Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, by Tony Hoagland.
Romey’s Order, by Atsuro Riley.
The University of Chicago Press.$14.00.
One way that poets have declared themselves new, for at least two hundred years now, has been by attacking rhetoric. When Wordsworth argued for a “selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” he was not only advocating new registers of speech: he was also condemning what he called “personifications of abstract ideas.” He wanted his representations of people to deliver the imprint of real people, and not to exist merely as stand-ins for arguments. That Romantic belief in the power of the image as an actual thing carried over into Modernism, and was best summed up by Pound, who famously wrote that the genuine poetic image was “that which presents an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time.” He thought of this presentation as profoundly anti-rhetorical, declaring, with characteristic crustiness, that “the ‘image’ is the furthest possible remove from rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being.” Such convictions continue to inform contemporary poetry. You can hear Pound echoing, for example, in Robert Creeley’s influential and downright utilitarian claim that “form is never more than an extension of content.”
Of course, all these statements are themselves rhetoric, and even the poems written in their spirit never scrap rhetoric entirely. Wordsworth’s leech gatherer and Pound’s apparitional faces in a crowd both seem to me like “personifications of abstract ideas.” Maybe it’s impossible to erase the sound of persuasion, of argument, from any speech meant to move a reader or listener. Certainly, in American poetry of the last thirty years, the emphasis on the image that began to filter into classrooms long ago as “show don’t tell” seems to have shifted: many of our most prominent poets often work in discursive or essayistic registers.
One of the many compelling things about Tony Hoagland’s poems is that he takes argument itself as one of his central subjects. Big pronouncements, sudden adversative turns in thinking, long elaborations of examples employed to adduce a point—these are not only recurring features of Hoagland’s poems but their very substance. There’s a counterforce to all the arguments as well. Hoagland is obsessed both by the maneuvers of thought that we employ to make sense of fact and experience and by the tension that occurs when fact and experience resist those maneuvers. Take the first five lines of his new book, from the poem “Description”:
A bird with a cry like a cell phone says something
to a bird which sounds like a manual typewriter.
Out of sight in the woods, the creek trickles
its ongoing sentence; from treble to baritone,
from dependent clause to interrogative.
The humor of these oddball similes and metaphors comes not only from the juxtaposition of pastoral detail with human systems of technology and grammar, but also from the underlying sense that the comparisons are a bluff, that the natural world will ultimately slip free from the poet’s extravagant attempts to catalog it. Similar resistance to his own efforts of classification occurs in all the strongest of Hoagland’s new poems, including “Hostess,” “Complicit with Everything,” and “The Story of the Father.” Hoagland appears in these poems as a nearly compulsive describer, and yet he allows the refreshing strangeness of the world to push back.
The tension between description and the fact corresponds in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty with another kind of internal resistance. I mean the weird contradiction about contemporary American life that you pick up even from that title: the idea that we are conditioned, even determined, by the seemingly imperial force of mass culture, and at the same time oddly and alarmingly free because of it, as we float around in our postmodern wash of indeterminacy.
Hoagland’s ability to match formal challenges with serious social concerns should make for strength and subtlety in the poetry. So why do whole swathes of this new book fall flat? Sometimes the biggest flops occur when Hoagland addresses those social themes most explicitly. Consider the opening of “Hinge”:
Last night on the tv the light-brown African-American professor
looked at the printout analysis of his own dna
and learned that he was mostly Irish.
I can’t go back to Africa now, he thought,
controlling the expression on his face,
his big moment onscreen already turning out
different than he had imagined.
Nor would he ever be able to say the sentence,
“I be at the crib”
with the same brotherly ease as before.
