John Updike once said that “[e]xcellence in the great things is built upon excellence in the small.” Tony Hoagland’s latest collection, Application for Release from the Dream, is a first-rate case in point.
Addressing the daily travails of modern life, Hoagland zeroes in on the minutiae of our challenging moments and addresses them with a no-nonsense practicality. Application is not a self-help book, but reading it may save you a trip to the therapist.
Especially effective is how Hoagland explores the rat race that has so many people overloaded, overwhelmed, and, in a spiritual sense, undernourished. He questions the drive to achieve and offers a sound argument for accepting ourselves as we are. “Ode to the Republic” is ostensibly about America’s status as a superpower of the past but offers comfort to any one fretting that his best may be behind him or that she has not lived up to her potential. Hoagland assures us, “It’s so good to be unimportant…. There are worse things than being / second burrito.”
Second burritos, in fact, deserve a pat on the back. In “Hero’s Journey,” he reflects on the “minor characters,” who pay the price for the glory that the protagonists of life and literature achieve. From the hotel employee who polishes the lobby’s marble floors to the soldiers who fought for the knights of Arthurian legend, it is the bit players who make things happen. With characteristic Hoagland humor, he calls out for special attention “that woman in the nursing home, / who has worked there for a thousand years, / taking away the bedpans, / lifting up and wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus.”
In short, Hoagland suggests that the answer to the rat race is moving past the notion that we are destined for greatness. “What kind of idiot would think he even had a destiny?” he posits. The message is harsh, but freeing.
Beneath the obvious pleasures of Hoagland’s wit are the shaky rhythms of a person dealing with life’s emotional lows. Hoagland describes the sadness that sometimes overcomes him as “an eventual, inevitable result / of not being able to understand anything.” If you have ever felt a “sobbing sense” of being unloved, you are not alone. “For all I know,” Hoagland says, “maybe everyone is screaming silently / as they go through life. . . .”
When it comes to enduring the dark times, Hoagland wonders whether “a third choice exists / between resignation and / going around the bend. . . .” Patience seems to be the approach he settles on. He trusts that there will be an inevitable lifting of the cloud cover. In “Special Problems in Vocabulary,” he struggles to put that turn of the tide into words:
No word for waking up one morning
and looking around,
because the mysterious spirit
that drives all things
seems to have returned,
And is on your side again.
This “sun will come out tomorrow” optimism is hardly pioneering advice, but the message bears repeating. Many of us, when feeling depressed or worried, seem to have difficulty remembering that things do generally get better, that morning eventually does come. Maybe if there were a specific word for that turn, we would do a job better of trusting in its inevitability.
Hoagland also lends a sympathetic ear to writers who struggle with the calling. What is the point of all our agonizing to communicate through a body of work? Is any one even listening? I was taken by Hoagland’s description of:
[T]he flaring force of this thing we call identity
as if it were a message, a burning coal
one carries in one’s mouth for sixty years,
to whom, exactly; to where?”
Yet the message is one of encouragement. Stay curious, he advises: “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, is because your heart is closed.” And keep writing even if it is just for yourself. It is a discipline akin to swimming: “Twenty-two laps like twenty-two pages, that will never be read by anyone.”
In Application for Release from the Dream, Hoagland puts his hand on the reader’s knee and reassures us that we are doing fine, that what we have to offer the world is meaningful and has value:
All those years I kept trying and failing and trying
to find my one special talent in this life—
Why did it take me so long to figure out
that my special talent was trying?
Our efforts are worthwhile. Our efforts are enough.