The first time I read Tony Hoagland’s first book, Sweet Ruin, last spring, borrowed copy from Todd, mainly on the bus, I remember being fairly disappointed. Re-reading it this second time, my own copy, still mostly on the bus, now for my independent study, I wonder what in the world I was thinking. Sure, the middle gets a little tedious and sometimes off-putting, but Part I, the first 8 poems, including the title poem, strike with the associative narrative beauty that I love about Hoagland while having the raw charm expected in a debut collection. Really, these first poems, re-reading them now, astound me for the path their openness and voice carve.
The opening poem “Perpetual Motion,” a meditation about driving, twists as Hoagland often does into emotion. The most striking part of this poem is where Hoagland goes, the movement of the car matching the movement of the piece. Each stanza is a step, first details of the driving, tuning the radio, etc. Then, he takes off into thoughts of “the traveling disease,” “perceptual confusion that make your loved ones into strangers,” the romanticism of driving, and finally to the admittance of that place “where the desire to vanish/is stronger than the desire to appear.” This is the type of poem to start a collection, it seems, because of the themes, both in content and in style, that it introduces, letting the reader know what kind of poet he/she is dealing with.
Following the second poem “Poem for Men Only,” Hoagland’s introduction of his social and political leanings, areas he goes deeper into in later books, the third poem “Oh, Mercy” might be my favorite of the collection. The retrospective energy it builds in the beginning is incredible:
Only the billionth person
to glance up at the moon tonight
which looks bald, high-browed and professorial to me,
the kind of face I always shook my fist at
when I was seventeen
and every stopsign was a figure of authority
that had it in for me
and every bottle of cold beer
had a little picture of my father on the label
for smashing down in parking lots
at 2 AM, when things devolved
into the dance of who was craziest.
But the shift of pace and perspective it takes in the second half, pulling away from that young self, becoming more reflective, acknowledging the change, “how we come around in time,” illustrates the complete control, through his associations and meditations, that Hoagland possesses:
That year, if we could have reached the moon,
if we could have shoplifted the paint and telescoping ladders,
we would have scribbled FUCK YOU
on its massive yellow cheek,
thrilled about the opportunity
to offend three billion people
in a single night.
But the moon stayed out of reach,
It kept on varnishing the seas,
overseeing the development of grapes in Italy,
putting the midwest to bed
in white pajamas.
It's seen my kind
a million times before
upon this parapet of loneliness and fear
and how we come around in time
to lifting up our heads,
looking for the kindness
that would make revenge unnecessary.
The very next poem “My Country” seems both well-placed and well-done for the way it narrows the scope, taking it to later years, viewing just Hoagland and his best friend’s wife and an adulterous kiss that takes place outside of a zoo. Hoagland works through the situation, bouncing between the narrative story, and thoughtful meditation, seeing the kiss as “a patriotic act.” In the fifth and sixth stanzas, when Hoagland thinks of his friend, “who always tries to see the good in situations,” the humanity shakes itself free of the narrative and takes us to the end for further reflection. The end of this poem is a great example of one of my biggest (sometimes) complaints and (often) questions about Hoagland. He has a way of taking poems that seem done, narratively completewith a point made, further, often onto a second page, often with questions. This poem is a great example, where I wonder if it’s too much, wonder the effect:
I slipped my hand inside her skirt and felt
my principles blinking out behind me
like streetlights in a town where I had never
lived, to which I never intended to return.
And who was left to speak of what had happened?
And who would ever be brave, or lonely,
or free enough to ask?
In the seventh poem, “Sweet Ruin,” Hoagland moves the camera to his father, recalling the way his father willingly got caught cheating on his mother. A poet like Hoagland, one whose art is so indebted to his personal history, makes a smart move here. The poem, one of the longer in the collection at two and a half pages, provides such keen insight to the poet we are getting to know. Re-reading this poem just now, I’m struck by this passage, in the middle of Hoagland’s recollection of his father’s explanation:
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.
As the title poem, but also as an early poem, “Sweet Ruin” has a sense of irony and brutal honesty that seems to introduce Hoagland in a brilliant way. As this passage hopefully illustrates, this, the story he got from his father, is the same thing he himself is doing in the pages of this book.
I’m so thankful to have read this book again, in a circumstance that forced me to evaluate it deeper and with more care. As the first book for this study, it lends excellent examples of a variety of topics that I’ve never had to contemplate: poem order, epigraphs, even acknowledgements. Each time I thought of this book, Part I stuck in my head for it’s ability to introduce, as well as it’s ability to push forward into Hoagland’s style and career.