The first three lines work as a fine lead-in. But then the poem takes such a wrong turn, that it would be offensive if it weren’t simply absurd. The idea that a light-brown African-American, and a professor to boot (readers will recognize Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), might be surprised by having European ancestry, and might consider a dna readout as the ultimate verdict on racial and cultural heritage, is dubious enough for starters. But the sudden move into the omniscient third-person, conveying the presumption that the poet knows exactly what the man was thinking, is the real trouble here. The professor’s thoughts turn out to be cartoonish at best—has anyone, other than a white teenager, ever uttered the sentence, “I be at the crib”? These thoughts read less like interior monologue and more like gags, at the expense of the professor, whom Hoagland makes not only gullible but affected: “his big moment onscreen already turning out / different than he had imagined.”
The problem is not simply that Hoagland has made some political blunder. The riskiness of addressing race in America, and of inhabiting seemingly “incorrect” tones or attitudes, might actually have been refreshing. The real snag has to do with rhetoric. The narration operates at a supreme distance from the material, so that the true subject turns out to be Tony Hoagland’s performance of a joke at the expense of a famous intellectual, who becomes little more than a “personification of an abstract idea.” Such reduction occurs throughout the book. When Hoagland writes in another poem that Britney Spears “looks a little chubby in a spangled bikini” as she dances before “fanged, spiteful fans and enemies,” he turns people into types, images that may have particularity so far as the poet’s phrase-making is inventive and amusing, but that exert no pull of their own against the rhetorical plotting of the poem.
That plotting is evident everywhere. For example, Hoagland tends to tie off his poems with summations that often sound, despite their hard-won and tough-love tones, like tidy morals. Here’s a nearly random sample of endings:
—But that is how you build your castle.
That is how one earns a name
like Jason the Real.
—From “Jason the Real”
All that talk about love, and This
is what that word was pointing at.
That was part of the composition.
That was the only kind of freedom
we were ever going to know.
That was the plot.
That was our marvelous punishment.
Hoagland may often advertise his spontaneity with goofy imagery and phrasing, but in these passages he points you to the meanings of his own poems with all the rigid authority of a traffic cop. He may often play the naïf or the anti-intellectual, and yet he’s much more comfortable in the world of categorical signs and markers than in the thick of actual experience. As his commentary piles up and his tactics of argument repeat themselves, you begin to suspect that this poet has never had an experience for seven seconds without beginning to structure it into a clever little speech.
Oddly, this is the very narratorial distance that Hoagland isolates and questions in his fine essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” when he discusses a certain type of contemporary poem dominated by irony. The trouble with such a poem, he explains, is that it remains
safely told by a narrator who operates at an altitude above plot, narrating from a supervisory position. . . . It is distinctly externalized. Distance is as much the distinctive feature of the poemsas play; distance, which might be seen as antithetical to that other enterprise of poetry—strong feeling.
Reading Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, I found myself wondering: Is the flaw here that Hoagland writes the very same poetry that he complains about in his essay? Is the problem with Hoagland’s rhetoric simply the distance that it creates between the poet and his subjects? I don’t think so. From Horace through Pope to Auden, great poets have long depended upon rhetorical distance. At times their imagery even seems clearly subordinate to their argument, and the people in their poems appear like those “personifications of abstract ideas” that Wordsworth railed against. And these are still great poets.
What makes Hoagland’s rhetoric feel so “rhetorical” in the pejorative sense, is the almost total lack of music. This absence contributes to the ease with which these poems can be summed up by pat phrases. It’s not just that those formulas of argument become monotonous. When you turn, for example, from “Hinge” to the next poem in the book, “Foghorn,” you encounter this opening:
When that man my age
came towards me in the fast-food restaurant
with his blue plastic cafeteria tray
and stood next to the table where I sat alone
(there was no place else to sit),
I looked up at him in welcome.
The lineation has no tension, the nouns and verbs exert no sway because they have so little particularity, and the voice itself remains one of ingratiating chatter tempered with mild menace, like the voice of Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. This is Hoagland’s predominant mode. As a result, and despite the handful of fine poems, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty never offers the depth of feeling, tone, and thought that its thematic ambitions lead us to expect.
