Poems by Tony Hoagland



Adam and Eve

I wanted to punch her right in the mouth and that's the truth.

After all, we had gotten from the station of the flickering glances
to the station of the hungry mouths,
from the shoreline of skirts and faded jeans
to the ocean of unencumbered skin,
from the perilous mountaintop of the apartment steps
to the sanctified valley of the bed--

the candle fluttering upon the dresser top, its little yellow blade
sending up its whiff of waxy smoke,
and I could smell her readiness
like a dank cloud above a field,

when at the crucial moment, the all-important moment,
the moment standing at attention,
she held her milk white hand agitatedly
over the entrance to her body and said No,
and my brain burst into flame.

If I couldn't sink myself in her like a dark spur
or dissolve into her like a clod thrown in a river,
can I go all the way in the saying, and say
I wanted to punch her right in the face?
Am I allowed to say that,
that I wanted to punch her right in her soft face?

Or is the saying just another instance of rapaciousness,
just another way of doing what I wanted then,
by saying it?

Is a man just an animal, and is a woman not an animal?
Is the name of the animal power?
Is it true that the man wishes to see the woman
hurt with her own pleasure

and the woman wishes to see the expression on the man's face
of someone falling from great height,
that the woman thrills with the power of her weakness
and the man is astonished by the weakness of his power?

Is the sexual chase a hunt where the animal inside
drags the human down
into a jungle made of vowels,
hormonal undergrowth of sweat and hair,

or is this an obsolete idea
lodged like a fossil
in the brain of the ape
who lives inside the man?

Can the fossil be surgically removed
or dissolved, or redesigned
so the man can be a human being, like a woman?

Does the woman see the man as a house
where she might live in safety,
and does the man see the woman as a door
through which he might escape
the hated prison of himself,

and when the door is locked,
does he hate the door instead?
Does he learn to hate all doors?

I've seen rain turn into snow then back to rain,
and I've seen making love turn into fucking
then back to making love,
and no one covered up their faces out of shame,
no one rose and walked into the lonely maw of night.

But where was there, in fact, to go?
Are some things better left unsaid?
Shall I tell you her name?
Can I say it again,
that I wanted to punch her right in the face?

Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness.
As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.


To whomever taught me the word dickhead,
I owe a debt of thanks.
It gave me a way of being in the world of men
when I most needed one,

when I was pale and scrawny,
naked, goosefleshed
as a plucked chicken

in a supermarket cooler, a poor
forked thing stranded in the savage
universe of puberty, where wild

jockstraps flew across the steamy
skies of locker rooms,
and everybody fell down laughing

at jokes I didn’t understand.
But dickhead was a word as dumb
and democratic as a hammer, an object

you could pick up in your hand,
and swing,
saying dickhead this and dickhead that,

a song that meant the world
was yours enough at least
to bang on like a garbage can,

and knowing it, and having that
beautiful ugliness always
cocked and loaded in my mind,

protected me and calmed me like a psalm. 
Now I have myself become
a beautiful ugliness,

and my weakness is a fact
so well established that
it makes me calm,

and I am calm enough
to be grateful for the lives I
never have to live again;

but I remember all the bad old days
back in the world of men,
when everything was serious, mysterious, scary,

hairier and bigger than I was;
I recall when flesh
was what I hated, feared

and was excluded from:
Hardly knowing what I did,
or what would come of it,

I made a word my friend.


The nozzle of the gas pump
plunged into the flank of the car
like the curved beak of a predatory bird

looks like it is drinking
or maybe I'm light-headed
from the fumes

or from the slanted light
of Thursday afternoon.
—Still, it is a powerful moment

when I squeeze the trigger of the handle
and feel, beneath the stained cement,
the deep shudder and convulsion

of the gasoline begin
its plunging rush in my direction.
Out of the guts of the earth,

filtered through sand and blood
down the long hose of history
towards the very nipple of this moment:

—the mechanical ticking of the pump,
the sound of my car drinking—
filling my tank with a necessary story

about the road, how we have
to have it to go down;
the whole world construed around

this singular, solitary act
as if I myself had conjured it
from some strange thirst.

Lie Down with a Man

In those days I thought I had to
do everything I was afraid of,
so I lay down with a man.

It was one item on a list--
sleeping in the graveyard, under the full moon,
not looking away from the burned girl's stricken face,
strapping myself into the catapult
of some electric blue pill.

It was the seventies, a whole generation of us
was more than willing to chainsaw through
the branch that we were sitting on
to see what falling felt like--bump bump bump.

