Scott Weiss

What Narcissism Means to Me

By Tony Hoagland
ISBN: 1555973868, 2003
Graywolf Press, $14

Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
                          “Song of Myself” ––Walt Whitman

It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
                          “America” ––Allen Ginsberg

What it means to be American, and what it means to be a poet in America are by no stretch new subjects for poetry. But because being American means growing through a continual process of cultural evolution, the American identity is itself in a constant state of flux. Thus, the America with which Whitman identified was not the same America that Ginsberg spoke of, and the America of today is far from the America about which Ginsberg so passionately wrote. In his latest book of poetry, What Narcissism Means to Me, Tony Hoagland gives us a fresh, if sometimes uncomfortably honest, look at attitudes in America in the early twenty-first century, with his work going beyond social discourse to identify points of individual vulnerability.

The poems in this latest Hoagland collection are a documentary of Americana that reveals uniquely American ways of viewing the world, from its prismatic perspectives on larger social issues to its sharp focus on individual accountability in dealing with love, hate, sickness and death. Hoagland captures all of these aspects of American social and cultural awareness in an accessible yet penetrating collection of poems that is armed and ready to engage every reader on some level with a vision of present-day America that is topical, familiar, and at times disarmingly frank. Such is the case with the poem, “Dear John,” in which the poem’s speaker admits to his own indecorous behavior:

I never would have told John that faggot joke
                 if I had known that he was gay;
I really shot myself in the foot with that Neanderthal effort
to make a witty first impression

But Hoagland’s speaker atones for his faux pas, taking it head-on with a refreshing boldness that encourages each of us to accept responsibility for our own interpersonal failures:

but he forgave me and let me be his friend,
and if I can say so without sounding patriotic about myself,
there’s something democratic

about being the occasional asshole—
you make a mistake, you apologize
                          and everyone else breathes easier—

But whether one identifies solely with the book’s broad societal implications, or falls in step when the book spotlights personal conflict, these poems are sure to resonate both with the American culture and with outsiders who are familiar with our way of life.

Divided into four sections, “America,” “Social Life,” “Blues,” and “Luck,” What Narcissism Means to Me examines the American identity in the context of everyday experiences. The first of these sections, “America,” stands out as an introspective examination of the attitudes and sense of insecurity that pervade the American culture. The second section, “Social Life,” identifies a range of reactions to relationships among lovers, family, friends, and enemies through universal circumstances such as separation, sickness, death, and the seasons of the year. “Blues,” the book’s third section, recognizes music as a lens through which distinctly American cultural phenomena are identifiable. And “Luck,” the final and most introspective of the four sections, acknowledges the roles of both chance and personal volition in the making of our lives, conceding that “there are the terrible things that happen to you / and the terrible things that you yourself make happen.”

Hoagland’s use of casual conversation as a poetic device is a vehicle that enables readers to easily enter his poems as he engages a wide array of topics under the auspices of dialogue. This mechanism not only enables the reader to view issues from a variety of points of view at once, it opens the window for the reader to personally identify with one of these voices as seen in the following lines taken from the book’s title poem:

There’s Socialism and Communism and Capitalism,
said Neal,
and there’s Feminism and Hedonism,
            and there’s Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism,

but I think Narcissism is the system
that means the most to me;

and Sylvia said that in Neal’s case
narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.

And Ann,
who calls everybody Sweetie pie
            whether she cares for them or not

Ann lit a cigarette and said, Only miserable people will tell you that             love has to be deserved,

and when I heard that, a distant chime went off for me,

remembering a time when I believed
            that I could simply live without it.

In simultaneously experiencing a diversity of viewpoints, we witness the individual pitfalls of fear and uncertainty, but we also take hope in the comfort and strength gained in the community of friendship. In fact, Hoagland seems to be sending the message that the best way to deal with personal weakness and life’s difficulties is to keep oneself in the company of friends. Hoagland’s use of dialogue adds dimension and perspective to his poems and it enables us to engage ideas and opinions in a very democratic, one might even say, “American,” fashion. As readers, we gain an understanding of the importance of the diversity of community in mitigating our individual weaknesses.

