Little Oceans (The Hollyridge Press Chapbook Series)
by Tony Hoagland
Reviewed by Abby Travis
In his new chapbook Little Oceans, Tony Hoagland attempts "to catch a glimpse of life's interior" as he asks: "Am I just some kind of little Magellan / standing at the rail of my ship, holding a spyglass to my eye / as I sail around and around the world?"
Hoagland's world is dotted with uncrossable little oceans: every day we try to make the journey to some undiscovered destination of progress, but each time we flounder and are lost somewhere out in the middle -- and yet, he notes, we remain unchanged. Hoagland begins this small collection with what might seem a proper conclusion: "so we were turned into Americans / to learn something about loneliness," critiquing and mourning the cataclysm of American complacency. His poems are concerned with America's history, the way that we are drowning and yet still refuse to reform -- to "take it personal" as he calls for in one poem. Our failure, he suggests, is not simply the fault of the present:
What kind of fucked-up winter has it been, Little Oceans
full of ugly choices
made by unhappy people
with miserable results,
so the sky looks bruised and pregnant with regret
and the future shrinks at your approach
as if you had hurt it in the past.
is not the first time that Hoagland has written on -- and mourned over -- these themes; elegiac notes have peppered his work, coming to fruition in select poems of What Narcissism Means to Me
(Graywolf Press, 2003) and the chapbook Hard Rain
(Hollyridge Press, 2005). Although these earlier poems point to our recurring inability to find a solution to the faceless problem of apathy, the poems of Little Oceans
reach some new level of exploration. They are more intimate, demonstrating how this contagion permeates all aspects of life, crossing the boundaries between social and personal, paddling through the oceans of family and retrospection. At times they are more humorous than before, but each poem often ends with an ironic bite that is sobering. Hoagland nonetheless leaves no aspect of American life uncharted; he tests the limits of consumerism in poems such as "Invitation to the Future," where we are invited to the marriage of "Jessica Exxon Mitsubishi" to "Noah CocaCola" at the "Microsoft chapel on Zoloft Hill," and in "Poor Britney Spears," where Hoagland poses the question that seems to underlie the entire chapbook: "Are you sure we know what the hell we're doing?" But Hoagland is not just some curmudgeon, pitilessly criticizing American society, for he finds himself guilty as well; the poems of Little Oceans
, social and personal alike, maintain his tendency towards the confessional. He always admits to being as stuck in this cesspool of life and desire as the rest of us:
I myself am not a pretty sight,
with my red face and little belly
running through a mirror towards my grave
but perhaps I am an advertisement
for not trying to improve;
or an advertisement for trying in spite of certain failure,
or an advertisement for joining the conspiracy
that seems to exist between us
to never, ever stop craving.
And just as Hoagland cannot stop craving, writing, criticizing, confessing, and pleading -- "I believe in saying it all / and taking it all back," he writes -- his readers cannot stop reading. Hoagland's ironic and mordant tone seems harmless at first, even light if taken out of context. As in Hard Rain
, he constantly returns to pleasure, which in his hands becomes the most haunting and despairing thing of all. Each poem builds on the last as his lines weave through each aspect of our world, his world; the twenty-seven poems of Little Oceans
read quickly, but resonate with the breadth and depth of the currents of each uncrossable, lonely sea. Thankfully, however, loneliness is not his ultimate conclusion; Hoagland repeatedly emphasizes and embraces the beauty of our world, strange though it may be.