“It’s never what we wanted, everafter”: Tony Hoagland and John Burnside at Large
Tony Hoagland, Application for Release from the Dream: Poems
September 1, 2015
$16; 96 pp.
John Burnside, Black Cat Bone: Poems
July 7, 2015
$16; 80 pp.
When you first encounter Tony Hoagland’s and John Burnside’s excellent new books of poetry, you can tally their differences quickly. Hoagland’s default affective mode is expansive, explicit, and comic; Burnside is more somber and private. If Hoagland tends to organize things around a salient event or realization, Burnside’s intent is often more opaque, at least at first. Hoagland operates primarily on the level of polished talk and verbal reflection, while Burnside practices amid the sensorium and darts through rawer forms of cognition. A typical Hoagland poem is sentence-oriented, its lines swaggering and sprawling like Whitman’s; Burnside, on the other hand, writes a denser, knottier verse reminiscent of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. Whereas Hoagland leans urban, Burnside’s environments are mainly rural; the former engages the sociopolitical, the realm of publics and relationships, but the latter bends toward lonelier, stranger landscapes. Hoagland’s themes are more immediately modern. Oh, also, Burnside is Scottish while Hoagland is very much a twenty-first-century American.
In other respects, however, the poets take similar approaches to the difficult work of being human. Both scrutinize the appetite for happiness, permanence, and meaning in a universe where, as Burnside has it, “we live in peril, die from happenstance, / a casual slip, a fault line in the ice” (“Pieter Brueghel: Winter Landscape with Skaters and Birdtrap, 1565”). Without succumbing to cynical despair, they observe our capacity to delude ourselves with material and imaginative fictions, some of them beautiful but many not at all. Each devises a realist poetic that permits experiences of wonder shorn of the naive desire for transcendence and “momentarily involved / in nothing but the present” (“Brueghel” again). Poetry is a record of such involvement and a great help in surviving a world that has, it turns out, always been postlapsarian.
The poems in Application for Release from the Dream orbit a depressing truth: affluence doesn’t cure the anxiety of mortal life. This state of uneasy comfort can produce entitled whinging, the insistence of the already lucky that the universe provide them with meaning, even sublimity. The affable depressive in “Crazy Motherfucker Weather” calls it “the wild imperative of self: / the sobbing sense that one has not been loved; / the absolute demand for nothing less / than transformation.” Yet while this demand deserves skepticism, Hoagland doesn’t belittle or dismiss it. Instead he finds himself “trying to balance on the fence / between irony and hope” (“Western”). That is the best we can do. We can withdraw into numbness or delusional ideologies—and America, where “stupidity plus enthusiasm is a special kind of genius,” has lots of these to offer (“Eventually the Topic”)—or we can face the world without enabling fictions, armed with language and willing to be injured.
This is the recognition “Faulkner” arrives at. As he closes, the speaker turns toward the world, stretching beyond personal concerns even though a recent divorce has left him “flipping and flopping around inside myself / like a poor armadillo or raccoon that / doesn’t know it has been hit by a car”:
The reason for suffering isn’t some bad choice you made,
or something you did wrong,
it isn’t anybody’s fault; it just exists,
it is a condition of this place;
and the only purpose that it serves
is that it wakes us up,
at certain moments in our lives, it rouses us
to get up on our feet and find the door.
The book is gregarious, each text like a micro-essay or standup bit, and its battle is with solipsism. Capitalist modernity invites us to withdraw into the self and its desires, and existing privilege heightens this temptation, but Hoagland responds with tolerant irony. His characters, who frequently identify themselves as male, watch for arrogance, nonsense, and entitlement, including their own, but they are inclined to be charitable. “For all I know, maybe everyone is screaming silently / as they go through life,” thinks the man in “Don’t Tell Anyone.” Often they consciously apply irony to themselves, like in “Note to Reality,” whose speaker confesses to being “as thick-skinned and selfish and male, as jealous and afraid as I have ever been.” At other times they are the unwitting objects of it. But in either case, Application is uncynical.
