A metaphorical review of Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, in which Johnny Rocket, Britney Spears, and the Saudi Monarchy play a crucial role in American poetry.
I was maybe getting a divorce. “You think you’ve got problems?” said Tony Hoagland. “I’m getting excommunicated from America.”
(He did not actually say this. We’ve never actually met.)
The email Tony got from the State Department had mumbo-jumboed something about his “ambivalent patriotism” being “unsupportably oxymoronic.”
He spent a week hoping it was a gag. Then he started to pack. He was not depressed. Only one man had ever understood him, and that man didn’t understand him either.
He made plans to move to the United Arab Emirates. It would take, he announced, “but a small needlepointing effort” to alter his TEAM USA sweatshirts and visors to TEAM UAE.
(He did not actually say this either.)
Dubai was a natural choice. It has the largest shopping mall in the world, and ten more malls within that mall, and every January the entire emirate converts itself into one gigantic mall—and Tony, Tony loves malls. That is to say, they depress him profoundly. “I have,” he announced often, “the dilated condition of sensitivity of the kind known only to certain poets and more or less everybody else.”
(He did say that—and more or less everything else that I attribute to him below is from his latest poetry collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.)
Tony took up residence in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—then the tallest building in the world. It was designed and engineered by Chicagoans. It was slave-labor-built by South Asians.
“I am complicit with everything,” Tony said.
At the base of the tower was a park designed by architects to mimic the symmetries of a desert flower. Soothing were the sound effects of rain manufactured in the park’s water room. “The birds here,” gloried Tony, in letters home to friends, “have a cry like a cell phone.”
Lines from George Oppen’s poem “The Building of the Skyscraper” begin Unincorporated Persons: “There are words that mean nothing / But there is something to mean.” A skyscraper is a very good metaphor for the way Hoagland’s poems work. And so, in Hoaglandesque manner, I am doing that metaphor to death for you here. Because this is a review, albeit not a description or light lecture. As smart as those are, give me digestion, oh digestion! Through four stomachs, if possible. Oh to emulate cow-dom. Dear Rumpus readers, I am writing this from my fourth stomach, my abomasum. And if this ends up a shitty review, well, is shit not digestion’s final goal?)
Back to the Burj Khalifa and its attendant malls, where Tony began an expat writerly movement. Over milkshakes at Johnny Rockets Dubai, the group developed the doctrine of Dialectical Americanism. “Contentment,” said Tony, “is thick and creamy.” He was not exactly condemning. Those shakes, let’s admit it, taste pretty freaking great.
It was a lot like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with talk of writing, bohemian sex, and an existential sadness in autumn. Instead of café crèmes and little oranges, ours was a feast of corn chips and sterilized sushi. We moved from food court to food court.
But the salaam couldn’t last forever. Tony sought (re)union with the beloved: America. Also, by extension, with his ex-girlfriends. And suddenly, in November, thanks to the ambition of the Saudi monarchy, he got his chance.
What happened was, Britney Spears’s manager was planning her “for realz” (fourth) comeback tour. It would kick-off on the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa. World’s tallest building, please meet world’s biggest star. The problem: On the eve of the concert, Saudi Arabia unveiled its tower, the world’s new tallest building. Someone had to add some height to the Burj, and fast, lest Britney’s tour smack of mediocrity.
If Tony could accomplish that, said the email from the State Department boys, he’d get fast-tracked back to citizenship on Main Street, back to its chemically treated water and secretaries and manicured garbage, which looked to him now like paradise.
People, I’m about to suggest that the tourism czar of the most populous emirate called upon an American poet to take a skyscraper higher than it was zoned to go. Am I not without precedent? Not too far northwest from downtown Dubai, the ancients found it possible to build what would later be called the Tower of Babel using only bricks and common speech. And the pyramids of Giza! Some say it is a mystery how they were erected, but is not ambivalence the bronze lever that moves boulders?*
*N.B. (when cranes are unavailable and/or during eras in which cranes were not yet invented)
The fact is, only Tony Hoagland could have saved Britney and the Burj.
As the tourism czar knew, in that canny way of tourism czars everywhere, Tony Hoagland, when he was good, was very very good. And when he was bad, he was Hegelian.
And so Tony and our little group of ex-pat poet hangers-on ascended to the Burj’s 160th floor. Very unironically—despite having one eyebrow raised in an expression of irony throughout the process—Tony broke the neck off a bottle of Bud and scratched into the black marble ceiling Paul Celan’s directive, “Keep Yes and No Unsplit.” And we were off.
We were about to spiral up into nothingness in the ancient dialectics ritual known as an Ambivalence-Off:
Us: Does it seem lately as if every couple you know is splitting up?
Tony: What is taken apart is not utterly demolished… It is two spaceships coming out of retirement, flying away from their dead world, the burning booster rocket of divorce falling off behind them, the bystanders pointing at the sky and saying, Look.
Us: Have you ever stopped to consider how advertising is one big brainwash?
Tony: No wonder I want something more or less large and salty for lunch. No wonder I stare into space while eating it.
Us: Do you have regrets?
Tony: I stood in one garden, looking over the fence at another. I thought I had to change my life or give up, but I didn’t. Year after year they kept growing into each other: the dreamed into the real, the real into the dreamed—the two gardens…
Us: Giles Corey, do you plead aye or nay?
Tony (squeaking): More height! More height!
The spire on the Burj Khalifa grew and grew.
The problem with trying to build tall buildings, said architect Louis Sullivan in 1896, is how to “impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration… the graciousness of these higher forms of sensibility?”
I don’t know, I don’t know.
When Britney Spears in the backstage interview said she found Mr. Hoagland’s poetry “really beautiful,” it was as if she were speaking encouragement to the one pale dandelion venturing out of the crack in the tar of an empty parking lot.
Yes, Britney, it’s an austere beauty at best. Pretty plain. But it’s 100% American, no? USA, baby.
You can find Britney’s Burj Khalifa performance on YouTube. When the camera spans the crowd during “Oops!… I Did It Again,” look for a pale white man in the second row clapping and smiling and wincing—all simultaneously, and very unironically.
There have been reports from Houston that, upon his return, Tony Hoagland was seen riding around the city on a donkey. We all, his hangers-on, immediately thought of Erasmus on Christ: “And therefore he chose rather to ride upon an ass when, if he had pleased, he might have bestrode the lion without danger.”
But maybe his car was just in the shop.
Me? I’m back from my imaginary Dubai now too, but persist with my hanger-on-ness. I write this review in a bakery near Brown University, amid poets much more experimental and beautiful than Tony Hoagland. Reading Unincorporated Persons so conspicuously here feels like walking into a French New Wave festival and announcing that my favorite, uh, film is Tommy Boy. In defense, I also keep on the table Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly, and when one of the post-postmodern Providence poets walks by and glances at the Hoagland, I crack open Erasmus. “If anyone among ye seem to be wise, let him be a fool that he may be wise,” I say.
I’m standing on my chair now. “As if it could be any dishonor to excel in folly,” I say. Now I’m standing atop the table and ridiculous. The manager is coming over. “We don’t let people do this anymore,” he is saying apologetically. “Liability issues.”