

And he concludes:

It had nothing to do with being good, or smart, or choosing right.
It had to do with being lucky—

The final poem, "The Time Wars," takes us to another Chinese restaurant where the pleasure of the evening slipping too quickly away leads him to reflect:

We ourselves were fighting the Time Wars:
we could feel it speeding up, rapidly escaping,
like the hiss from a leaky balloon.
We were trying to plug it, to slow it down, to decelerate,
but none of us was having much success—

This lack of success has in the past caused anger and hatred for things that couldn't be controlled or even clearly understood. Now the rose transforms one last time:

One day in February Kath brought in some roses and said,
"Here, the sun came 93 million miles
to make these flowers I killed for you . . ."

Both characters are able to laugh at the absurdity of their conversation and therefore stop time:

We ourselves aren't thinking about the future anymore.
What we want is to calm time down, to get time in a good mood,
to make time feel wanted.


What Narcissism Means to Me is certainly Hoagland's most realized volume of poetry, and it succeeds in its dance of changing tones and shifting perceptions—despite the fact that one of the themes of the book is the struggle against change, the poems are in constant flux. Perhaps even the less successful poems work within the book's overall concept, as the excesses of these few make the author appear flawed and vulnerable—and thus more accessible and human. Ultimately, each poem contains a surprise, whether it's an image, an emotion, or a particular word. These poems are temperamental; they often wake up on the wrong side of the bed and demand things. In the end, they are candid—and triumphant—witnesses to Hoagland's passion for all that it means to live.