Hoagland’s treatment of pained privilege is on show in “White Writer,” the speaker of which is forced to inhabit the cultural space that nonwhite artists are frequently slotted into. Instead of getting to treat his whiteness as the normative category from which all others deviate, he must describe his work as closely linked to his ethnic identity, much the way African American writers are often treated as black first and writers second. “It’s been pointed out that my characters eat a lot of lightly braised asparagus / and get FedEx packages almost daily,” he wryly admits, as though speaking to an interviewer, and “after a while, you start to feel like white / is all you’ll ever be.” The balm for his angst? The poem ends thus: “Then, with fresh determination, you lean forward again. / You write whiter and whiter.”
Some mockery is meant here. Hoagland, who is white, knows that the last thing the world suffers from is a shortage of writing by men with his skin type. The grim joke is that outside the poem’s universe, in which “I find my books in the White Literature section of the bookstore,” work by people of European descent gets to dodge adjectives and deem itself plain old Literature. But on the other hand, it really would be better if more white writers acknowledged that their cultural experience isn’t the only kind, which the speaker implicitly does. And while the idea of “whiter and whiter” work is somewhat troublesome, at least the speaker doesn’t react by appropriating a nonwhite voice, loudly performing liberal guilt, or fetishizing people of color as magically more authentic beings. He repositions whiteness as one category among many, subject to both rejection and embrace.
The opposite of cynicism, however, is not sentimentality. Application is ethically vivid, because it calls reprehensible things reprehensible. Not everyone qualifies for clemency, and if any group deserves censure, it’s men, or rather the many who subscribe to a violent, greedy kind of maleness. To a great extent “history [is] a cake made from layer after layer / of women’s bodies, decorated with the purple, battered / faces of dead girls” (“The Roman Empire”). “The Complex Sentence” opens with terrifyingly matter-of-fact language: “The kind Italian driver of the bus to Rome / invited her to his house—she was obviously / hungry—and gave her sandwiches, / and raped her.” The book reminds us over and over that men are often best at doing the worst.
In “But the Men,” earlier forms of violence morph into a needy, entitled demand for succor, another way of imposing on women. Tired of the old “lifetime membership benefits” of patriarchal masculinity, the guys in the poem are “ready to talk, really talk about their feelings. / In fact, they’re ready to make you sick with revelations of their vulnerability.” Hoagland’s gift for unexpected metaphor intensifies the irony:
A pool of testosterone is spreading from around their feet,
it’s draining out of them like radiator fluid,
like history, like an experiment that failed.
So here they come, on their hands and knees, the men;
here they come. They’re really beaten.
No tricks this time. No fine print.
Please, they’re begging you. Look out.
Poetry is not going to fix men (or shield women from our worst tendencies) on its own, but with respect to problems of maleness in particular and solipsism in general, Hoagland’s verse offers a more sustainable model of thinking, an orientation toward the world that comprises equal amounts empathy and detachment. This in turn allows joyful moments, when one slips egotism’s noose, like in “Summer Dusk”: “This hour of the evening / with a little infinity inside, / like an amnesty from the interminable / condition of being oneself.” Art can document and revive this fascination without insisting that existence have telos. As the poems keep asking, what choice do we have but realism?
Burnside’s reality is more private, associational, and intense. The conceptual or thematic information, so to speak, in his poetry is less refined than what Hoagland’s narrative scenarios provide. I do not mean that the stuff is hermetic. Although a Burnside text is often initially harder to navigate than something by Hoagland, a reader’s attention pays off. His work might stalk through different places—woods and fields rather than airports and hotels—but like Hoagland he inhabits mortal bodies with unquiet minds, and instead of the romantic visionary mode, he commits to precise observation of this planet, the place we actually live.
Born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1955, Burnside started publishing in the Eighties and has won a raft of awards in the UK. However, Black Cat Bone, which was originally released in 2011 and received the T.S. Eliot and Forward Poetry Prizes, is his first American publication. It is a compelling, sometimes difficult volume that will hopefully begin building the wider US audience he deserves.
