A Review of Tony Hoagland’s Donkey Gospel

April 19, 2013

Reviewed by Jesse Bishop, assistant professor of English

 

donkey gospel

Donkey Gospel. Tony Hoagland. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998. $14.00.

April is National Poetry Month, a time that I look forward to each year because I know that many of my colleagues in English at colleges all over the country will be reading and sharing their favorite poems. In keeping with that rich tradition, I wanted to share one of my favorite books with you all, especially those colleagues not in the English department. Tony Hoagland’s collection Donkey Gospel turned fifteen this year and it seems fitting to revisit this book because it taught me, on some level, that poetry was not quite what I thought it was. Among contemporary American poets, Tony Hoagland writes quietly, always with a sharp wit on his tongue.

 

The book essentially deals with one thematic approach: becoming/being a man in the late 20th century. In much the same way that James Dickey’s cult classic Deliverance recontextualized masculinity, domesticity and the specter of modern fear, Hoagland’s book works in the same vein, though without the physical violence of that novel. In this collection of poems, men are moving through the landscapes of post-Second Wave feminism, post-Civil Rights Era America, and the bumpy, hilly terrain of contemporary relationships. The male in Hoagland’s poems undergoes perpetual revision through a kind of ideological and linguistic hammering out. The poems achieve this reconsideration through the varied use of sexuality, contemporary expectations of masculinity and self-definition and redefinition through relationships.

 

The book’s opening poem, “Jet,” sets the tone and developmental progression for the work. Hoagland writes:
“Sometimes I wish I were still out

on the back porch, drinking jet fuel

with the boys, getting louder and louder

as the empty cans drop out of our paws

like booster rockets falling back to Earth” (lines 1-5)

 

This invocation locates readers in the present state of longing, to be part of that old world, where things were simple, when men were men one can almost hear some caterpillar-browed relic pontificating. That place, physically and temporally, is gone. Men no longer “celebrate their hairiness” (line 10), tell “labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex” (line 18). The boys in that opening stanza, with their animalistic “paws,” are not the mature men that Hoagland references just a few lines later. No, those boys are gone and the men they once thought they would become are lost to “the bright unbroken planet/ we once came from,/ to which we will never return” (lines 21-23). Yet, this isn’t an elegy, exactly. The poem ends with the subtle claim of Zen-like acceptance: “We would give anything for what we have.” Drawing out the nuance of present-ness, of being and being reflective, Hoagland illustrates the progression of the entire book. These men will reminisce, do things they think they are supposed to do, fail at those things, and find something not unlike peace in their present moments.

 

An introspective opportunity arises in the poem “Mistaken Identity,” in which the speaker thinks that he sees his mother in a lesbian bar. The psychological implications of such an event are almost paralyzing for the speaker, but his presence in the lesbian bar is perhaps more unsettling as he feels others’ anxieties of his power in speech. Hoagland writes that the speaker, “Stood against the wall, trying to look/ simultaneously nonviolent/ and nonchalant” (lines 18-20). The focus on nonviolent and nonchalant illustrate the social expectations for men (violence) and this man’s own insecurities about playing it cool, pretending he accepts this radical new world.

 

Perched on the wall of the lesbian bar, the speaker feels, “speechless, really,/ as the first horse to meet the first/ horseless carriage on a cobbled street” (lines 22-24).  His own “unnecessariness” has stripped him of voice in the poem, and left him, literally, destabilized: “It took me one, maybe two big minutes/ to find my footing” (37-38).  The notion that his masculinity, which he has worked so hard to prove, means nothing in this world throws the speaker off-balance more than the fact that his dead mother might be in a lesbian bar. For the first time, the speaker is confronted with marginalized status. To stand quietly and observe this scene, of his mother in a lesbian bar, the speaker must give up his weapon of speech to others in the poem.  Given that they are homosexual women, this strips him of agency and voice, making him literally a fly on the wall of the bar, marginalized in the most dramatic way. In allowing the speaker to tell this story, Hoagland flips the heteronormative tables.