Knowing the worse about yourself
seemed like self-improvement then,
and suffering was adventure.

So I lay down with a man,
which I really don't remember
except that it was humorless.

Curtains fluttered in the breeze
from the radio's black grill. Van Morrison
filled up the room like astral aftershave.

I lay my mass of delusions
next to his mass of delusions
in the dark room where I struggled
with the old adversary, myself

--in the form, this time, of a body--

someplace between heaven and earth,
two things I was afraid of.

The Replacement

And across the country I know

they are replacing my brother's brain
with the brain of a man;

one gesture, one word, one neuron at a time
with surgical precision
they are teaching him to hook his thumbs
into his belt, to iron his mouth as flat
as the horizon, and make his eyes
reflective as a piece of tin.

It is a kind of cooking
the male child undergoes:
to toughen him, he is dipped repeatedly
in insult--peckerwood, shitbag, faggot,
pussy, dicksucker--until spear points
will break against his epidermis,
until his is impossible to disappoint.

Then he walks out into the street
ready for a game of corporate poker
with a hard-on for the Dow-Jones
like this hormonal language I am
flexing like a bicep
to show who's boss.

But I'm not the boss.
And there is nothing I can do to stop it,
and would I if I could?
What else is there for him to be
except a man?
If they fail,
he stumbles through his life
like an untied shoe.
If they succeed, he may become
something even I can't love.

Already the photograph I have of him
is out of date
but in it he is standing by the pool
without a shirt: too young, too white, too weak,
with feelings he is too inept to hide
splashed over his face--

goofy, proud, shy,
he's smiling at the camera
as if he were under the illusion
that someone loved him so well
they would not ever ever ever
turn him over to the world.

Why the Young Men Are So Ugly

They have little tractors in their blood
and all day the tractors climb up and down
inside their arms and legs, their
collarbones and heads.

That is why they yell and scream and slam the barbells
down into their clanking slots,
making the metal ring like sledgehammers on iron,
like dungeon prisoners rattling their chains.

That is why they shriek their tires at the stopsign,
why they turn the base up on the stereo
until it shakes the traffic light, until it
dryhumps the eardrum of the crossing guard.

Testosterone is a drug,
and they say No, No, No until
they are overwhelmed and punch
their buddy in the face for joy,

or make a joke about gravy and bottomless holes
to a middle-aged waitress who is gently
setting down the plate in front of them.

If they are grotesque, if
what they say and do is often nothing more
than a kind of psychopathic fart,

it is only because of the tractors,
the tractors in their blood,
revving their engines, chewing up the turf
inside their arteries and veins
It is the testosterone tractor

constantly climbing the mudhill of the world
and dragging the young man behind it
by a chain around his leg.
In the stink and the noise, in the clouds
of filthy exhaust

is where they live. It is the tractors
that make them
what they are. While they make being a man
look like a disease.



Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can't tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he's driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped, "Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty"—

Which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, "I am asleep in America too,

And I don't know how to wake myself either,"
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

"I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future."

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?


Rap Music

Twenty-six men trapped in a submarine
are pounding on the walls with a metal pipe,
shouting what they'll do when they get out.
Or they are rolled up in a rug in the back
of a rug truck that has wrecked.

No, it's the car pulled up next to mine in traffic
with the windows rolled down and the sound turned up
so loud it puts everything in italics: enough to make the asphalt thump
and the little leaves of shrubbery
in front of the nice brick houses quake.

I don't know what's going on inside that portable torture chamber,
but I have a bad suspicion
there's a lot of dead white people in there

on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,
then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—

But that's what art is for, isn't it?
It's about giving expression to the indignation
it's for taking the in out of the inhibitchin;
so maybe my ears are just a little hysterical
or maybe my fear is a little historical

and you know, I'd like to form an exploratory committee
to investigate that question—
and I'd like that committee to produce a documentary
called The Sweet Sounds of Afro-American,

but all this ugly noise is getting in the way,
and what I'm not supposed to say
is that Black for me is a country
more foreign than China or Vagina,
more alarming than going down Niagara on Viagra—

and it makes me feel stupid when I get close
like a little white dog on the edge of a big dark woods
I'm not supposed to look directly into

and there's this pounding noise
like a heartbeat full of steroids,
like a thousand schizophrenic Shakespeares
killing themselves at high volume—

this tangled roar
that has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off
or actually mentioned and entered.


Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet

At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!

Where are we going now?