The book’s engine runs on a tension between the poet’s referential impulse, which prioritizes visual descriptions of the external world, and his lyric imagination’s capacity to scrutinize, take apart, and reassemble these environments, conscripting them into the mind’s currents. This tension is formally manifest in the thick rhythms and packed sounds of the lines, as though language could barely contain it. Now, when he wants to, Burnside does work within the beats of mainstream English lyric, such as in “Faith,” which rhymes and often assumes a steady meter:
[. . . ] and then the shape she glimpsed is gone;
no memory of either, for a long
still moment, as the usual day begins:
the unhymned hours of work, the swoop of grief,
the moment’s pause for utter disbelief,
fresh venom in whatever peace she wins,
the random acts of love, the venial sins.
But one is more likely to encounter something like the following passage from the book’s long opener, “The Fair Chase.” Its language gruffer and its organization more paratactic, it doesn’t scan consistently or parse as a syntactically traditional sentence: “That was a foreign country: snowdrifts, then sand, / blotted and kissed with yew-drupes / / and windfall holly, / spotted owls hunting for beetles along the hedge, / smoke in the distance, nether roads, / passing bells.”
That core tension also shows up in the eerie, dream-like images that dominate the book. Nothing ever seems quite stable. At the same time, one recognizes the countryside. Black magic is always a possibility, which might be expected in a volume named after what Burnside’s endnotes call “a powerful hoodoo talisman.” The lyrics have an uneasy atmosphere, as if “something chill and slender in this world” were rushing to meet the speakers, who know it (“On the Fairytale Ending”). Strange animals live on these pages, like the fox in the Twin Peaks-esque “Creaturely,” who “turns in the light with something slender / / caught between its jaws and no one knows / for certain what it is,” or the dying bobcat of “Transfiguration,” found by a human who imagines absorbing the animal’s quiddity, boasting that he “stole the tattered remnant / of its soul.” Indeed, many of the people in the poems seek a fierce intimacy with nature, only to find that this can’t be fully achieved.
Meanwhile, most of the interpersonal relationships in Black Cat Bone are anxious and fragmentary. Though the speakers get lonesome, they are cagey about the alternatives. Wary of attachment yet craving it, they are like the hedgehogs in Schopenhauer’s allegory, who come together seeking warmth only to be injured by one another’s quills.
Sometimes this engenders madness. The killer who narrates “Down by the River” (the title of which probably alludes to the Neil Young song of the same name, given the subject matter) comes off like another literary murderer, the man in the Robert Browning monologue “Porphyria’s Lover.” Speciously rational and eager to justify drowning a woman who seems to have spurned him, he assures the reader that “It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t something planned”; then for good measure he repeats the excuse and blames fate: “It wasn’t personal. I only saw / the logic in the moment of my bidding[.]” But most of the time, in the poems as in the world, loneliness takes ordinary, less extreme forms. The “tinnitus of longing” will always dog us (“Loved and Lost”). Ironically, so will many of our attempts (e.g., marriage) to stave it off. “Notes Toward an Ending,” a gripping poem about divorce, emphasizes that sweetness and light can decay unexpectedly, a danger Burnside condenses into the image of a dead bird:
It’s never what we wanted, everafter;
we asked for something else, a lifelong Reich
of unexpected gifts and dolce vita,
peach-blossom smudging the glass and a seasoned
glimmer of the old days in this house
where, every night, we tried and failed to mend
that feathered thing we brought in from the yard,
after it came to grief on our picture window.
So much for that old symbol of the soul’s aspirations, and so much for marriage.
Walter Pater famously concludes The Renaissance by observing that life has “an awful brevity” and insisting that one’s best hope for a satisfying existence is devotion to “art and song,” because “art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” While Burnside’s work never uses such elevated Victorian rhetoric, its grimmer worldview remains comparable. We are always only a few steps from disaster, and many poems are records of misfortune, but most of us go on—often writing—because we have no better options, and because sometimes light sneaks in. Black Cat Bone underscores those moments, too. It’s better to have poetry in the world than not. Poor devils. At least, among all the beasts of the field, we can write.