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The rough friendship of Tony Hoagland 

We're lucky in this life to find two or three people we can call true friends. They're the ones whose presence magnifies the pleasure we take in the world, whose viewpoint is often most similar to our own, and, even if it isn't, they understand our viewpoint and like us anyway.

Similarly, even though it's a one-way street, we're lucky to find a handful of writers who do the same things. We go to writers and artists because they're able to articulate things better than we can. We read what they wrote and we say, "Yes! That is how I feel." And, sometimes, we find a writer who is so good at what he does that he takes our pen from us, slaps us across the face with our notebook, and says, "No! This is what you mean."

When you discover one of those, it's always alarming. You realize you've gone years, decades, or a lifetime, and this spirit has been out there, in the same bars, wandering the same dark streets, a soul mate you've never met.

I think it was first reading a poem called "Demolition," a poem about standing with a group of men and watching the demolition of a building, a poem about a furtive, inscrutable aspect of manhood, that I first realized what Tony Hoagland was going to be:

"...I may be a grown man but that doesn't mean

I don't enjoy

the ingenuities of violence against matter..."

Or maybe it was this section of a poem called "Sentimental Education," where he calcified the vulnerability of youth in a single image:

"...I looked at my pale, scrawny, knock-kneed, bug-eyed brother,

who was identical to me,

and saw that, in a world that ate the weak,

we didn't have a prayer..."

Or perhaps it was him articulating the current, disastrous mode of pop culture in a subject as flamboyantly dull as Britney Spears:

"...First we made her into an object of desire,

then into an object of contempt,

now we want to turn her into an object of compassion?

Are you sure we know what the hell we're doing? ..."

As a matter of fact, Hoagland is perhaps the only author I know of that can cogently abridge the mess of contemporary culture as well as Don DeLillo. Like DeLillo, Hoagland uses the tedium of our lifestyle against itself and the results are simultaneously hilarious, visceral and astonishing.

But, most notably, Hoagland is a true literary friend because he achieves what Aristotle said was the most necessary, and most difficult, aspect of friendship: justice. Hoagland exposes us for what we really are. He shows us to ourselves unflinchingly. In other words, he calls us on our shit. Take, for instance, this section of "How It Adds Up."

"...Then there was someone else I met,

whose face and voice I can't forget,

and the memory of her

is like a jail I'm trapped inside,

or maybe she is something I just use

to hold my real life at a distance..."

Since a poem is supposed to be taken as a whole, these segments are a disservice to Hoagland. No matter how eviscerating they may be, they will only reflect his intelligence and stabbing wit. Lest you think he only dispenses provisions for the head, find me a segment of contemporary poetry that stings the heart as much as this:

"...Outside the youth center, between the liquor store

and the police station

a little dogwood tree is losing its mind:

overflowing with blossomfoam

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature's wastefulness seems quietly obscene.

It's been doing that all week:

making beauty

and throwing it away,

and making more."

I barely ever read poetry, probably for the same reasons you don't. But Hoagland isn't your average poet. He writes with such a strong back and a full throat that his work doesn't light on you, but chisels into you and pulls out parts of you that you knew were there but refused to ever see.

Hoagland is the hideously breath-taking contradiction that we all are — cynic and sentimentalist, romantic and realist. Or as he more eloquently puts it:

"...Yet the only tattoo I want

is of a fist and a rose together.

Fist, that helps you survive.

Rose, without which

you have no reason to."

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