* * *
A poet’s musical skillfulness means more than his or her ability to establish a measure or to set vowels and consonants ringing against each other. Sometimes music comes from such patterning of sounds. Sometimes it comes instead from an intentional starkness. It can derive too from the shifting of tones, from the pacing of associational leaps, or from the perfect timing of statements (Louise Glück and Frank Bidart are the modern masters of this). Whatever its source, music always affects the more explicit meanings of a poem. For one thing, sound intensifies the words and phrases and therefore underlines their denotative content. But though we’re used to connecting form and content, they may also proceed in counterpoint with each other. Even when such counterpoint is not pronounced, music maintains a distance from logical sense—if it didn’t, all poems would be entirely onomatopoetic.
Because of this distance, music may resemble rhetoric: it unfolds as an abstract pattern that orders and yet remains at one remove from semantic meaning. But music has something rhetoric does not. I mean bodily force. The sounds of poems produce their own images, and have their own animal alertness. Reading a poem whose music is fully alive, you not only witness but also feel the twists and turns of a consciousness in action. This quality can actually prevent the maneuvers of argument in a poem from reading like mere “maneuvers.” Reading, say, Robert Hass or C.K. Williams at their most discursive, I seldom feel the intrusion of authorial intention—because the music is so alive, it provides an almost creaturely element of unreason, amplitude, and surprise. This is what I miss in Hoagland, the feeling that the lines and sentences exist in more than two dimensions.
* * *
Atsuro Riley’s astonishing and original debut collection, Romey’s Order, thrives off its music. The poems are about the attempt to make sense of the world, to account for all the strange and disparate details that enthrall consciousness, and to hold them in some kind of right relation. The book is one long series, the protagonist a boy nicknamed Romey, the son of a Vietnam veteran and the Japanese woman he brought back with him to the South Carolina low country. As the father works the rivers as an odd-job man, the son himself plies the shallows and the woods, the fairground and the campground. As he wanders, he concocts an entire vocabulary, one that mixes southern dialect and smatterings of Japanese with his own inventions. Riley works often in the prose-poem form, yet the improvised vocabulary always provides musical force. Take, for example, the beginning of the opening poem, “Flint Chant”:
Once upon a time a ditchpipe got left behind behind Azalea Industrial, back in the woods backing on to the Ashley, where old pitch-pines and loblollies grow wild. A mild pesticide-mist was falling and mingling with paper-mill smell and creosote oil the morning he found it. The boy shook and sheltered in its mouth awhile—hoo-hoo! hey-O!—and bent and went on in. It was like a cave but clean. He C-curved his spine against one wall to fit, and humming something, sucked his shirttail. He tuned his eyes to what low light there was and knuckle-drummed a line along his legs.
There’s a lot to marvel at here. Riley seems effortlessly to weave between his narration and the interior thoughts of the boy. I also admire how the rhymes and half-rhymes not only help to prevent the prose from becoming prosey, but manage as well to convey the palpability of the world the boy encounters—those textures as beguiling and various as “pesticide-mist” and sucked shirttails. What moves me most about this passage, though, is how Riley crafts from seemingly modest material a profound evocation of the work of poetry: in the abandoned “ditchpipe” Romey brings himself, and the readers of the poem, into a space where the world, the self, and language all become simultaneously rich and strange. This poem is about the very music of poetry. Or, to be more precise, it’s about searching for and finding that music. Like the father in the book, Romey (and it’s hard not to hear “Riley” in “Romey”) turns out to be a kind of modern hunter-gatherer. He tries to make some kind of sense—his “order”—from everything that surrounds him. He must piece himself and the world together.
This is what makes Riley such a deeply American poet. The world that he and his protagonist encounter is always the new world, one in which few ready traditions offer consolation or furnish tools for understanding. The social interactions in the book tend to be odd and even frightening, not least of all because Romey is an Asian-American boy in the rural south. The poem “Diorama,” for example, portrays a summer fair where the attractions include a game called “Shoot the Gook Down,” and where Romey overhears gossip about himself:
I wonder does her boy talk Chinese?
You ever seen that kind of black-headed?
