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:
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.