 

As if a knee-jerk reaction to the speaker’s experience in “Mistaken Identity,” the poems “The Replacement” and “Dickhead” seem to achieve what Hoagland notes as a threatening tone, one that is hypermasculine. Readers could easily be put off by the language, by the implications of both poems. The point, though, seems to be that we need to push through the surface level language and plumb the depths of the identities that are created for us, that we grow into. The idea that our culture would shape a young man in the manner that “The Replacement” suggests is a little unsettling, and there seems to be a similar sentiment in “Dickhead”—that this word is really what a boy needs to survive in the world.

 

Hoagland argues, “To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms. A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not safe, living-room-lazy-boy-museum-tea-party experience, but that poetry is about open heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected.” (Sagan Interview)

 

In “The Replacement,” of the collection Donkey Gospel, the poet takes on the notion of socially defined masculinity. He explores how men are constructed out of males, gender out of biology. Hoagland notes, “They are replacing my brother’s brain/ with the brain of a man:/ one gesture, one word, one neuron at a time” (lines 2-3). The speaker expresses great anxiety at the forced transformation of his brother into a man, which calls attention to the notion that his brother was somehow not a man before. “They,” which seems to represent the collective of social normalizing, wants this boy to be a man, so “he is dipped repeatedly/ in insult”—insults that grow with intensity (lines 12-13).

 

The first insult in the series calls attention to his whiteness, but in a passing manner that allows for little focus. The second insult seems even more generic in that it addresses no single aspect of the brother’s personality. However, the three final insults slather over the boy in ways that seem especially indicting. No male wants emasculating, homophobic slurs tossed at him. In the poem, though, these insults strip the speaker’s brother of identity so that he may become a man, which would imply that men are somehow without identity in the social world. In the poem there are two instances of speech: one of the narrator’s and one of the collective “They.” The brother, who has been stripped into a man, has no voice and therefore epitomizes masculinity in that he cannot, will not speak unless absolutely necessary. Speech, under these conditions, can be nothing more than a tool used to reinforce traditional notions of masculinity: strength, violence, silence.

 

Evident in “Dickhead” are the same types of speech-act trainings that occur in “The Replacement.”  Only, in the latter, the speaker sees the speech act as a way of being an adolescent in the world of men. Hoagland writes:

“To whoever 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.” (lines 1-4)

 

The speaker’s gratitude seems short-lived because readers know this word will only carry him so far in becoming a man, though he’ll likely be saddled with similar language his whole life, as seen in “The Replacement.”  When the speaker notes of the “bad old days” that he is grateful not to have to live those lives again, he refers to the developing of the male vocabulary, one that seems very much embodied in the poem: “[It] was a word as dumb/ and democratic as a hammer” (15-16).

 

Violence is more than implied in the use of speech such as the titular term, and this seems to be a critique of traditional masculinity for the speaker. The word becomes a way to commune with “men” (adolescents in a locker room, men in training all the same), and the fact that he can wield the word like a hammer marks the significance of speech as weapon, something reserved for battle. Perhaps this explains why so few of Hoagland’s male characters speak, outside of the speakers of the poems.

 

If the boy-men of the last two poems discussed are still developing, “Muy Macho” appears to be the direct declaration, the barbaric yawp, of what those boy-men think is mature masculinity. Previously, the poems examined have resulted in a questioning mode of self-reflection, but in this poem those notions will be shirked, in favor of the hyper-masculine affirmation of virility. The poem begins, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here/ […] listening to my old friend boast/ about the size of his cock” (lines 1-4). There is no room for inquisition, only a boast, a calling-out of any doubters that marks the poem’s inception.

 

This poem is a move away from the quietness of the others discussed thus far. The longest poem of those discussed, it does not enact the short, affirmative claims that the speaker pretends to hear his compatriot make. Instead, the poem seems a prolonged attempt at justifying such acts, as opposed to embracing them. Masculinity is to be derived from the homosocial setting of the manly bar. Indeed, the speaker seems aware of this notion where he claims, “I know that every word we say is probably a stone/ someone else will have to/ kick aside” (40-42), as if to acknowledge the setbacks that are occurring in performing this “Neanderthal” effort (32).