Blue shine all in it like a crow.
In “Strand,” Riley provides this two-line portrait of the father:
Jim Beam & Jim Crow drive him through, like Jesus does
Sure I’m evergreen for Wallace but I’m not no kkk.
Such snippets are presented without any commentary. Riley never explains, for example, how ironic it is that a father of a mixed race boy would support the notorious segregationist George Wallace. But if this poet seems wise to reserve judgment of the details he presents, and to avoid any overtly rhetorical claims about them, nevertheless, his analytic mind is always active. As much as Hoagland, Riley is fascinated by the friction between the individual’s desire to shape experience and American culture’s ready-made, often unsatisfying categories for experience. The father may seem foolish when he uses two available markers (“Wallace” and “kkk”) to explain his politics. But he’s engaged here in something like Riley’s own project of using the available and often impoverished nouns around him to construct a self-determined and original life from what he’s been given.
What makes Riley such a master of these constructions is his ability to order details such that his speaker not only perceives but also questions and evaluates. Often this appears as a kind of dance between the child’s perception and the adult’s narration. Consider these lines from “Scroll,” in which Romey pores over a book of Hokusai’s prints of Mount Fuji:
The boy took to night-gnawing and –nursing this old (folding-out) book of mountains, his mother’s. He nosed, naturally, and licked at the milkish-mushroomy cover-threads. He finger-hankered, unfolding, for something, something, something. He “read.”
Look! Mama’s cradle-place. Pines. Lakes. Reeds. Cranes. Plum-blooms (pink-tendered leastways: cherry, could be) and willows. A blue-carved C of wave.
The boy (bellied-down, and trawling) traced and craved.
Riley’s inventiveness with interior dialogue, his forging of chewy neologisms and unexpected compounds like “milkish-mushroomy” and “pink-tendered,” works both to convey the thoughts and feelings of the child grappling to understand and to show the poet himself scavenging into the unknown where he searches for “something, something, something.” At times the voice of the poet and the voice of the child seem inseparable, and at times you can hear the difference. For instance, there’s the comic remove from the child’s point of view in the quotation marks around the word “read,” with its subtle half-rhyme against “threads.” Romey’s attempt to hold all the facets of the mixed-up worlds of family and culture in some kind of order becomes Riley’s own effort to give these memories a shape that feels beautiful and true. The challenge of recovering childhood experience, creating for it an entire vocabulary, and then crafting from this argot an original music may seem as daunting a task as moving Mount Fuji to South Carolina. But the success of Romey’s Order is not that it pulls off some staggering feat. In tracing memories, Riley doesn’t so much recover the past as he joins memories and the very process of memory itself into a new, vivacious action.
Anyone who has had occasion to read a stack of new poetry books will know how widespread conceptual work has become among younger poets: I have in mind those books with thematic structures that order and direct the energies of individual poems, in the manner of rhetorical claims. It seems that the directive these days has less to do with “show don’t tell” than with “having a project,” and this tends to involve some form of argument. Riley’s work, though it hardly seems to follow any trend, suggests how fruitful such a method might be. He deploys high-resolution images, both visual and sonic, and sets them in paratactic relation, without any commentary between them. But the success of his poems doesn’t depend necessarily on the absence of abstraction any more than the weaknesses of Hoagland’s poems derives from that register of speech. As Riley arranges his details, especially as he negotiates the distance between his child protagonist and adult narrator, he fuses feeling with thought. There’s a genuine metaphysical core to these poems: Riley asks not only how an individual can give shape to his or her own life through memory, imagination, and artfulness, but how this can be done in a specifically American situation. His answers seem truthful because as readers we can feel both the attempt of imagination to transcend contingency and the very pull of that contingency itself. The ditchpipe abandoned behind Azalea Industrial is both Pan’s instrument of magic and, well, a ditchpipe. The tension between the world of fact into which each of us is born and the desire to forge our own new worlds results here in beguiling music, a music that brings these poems alive, with all their sinew and subtlety.