Reading: Beauty by Tony Hoagland

Saddened by the death of Tony Hoagland (1953 – 2018), the sharp and witty American poet, I read one of his poems today.

When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

A precise narrative poem. I like the rich picture he paints of the girl who ‘perfected the art of being a dumb blond’. The superficiality of her beauty and how it was over so suddenly.
And that description of spring! Isn’t it gorgeous, climbing up on the mulched bodies of our forebears to wave our own flags in the parade?

Being done with beauty seems to denote a higher truth here, an acceptance of the circle of life and love. And the disinterested trance of the ‘other’ women who continue being beautiful. Isn’t it the same trance as the sister experienced when she throws out beauty, to the secret place that keeps it safe?

Reading: Beauty by Tony Hoagland was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Lucky by Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland (1953 – 2018) was a witty and acerbic poet from North Carolina. Many awards. Some great and demonically intense poems. Here goes:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child

to stop,
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy

because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.

What a poem! What a rendition of a crooked relationship with a mother! The power struggle, inversed at the end of the mother’s life made visible the cruelty that was. For me, it is very hard to imagine my mother as an enemy. I lost her early in life. My mother, and my mother figure, was hit by a bus when she was 53 and I, 24. Okay, that explains the feeling in my stomach when I read Tony’s acerbic words. But he entitles his poem ‘lucky’. The luck of closure perhaps, I’ve never known.

The imagery is so vivid. “Childish skeleton”, “sorry ruin of her flanks”, “frayed gray cloud between her legs”, “creature mouth” – one does not surpass that.

The luck consists in symmetry, we learn half way the poem, my heavy debt of punishment and love / with love and punishment. The terms are inversed – it happens on his terms now. The rhyme of tub and stop (was he about to put her in the tub or get her out?). The inversion of the terms means everything. The sensations of power and weakness are now present in the room and understood. That is as good as it gets. What enables us to get so such rapport is the recourse to our more animalistic nature, in the case of this poem the tastebuds. They are still working fine and warrant the bond that could during most of the mother’s life only be lived with a negative emotional charge.

Sweet is sweet in any language. How comforting that sounds at the end of such a poem.

In an interview mr. Hoagland says:

It’s a disservice to readers and poetry not to seek lucid contact with those darker facets of life. Poetry can speak from the shadow to the psyche; life obliges us to be uncomfortable, and to form new stances. […] Staying alive is about the perpetuation of curiosity, and there’s always something new to be curious about.

Reading: Lucky by Tony Hoagland was originally published on Meandering home