“making a scene”: Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty

by Kathleen Nalley

How ironic that the copyright page of Tony Hoagland’s fifth book, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, contains Wells Fargo and Target logos, iconic brands that represent consumerism in America. What follows is an immersion in this very culture, an exploration of the individual against the collective machine, an indictment of our society’s values, a finger (perhaps a middle finger) pointing directly at both consumers and executives of emerging superstores.

Hoagland finds relevance in everything from health insurance to Chicken Kiev. No subject is off limits — Hoagland practices equal opportunity, on one hand lamenting a bygone era and in another provoking modern capitalism, always charging the reader to be unincorporated. Hoagland’s America, with its “horrible juggernaut of progress” and its “mainstream dream machine”, is nothing more and nothing less than a “late-twentieth-century glitterti party”, a veritable melting pot of “everything/all chopped up and stirred together/in the big steel pan” — a collective so dependent on consumerism that there’s “nothing we can’t turn into a soft-drink flavor or a t-shirt”.

Throughout the book, Hoagland implores readers to shift our collective focus away from the currency of the day, to scoff at the Kool-Aid offered, and to question and rejoice in our individuality as well as in our inter connectedness. With a premise this large, Hoagland asks “Oh life! Can you blame me/for making a scene?”.

In the poem “Big Grab”, which questions the meaning behind language, Hoagland explores the individual’s complacency in the collective system, where consumers are force-fed truth via the advertising and marketing juggernaut. In describing deceptive corn-chip packaging, Hoagland brings history and contemporary living into play:

Confucius said this would happen—
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to size up a horse by its teeth
or when it’s best to shut up.

By the end of the poem, Hoagland convinces the reader of the dumbing down of culture when he writes “No wonder I want something more or less large/and salty for lunch./No wonder I stare into space while eating it”.

Never is Hoagland’s attitude and insight more direct than in the poem “Hard Rain”, in which he uses a Dear Abby letter to personify the economic and political practices of an entire county:

Dear Abby,
My father is a businessman who travels.
Each time he returns from one of his trips,
his shoes and trousers
are covered in blood—
but he never forgets to bring me a nice present.
Should I say something?
Signed, America (15)

Although enduring and tender at times, Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty derives its strength from the poet’s humor, daring honesty and ability to dissect the economic engine that defines modern American culture. Hoagland’s spot-on observations, language and wit make the harsh realities of fast-paced living in a constantly changing, technologically dependent world a little less damaging to the human spirit. There’s truth when he writes, “mine/is the simple, unrated power/to keep both of us amused”.

Hoagland, Tony. Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.

Everything in Its Proper Place

By Kyler Campbell

Something as small as a fleeting mention of color has staying power in the mind of a reader. They can find the deep and subtle threads that you as the author wove into your work, but come away from the piece fixated on a small mention of a color. Shouldn’t we as writers harness even the smallest, most fleeting parts of the writing? When everything in a story is in its proper place, the writing takes a dramatic turn for the memorable and powerful. Rick Bass, in his story “The Hermit’s Story”, uses this principle when he drops small mentions of specific colors to lead the reader to an underlying meaning within the writing. In the story of two dog trainers lost in the wild, Bass not only inundates the reader with that special sort of Canadian cold (reminiscent of Jack London), but manages to show how potent small details (like the use of colors in our example) can pull a piece together and create an overall theme.

During the winters of the Canadian wilderness, the color scheme hardly varies from the snowy greys and whites that blanket the land throughout most of the year. So it’s interesting that Bass’ story, set in the upper reaches of Canada, starts with a riff on the color “blue.” Bass immediately sets up the importance of this single color “as if blue were a thing itself…creeping up fissures and cracks,” (1). The color is compared to a “scent” and the dogs outside are shown “breathing that same blue light,” (2). He shows the characters, and their dogs, wandering across a frozen lake, under the stars, “just above their heads with a shimmering cobalt light,” (12). While most would consider white the color of winter, Bass grabs the reader with an unexpected portrayal of winter’s chill, giving it a more potent resonance within the story. These soft and cold colors serve as a means not only to chill the reader, but also to set up a color contrast later on.