A sense of familiarity with these poems is easily gained thanks to Hoagland’s having ostensibly shaped his work against the backdrop of his own readily identifiable everyday experiences. Recognizing quotidian activities such as drinking beer with friends, barbecuing hamburgers, and shopping for a birthday gift, we relax into the familiar scenes. We are enabled to relate to the speaker’s vulnerability, often lying just beneath the surface but going unacknowledged until a moment of self-awareness reveals its presence. One such recognizable instance occurs in the poem, “America,” which addresses the consequences of placing a high priority on money and possessions in a country where self-image is marketed, bought, and sold over the counter like basketball shoes. The poem provides a vivid depiction of the situation we face:

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

Hoagland exposes the way in which the American citizenry is both victim and perpetrator of a marketing onslaught “Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials.” But in a moment of honesty that allows the reader to see his own culpability in the commercial production, Hoagland admits, “‘I am asleep in America too, / And I don’t know how to wake myself either.’”

One undeniable merit of these poems is the way they grant us permission to take ownership of sentiments that emerge irrepressibly in our own lives, but which we suppress, knowing them to be wrong since they conflict with our own values and the values of society in general. Hoagland refuses to back away from sensitive social issues such as those associated with HIV and AIDS as in the poem, “Appetite,” in which the poet relates the experience of dining with a friend who is afflicted with “one of those diseases / known by its initials.” The poem’s speaker concedes his consciousness of the disease with effective coarseness and unsettling honesty:

What bothers me
is how I imagine I can see
the virus looking out
from his dullish-bright dark eyes,
and the peculiar gusto
with which he eats and drinks,

taking two of everything,
touching all his food before he swallows it—
the bread, the crumpled dark green
money of the lettuce
entering his mouth, which keeps
on talking while he chews,

telling me how good life is now that he is
living on the edge,
now that he is tasting every bite—

In reading What Narcissism Means to Me, feelings we often keep in the dark are brought to light and we become unburdened as one-by-one the poems lay bare our vulnerability and culpability on an individual level, and in doing so, they join us to the community of Americans as a whole.

Tastes in music are an important part of the way we identify ourselves in America, reflecting differences in culture, history, values and politics. Working through these differences, the book’s “Blues” section is infused with the distinctly American music forms of country, rap, and jazz, making them subjects for both poetry and social discourse. The poem, “Rap Music,” stands as the premier example of this discourse as Hoagland points to the distance between white and black cultures as represented by the speaker’s intolerance for loud rap music:

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

The poet first echoes a tired, predictable ethnocentric solution by calling the music a “tangled roar / that has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off.” But realizing the inevitable failure of such shortsighted action, Hoagland concludes that black culture must be “actually mentioned and entered” if there is to be any hope of bridging the cultural gap. The poems in this collection openly tackle taboo subjects such as racial prejudice, and by pointing the finger of responsibility back at himself for his own feelings, Hoagland adopts a stance of conciliation, inspiriting us with hope that we may yet overcome the wrongfulness of these commonly held attitudes. Hoagland authorizes the reader to be honest with himself about his own human tendencies, and to say, “yes, I’ve had thoughts like that before,” giving these poems the quality of a confessional for the American soul.

A collection of poems like those found in What Narcissism Means to Me is perhaps too long overdue. Tony Hoagland gives a much needed voice to the modern American identity while providing a fresh perspective on that identity. Reflecting an American political climate that, since Ginsberg wrote “America,” has endured Vietnam, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Watergate, and 9/11, and a social landscape transformed by the advent of MTV, Oprah Winfrey, and the internet, Hoagland’s poetry speaks both to and of our culture. On still another level, Hoagland’s book revives in poetry itself a refreshing cultural significance that some may say has been lacking in the genre for some time. In spite of its title, What Narcissism Means to Me emerges from the abundance of contemporary poetry by self-focused writers, and looks outward at an American identity that has undergone a major overhaul in the last fifty years. Released by these poems from his narcissistic attitudes, the reader can say with relief:

––then I can relax a moment
in the matter of remembering myself,
I can close my eyes and let

the whole factory of identity go
drifting in the dark
like a big brick warehouse full of anxious secrets
                       ––from “Narcissus Lullaby”


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