Book Review

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty by Tony Hoagland. Minneapolis, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 2010. $15.

Reviewed by Kevin Fitchett

As in his previous two books of poetry, Tony Hoagland offers us a vision of America through wildly wrought poems from a perspective infected with humor, and bitterness, and praise—all abilities we’ve come to expect from this poet of the people.

And I give Hoagland this title not because his poems are not smart—which they are—or because they are overly accessible—which, because of their bite, they couldn’t be called—but because he is a poet who emerges dripping from the community pool, setting his feet at the alter of the mall, praising the people of every age and color walking out of the 7-11 across the street, elbow deep in a Big Grab in a place like Texas.

Hoagland uses the three parts of this glossy, magazine-feel book (to the touch and for all the gossip) to write about and, sometimes, write to our country as we know it, featuring All-American citizens from Brittany Spears and the D.C. sniper to our fathers and a Zimbabwe immigrant at the grocery store, decked out in Chicago Bulls gear.

It is through Hoagland’s fresh—and perhaps unmatched—power to create metaphor that he approaches his subjects, his conceits blooming almost unnaturally beautiful, say, like handing you a perfect Red Delicious shined with his spit. Consider “Disaster Movie,” which begins:

            You were a jumbo jet, America,
                        gone down in the jungle in my dream. . .

and later, tail-spins deeper into the speaker’s imagination:

            I couldn’t believe that my twisted subconscious
            would wreck a whole nation to make a point;
            that my disgust with cell phones and beauty pageants would drive me to
            ram it headfirst into the side of a hill,—its wings snapped off
while carrying the trope through to the bitter end:

            But what was sweet in the dream was the quiet
            resilience of those little people:

             An AA meeting in progress by one of the enormous, flattened tires.
            And a woman singing in the dusk,
            as she tended a fire
            fed with an endless supply of safety manuals and self-help books.

This poem is characteristic of not only the roid-revved metaphor—and how they sometimes nearly, but never do, crash and burn—but also, the typical harshness of the speaker, not a new practice for Hoagland.  Placed next to his previous two books, where poems often unfold like jokes told by men at a bar, Unincorporated isn’t as rough around the edges.  If his previous books, What Narcissism Means to Me and Donkey Gospel were told more from the chakras—as Hoagland would call it—of the genitals or gut, the poems in Unincorporated come, more often, from the mind or the heart.

Still, in this collection you can count on Hoagland to again heed the advice from his own essay, “Negative Capability,” where being mean is “unforgivable in human social life, but in poetry, necessary,” which most of the time just translates to being honest. 

In poems like “Disaster Movie” and “Rhythm and Blues”—where the speaker watches acquaintances rummage through a dead friend’s pile of shirts—Hoagland begins by standing on the peak of moral high ground, calling the scavengers names, psychoanalyzing, background-checking—and then, with each stanza, he comes down a level, and ends up on the ground floor, literally wearing the shirt he’d just derided.  It is through these inhabitations and role-reversals via the speakers that the reader absolves the poems of their poignant cynicisms.

In other ways, this book, more than his others, is not one for the overly PC—and, in turn, Hoagland would argue, one perfect for them to read.  As a white, male poet, Hoagland does not just approach the borders of issues like sexuality and race; he trespasses through them.  In at least three poems, “whiteness” is the soup de jour.  Again, Hoagland uses his talent for metaphor to pierce this theme in his poem, “The Story of White People,” describing Caucasians as “being too far and too long / removed from the original source / of whiteness, / suffering from a slight amnesia / in the way that skim milk can barely / remember the cow.”  And two poems previous we find Hoagland’s most vivid flash of humor, where an African-American professor, after finding out he’s mostly Irish while on TV, thinks, “I can’t go back to Africa now . . . Nor would he ever be able to say the sentence, / ‘I be at the crib’ / with the same brotherly ease as before.”  

It is humor and a fresh, poetic ballsiness in lines like these that make the book worth reading, worth getting offended by, and worth getting over ourselves with.  Because with Unincorporated comes—using Tony Hoagland’s words to describe the fortune cookie—the “pleasure of breakage and then the other pleasure of discovery.”  And, more than anything, if you open this book, this is your fortune.   

Kevin Fitchett is a native of Green Bay. He is currently second on the list of most goals scored in Lakeland College soccer history. Throughout last year he accompanied, on the cello, Karl Elder in the audio/live production of "The Houdini Monologues."