As the story progresses, the characters find themselves caught underneath an ice-shelf, the frozen top layer of the lake. From here, Bass draws an interesting comparison between man and nature. Throughout the story, the characters practice training dogs to hunt pheasants, utilizing nature (the dogs in this example) to their benefit. However, once they are beneath the ice shelf, the roles (man over nature) are reversed as they spend the rest of the story at the mercy of a naturally occurring phenomena (man under nature). Once this shift in position has occurred, the characters light a torch under the ice, leaving Bass to remark that “the orange blurrings of their wandering trail [were] throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire” (13). For the first time in the story Bass shows a color that does not comply with the wintery pallette from earlier. This acts as a subconscious signal to the reader that the colors are more than surface descriptions. In this case, they serve to show the “blurring” of man and nature. The reader moves from the chilly whites, blues, and glassy hues of winter, to a bright and warm orange flame. Using the contrasting hues of orange and blue, Bass juxtaposes man’s greatest invention (fire) with one of nature’s greatest phenomena (the ice shelf). The small detail of color choice gives shape to the story and carries a theme that permeates Bass’ writings: that of man and his ultimate relationship within nature.

Everything in the writing must have a place, especially the small things. Every color, name, and fleeting word must stand out and belong with a specific sense of purpose. The writer must use whatever tools to clue the reader to important meanings and scenes. Every piece the writer uses, be it colors, phrases, or images, must be in the proper place to give the writing a punch of meaning and purpose. The use of color in “The Hermit’s Story” shows a clear example of how the proper use of a seemingly small thing, like colors, can send the reader through a range of emotions and help carry the entire weight of meaning within the story.

Bass, Rick. The Hermit’s Story: Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

From the Sublime

By Liat Faver

E. B. White’s Essays of E. B. White had me looking forward to its pages like a well executed five-course meal with my favorite companions. White’s escapades from New England to Florida, Alaska, Seattle and New York City, are awe-inspiring. We find him immediately accessible as he describes the whimsy he enlists on choosing what clothes to wear to address his typewriter, when, “familiarity is the thing—the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots” (9).

White is fascinated with the fauna of his Maine environment, and inducts us into this world with tales of local characters, and the view from his favorite window. On the routine of watching a raccoon leave a tree, White discovers that “the secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the performer is clearly visible and is part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadow and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena; a man is lucky indeed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window” (36). Coonset, indeed.

White shares, with many of us, the awareness of a future bereft of the alluring stirs of natural wilderness, in the ever-growing technological melting-pot called progress, and his words of 1956 are relevant today. He says we may depend on cheap power for success in the future, but success will “depend to a greater extent on our ability to resist a technological formula that is sterile: peas without pageantry, corn without coon, knowledge without wisdom, kitchens without a warm stove. There is more to these rocks than uranium; there is the lichen on the rock, the smell of the fern whose feet are upon the rock, the view from the rock” (42). Amen, Mr. White, and by the way, “they” are still not listening.

My favorite chapter, The Years of Wonder, sets young White adrift on the Alaska-bound Buford, a ship on which our protagonist is transported “from all my yesterdays to all my tomorrows” (180). We see ourselves in his innocent flirtations with destiny, and the desire to “throw myself into any flame that was handy, to see if I could stand the heat.” Only a brave young man would tempt fate this way, and the reader couldn’t be happier that he did.

I haven’t space here to impart all the joyous merits of Essays. Let the reader beware: If you don’t wish to learn anything new about your world and a master among writers, don’t bother with it. And if you don’t want to be drawn into a book you can’t put down, do not read this one: “It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat” (244).

White, E. B. Essays of E.B. White. New York: Harper Collins. 1977. Print.

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves

by Noel Miller

In February I attended the AWP conference in Chicago. It was the first time I’d been away from my five month old daughter for more than a night, so naturally, I had her in mind while I was browsing the book fair. I wanted to find her a literary children’s book that would become a classic in our household.

It didn’t take me long to find something interesting. I came across a booth that was selling a bright orange book with a hand sketched tiger on the front. I opened the book and flipped through the pages and was quickly impressed with the artistic illustrations and the poetry, so I bought it. At the time, I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn’t take much time to investigate the author.

Since then, that book has indeed become one of my daughter’s favorites. We read it multiple times a day and my wife and I nearly have the entire thing memorized. Still, I’m not tired of reading it yet, because as a piece of art, it’s still working on me. I’m still learning how to read it at just the right pace with all the inflections the author originally intended. And I’m still trying to digest the meaning of it, and decide whether or not I fully agree with what it teaches (there are multiple interpretations in my mind).

There are a number of other books I read to my daughter on a daily basis, but none of them cause me the same delight or angst. None of them have the same power or convictions that are contained in the orange tiger book. The poetry is miserable in many of these stories – often embarrassing. The books teach things like how to brush your teeth or how to go to sleep. They don’t invite you to wrestle with insecurities or injustice. But the orange tiger does.