 

But the act appears to be reflective as well. The speaker claims, “This club of [the] deep-voiced […]/ to which I never thought/ I ever would belong” (45-47). He has joined the ranks of these other men to prove his own manliness. To wit, Hoagland uses a simple but remarkable tool in conveying his notion of barbarism to readers, one that likely slips by upon a first read: the strong-stress rhythm and intonation of line forty-five. When he writes “deep-voiced,” the spondee (double stressed syllabic foot, as compared to the iamb) enacts the frail attempt to prove maleness through hard speech; as the second half of the line falls apart metrically, readers see the idea for the farce it is. Yet, the poem fulfills the speaker’s expectations of what men are really like, so much so that he feels “privileged” to be in the “tribe” (43-44).

 

The speaker wants desperately to belong to some group, to be able to name himself and the other men around him as a collective, representative specimen of man, and the group only seems able to accomplish this notion through stories and their circle of conversation (50). They only speak of their exploits in an attempt to live up to other men’s expectations. The speaker seems aware of the other’s attempts to idolize their conquests, even using the term Homeric (10). However, the ending of the poem signals not triumph but desperation in the acclaims. He notes, “We can’t pull ourselves apart from it,” in reference to the hyper-masculine world he currently inhabits.

 

But this linguistically violent world is not the only one that men exist in. Hoagland shows a quieter, softer side of masculinity that faces the impending death of a mother in “Lucky.” Hoagland begins:

“If you are lucky in this life,

you will get to help your enemy

the way I got to help my mother

when she was weakened past the point of saying no.” (lines 1-4)

 

The plot of this poem features a man, a grown son, taking care of his frail, dying mother. The other poems discussed so far have dramatically, aggressively emphasized the masculinity of the speakers. But this poem addresses the emotional weight of manhood, exposing the linguistic posturing as just that. Make no mistake: the speaker here is negotiating power just as the others have been, but the stakes are raised. The speaker notes that some nights, while reading to his mother:

“amazed at the symmetry and luck

that would offer me the chance to pay

my heavy debt of punishment and love

with love and punishment.” (lines 21-24)

 

Here is a man—no, maybe just a guy—who is doing the hardest work of life, which is not the physical lifting of the body, “the childish skeleton” his mother had become, but the work of love, responsibility and obligation. Suddenly cast in this light, being a man is no longer tied to cocksure boasts and violent speech. No, here the speaker deals with emotional weights, broken bodies and the idea that “sweet is sweet in any language” (line 39). Hoagland’s ability to oscillate between the boisterous and the sweetly sad nostalgic embodies the place where the late-20th century man finds himself.

 

Another poem that enacts the quieter aspects of filial identity is “Beauty,” in which the speaker negotiates his response to his sister’s sickness—both the physical illness that overtakes her body and the emotion jaundice she experiences as she performs her own gendered identity. The physical aspect is haunting, as the speaker notes:

“After all those years

of watching her reflection in the mirror,

sucking in her stomach and standing straight,

she said it was a relief,

being done with beauty,” (lines 6-10)

 

Listening to his sister’s confession of the charade, the speaker sees this painful self-awareness rob her, again, of her beauty, “sucking/ the peach out of her lips,/ making her cute nose seem, for the first time,/ a little knobby” (lines 13-16). But her self-awareness isn’t the only thing that causes the speaker to reflect. He considers his own experience, watching her learn to be a woman, “the year in high school/ she perfected the art/ of being a dumb blond” (18-20). There is remorse in the tone, the realization that the speaker has been party to her transformation by not intervening. By the last line, the speaker has asserted himself; when all the other men—and the world—have abandoned his sister, it is the speaker, while watching her shrug off the weight of her physical appearance, of expectation, of her long history with the disinterested men, who proclaims: “That, too, was beautiful” (line 54). The beauty of this poem is not the physical appearance of any one individual, but the suspension of masculinity in favor of speaking up for the speaker’s sister in a way that he realizes he should have done years earlier.

 

This book’s greatest strength lies in the way the male speakers talk their way through their varied masculinities. From the immature, oppressive posturing of the boy-men to the empty barbaric yawps of the manly-men to quiet reflection of the speakers who contemplate the women in their lives, these men are under constant revision. It’s the 20th century writ small, writ wittily through verse that reads like a conversation with an old friend who tells stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, often inappropriate, but always thoughtful and painfully honest.

 

Work Cited

Sagan, Miriam. “Interview with Tony Hoagland.” Santa Fe Poetry 11 Nov. 2003. 12 Sept. 2005

 

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