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Tony Hoagland’s “The Change”

By Daisy Fried

Since Tony Hoagland wrote “The Change” about a decade ago, the poem (from What Narcissism Means to Me, Graywolf 2003) has been praised by African-Americans and whites, and attacked as racist by almost as many—or maybe more. That readers find the poem painful is understandable. Hoagland probably intended the poem to cause pain. But “The Change” (read it at the end of this post; due to formatting problems some lines that should be indented are not) is a narrative poem about the inevitability of political change. It is also is a poem which believes that white liberals’ relationship to race is more complicated than our consciously held and universally agreed-upon opinion that Racism is Bad. “The Change” is no exaggerated satire of racist America: The speaker is not white, working class, uneducated, reactionary and ignorant. On the contrary, Hoagland’s unnamed speaker is by affect moderate, cultured and middle-class. He uses racial stereotype as if having a “what, me racist? I’m only an observer” chat at the office. Because the poem obscures the boundary between poet and persona, it’s a deeply uncomfortable poem.

The white speaker recounts watching a black female tennis player defeat a white female tennis player on TV, and admits he’s on the side of the white player because she’s the same race as him (“my tribe”). At the time the poem was written, Serena and Venus Williams were just beginning to dominate women’s tennis. “The Change” half-admires and half-satirizes their flamboyant style, their physical stature and strength, and conflates them into a character named “Vondella Aphrodite.” The trouble begins when the speaker begins to describe the black tennis player:

Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated…

Notice how the speaker works himself up in the first stanza of racially-charged physical description, then breaks off without completing the sentence to cool things down into exposition (“We were just walking past the lounge…”)—as if he knows he’s begun revealing things he shouldn’t feel, let alone say. Then he works himself up again, as if he just can’t help himself, speaking to a “you” whose admiration for the black tennis player he characterizes as no less racially and physically-inflected than his own more negative reaction. This is a white liberal speaking to his own kind. Except that the poet has let the world in on the “secret” of white liberal racism.

Describing the tennis players in purely physical terms, Hoagland uses language which taken bit by bit could (mostly) be defended as factual (they are girls, they are big, etc., etc.). But put all together it skates into stereotype, the kind which has historically and does still support racist oppression. By the time we get to the pale eyes and thin lips of the white girl, which is supposed to make us imagine the eyes and lips of the black girl, we’re cringing. Not because eye-color or lip-size holds any inherent attractiveness, but because of the way such physical description has been used to exclude black Americans from opportunity.

In fact, the cringe comes not only from the content of what’s said, but from the fact that it is actually being said, and by Hoagland—a poet, one of our tribe. (There are several tribes in that statement: tribe of poets, and tribe of white left-liberals, a rather dominant subset of poets. There’s also a tribe to which I don’t belong, tribe of males looking at female bodies.)

It’s true that the speaker of this poem sounds pretty much like the speaker of Hoagland’s other poems: Supple-voiced, mostly-plainspoken; witty, attentive and virtuoso in its casually extravagant figurative leaps; simultaneously outward- and inward-looking; whose glibness generally turns out to be a subtle performance; who swerves from the serious to the comic to the serious, half-clowning, half-sensitive, not a little pissed off and never perfectly trustworthy. So this seems to be a poem in Hoagland’s own persona.

The poem lays down bits of evidence that we need not trust this speaker—that is, that there’s some ironic distance between speaker and poet. In the first line, what’s natural is refigured as something absolutely constructed and falsifying: “The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.” The speaker’s focus on tennis player bodies transfers into a sensualized, self-consciously arty, view of history:

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank…

Such moments, however, are set close to jeering doggerel:

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

And Hoagland relies, in this poem, on speech lazy enough to verge on cliché: “Right before our eyes” and “Poof” and in mock-media-commentator-speak, “I could feel the end of an era there.” He’s ventriloquizing the language of the unextraordinary, the lazy articulator of half-examined ideas. The poet repeatedly insists on his presence, behind the poem, as manipulator of diction and metaphor.

All this works simultaneously to undercut and reinforce the cringe. But what if Hoagland had created a speaker who stopped his stereotyping to say “Wait, let me stop messing around, I’m being racist and racism is bad.” What a relief? Well, no: what a dodge. We could all then nod our heads, fold our hands and repeat, “Yes, racism is bad.” We’ve all read poems like that, and know what insignificant pieties they amount to.

What if, on the other hand, Hoagland’s speaker were a clownishly reactionary bigot spewing racial slurs, someone clearly not the poet. How easy it would be to put that character where he belonged: not me. Nothing to do with me.

No, this poem is about a much more prevalent, more insidious sort of racism—white, liberal, emotional, infrastructural—mostly hidden—racism. That’s not news in the world, but it is pretty new news in poems, and made especially potent by the problematic relationship of speaker to poet. Just as Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” can’t be about extremity of emotion and mental state without making us wonder just how much the poem’s lunacy is performed, Hoagland’s “The Change” can’t be about liberal white racism without making us wonder just how much of this poem is performed. I cringe reading this poem because I’m forced to wonder how much I’m looking in a mirror when I read it.

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

We can try to put this poem back where it belongs, too, but it too is past us, and we’re changed. Unless of course you’re the kind of reader who only wants to read poems that tell you what you want to hear—about the world, but even more, and particularly for white readers, about yourself. “The Change” is an uncivil—no, ugly—poem. It’s also a poem of nuance, necessity and urgency.

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 28th, 2011 by Daisy Fried.