The other night, after I finished reading this book to my daughter, I finally took the time to read the back cover, which contains a brief bio about the author. Immediately, I smiled and realized what set this book apart. It was the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize Winner,  Poet Laureate of Illinois,  Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A woman who knew a thing or two about life and race and self-confidence. The kind of woman you’d want to listen to over and over again because of her wisdom and experience.

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of “The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves,” by Gwendolyn Brooks. See what you think. Take some time to get the cadence of it, and then wrestle with the message. Kids love it. It’s pretty to look at and keeps children happy. But it also has some profound truth to it. It makes you think. And that’s why it works. That’s why I read it to my daughter whenever she wants. Because that’s the kind of literature I want her digesting at a young age.

This book changed my perspective on children’s literature. It might change yours also. A story should never be token. No matter what the genre or target audience.

Enjoy.

Dark Matters

by Gabrielle Brant Freeman

There must be something about a man in black that keeps us up at night. Robert Bly’s book The Man in the Black Coat Turns was published in 1981, and I can’t help but wonder if he and Stephen King weren’t drinking the same Kool-Aid, to put it crudely and in a very pop-culture, fascinated with mass-murderers sort of way. King’s first installment in the Dark Tower series was published shortly after Bly’s collection, and it involved its own “man in black.” Coincidence? Well…

SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss the ending of the Dark Tower series, which, if you haven’t read it yet, you’re not a real King fan anyway, so phooey on you. And no, that sentence wasn’t necessarily grammatically correct. Pffttt.

King’s series is based on Robert Browning’s poem, based on a dream, titled “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s Roland is a tested knight of his own realm, which has…moved on…, but his true challenge comes at the end of his journey when he reaches the long sought after Dark Tower. There is no Answer; there is no God. There is only a repeat, only the wheel. Roland Deschain must repeat the life he has known until, seemingly, he gets it “right,” or until the final beam breaks and all is lost. King begins the series this way: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Never has a first line enticed me to keep reading more than that.

Bly’s first poem in his book is titled “Snowbanks North of the House.” In it, there is a series of nots: a son does not read any more books after high school, the mother does not make any more bread, the husband does not sleep with his wife, and “the man in the black coat turns, and goes back / down the hill” (Bly 4). It is as ominous a line as King’s.

Perhaps the lesson is that we must follow the man in black, even if he turns away from our folly, even if he leads us to the beginning of the same old cycle, and perhaps especially if, on the turning away (oh yes, that’s a Pink Floyd reference, 1987), we recognize our shortcomings and accept that “ka is a wheel” (King). “And the sea lifts and falls all night, the moon goes on / through the unattached heavens alone” (Bly 3). Our lives move in a circle, and the hero’s journey often ends where it began. What we do with that realization, how we choose to address the man in black, that is what makes all the difference.

Bly, Robert. “Snowbanks North of the House.” The Man in the Black Coat Turns. New York: Harper Perennial, 1981.

The Power of the Adjective

Maybe it’s the grammar teacher in me that can appreciate a well-placed adjective and the omission of useless adverbs.  I enjoy reading books by writers who can use specific language to strike just the right tone and create just the right image. Alexandra Fuller is one of these writers.  Fuller uses word choice to make her unique memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, even more interesting to read.

Fuller tells the story of growing up in a white farming and ranching family in South Africa during the late seventies and early eighties. Fuller is the observer of the African landscape, her family, and the native African community around her. Her observations are spot-on, especially the ones that appeal to the five senses. She shares hard times, losses, and intimate moments with family members by using just the right words to handle each recollection.  There are many beautiful lines in the book that I re-read three or four times to marvel at her seeming ability to describe anything and everything with such precision. What I enjoyed most about this book, however, is Fuller’s use of compound adjectives that display her dexterity with words and her gift for description.

Instead of saying the pale yellow light flickered, she writes, “flickering-yellow light (4).”  She remembers as a child she and her sister getting “the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps (6).” She watches her father use his “after-dinner pipe” and observes her mother in a “broken-chicken-neck sleep.”  She tells the reader that her mother has “thick, wavy, shoulder-length bottle-auburn hair.” When she arrives back from a trip she is relieved to “climb off the stale-breath, flooding-toilet-smelling plane into Africa’s hot embrace (287).”   In one scene she details a visit from missionaries. “The springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves up on the visitor’s laps, and the missionaries fight them off in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way (82).” The word play with hyphenated words turned into descriptive adjectives is a feature of her writing that also adds to this writer’s distinct voice.

When I teach adjectives again with my eighth grade grammar students, I will definitely have fun sharing examples from Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight.