Skip to main content

Poetry Chronicle An Extravagant Three: New Poetry By Mitchell, Hoagland, and Gallagher

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993

Critics of the overall quality of contemporary American poetry have it that workshop-induced mediocrity prevails. And, of course, they are right, in part. . . . Many M. F. A. programs do ratify mediocrity both in erudition and composition; little magazines are overstocked with poems that wear on their sleeves a timid predictability and slackness of craft. But need we say there are, as there have always been, individual talents who will not be held back no matter what their training. And the undeniable, economicallydetermined fact remains that almost every really considerable talent at work in poetry today has either graduated from or now works in a college writing program. Certainly the three poets under consideration, Susan Mitchell, Tony Hoagland, and Tess Gallagher cannot be accused of timidity or failure of ambition. Their new books are marked by a cultivated wildness, by energetic risk-taking, by an extravagance of language or vision that sets them apart.

Susan Mitchell’s Rapture (Harper Collins, $22. 00 hardback) has a title that freelances somewhere on the border between chutzpah and hubris. Rapture—with its violent etymological links to seizure, rape, and the rapacious—has also the sublimated denotation of noble, vaunting transport. No book or person could continuously maintain such a state and Mitchell is wise not to try; instead, she writes in a great flowing, ebullient, praiseful style, full of leaps and ravenings after unmediated vision. At frequent enough moments her poems not only proclaim but embody rapture. And when they do not, they still make us happily concur with Longinus on the sublime: a flawed grandeur is indeed preferable to meticulous mediocrity.

The major metaphor in the book is song: bird song, human song, and a figurative, Stevensian sense of poetry as celebrating the music of what happens. There is an enlivening tension in the work between a reigning urge for something transpersonal and yet avowedly idiosyncratic, between the desire to be an unstoppered valve for energies percolating through the urban, the literary, and the natural worlds and another desire to create a wholly imagined counter-world of pure play. The wonderful opening poem, “Havana Birth” is Mitchell’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” concerning not a literal but a figurative birth. Confident her child is upstairs, the speaker’s mother is having dresses altered in her home. Actually, however, the child is out adventuring in a park in Havana. The bold girl is so young, so oceanically naive, she assumes the world’s desires to be her own. Thus she is confident that a pigeon she wants to hold will simply land in her hands like a manna-filled blossom. When it does not, she is jumped by a recognition of unbridgeable otherness, and right then the music of the world begins to penetrate her being. Just before that happens, the speaker anticipates her fortunate fall in a lively way that identifies song as a fundamental energy of being:

I was about to be born, I was about to have my hair combed in the new music everyone was singing. The dressmaker sang it, her mouth filled with pins. The butcher sang it and wiped blood on his apron. Mother sang it and thought her body was leaving her body.

Her discovery, as she sees in retrospect, is that song is not just an airy chirp “made of feathers” or even a rhythm continuous with her desire but is, instead, something urgent and necessary to fill the rift between what we want and what we will get. Conceived in this way, song is not disposable or forgettable; it is “tough as a branch” and like a branch it “grow[s] with the singer and singer’s delight.”

So for Mitchell, delight is fierce and does not typically come from caressing the obviously caressable or singing the obviously tuneful. In “Hotel by the Sea,” an emotionally anesthetized musician is sleepwalking through his piano riffs; meanwhile, his piano is longing for more life, be it the good, the bad, or the ugly. The poem consists mainly of a vigorously inventive catalogue of the piano’s polymorphous desires:

baggy and flab and carry tuna sandwiches to work in brown paper. It wants to dress up in sequins and eat fried fish. It wants to suck its fingers and flick ashes into the ocean. And it wants to squeeze into a single note, a silvery tube, and hold its breath.

In short, the piano wants transport; it would embrace the transcendental as well as the descendental, the sublime and the counter-sublime, as long as they have tang and vitality. As with Whitman, the urge to be absorptive sometimes leads Mitchell’s persona to imbibe too much and to become selfintoxicated as opposed to dramatizing intoxication. And there are junctures—for example, the poem entitled “Rapture”— where rapture is merely putative. But these moments, given her extravagant aspirations, are rare. Even her dauntingly long poems are studded with wonderful moments. In “Cities,” which lasts nine pages, she hits an especially witty stride in a section about the longing for the elemental or vulgar homonyms that are hidden in other words:

I want something else in my mouth. . . .

I want something other the cough in coffee and the cawf in cough the dog in doggerel and dawg in dog, not god

but gawd. Forget gaudy, forget gaudeamus igitur. I want the gutter in guttural and syllables like crates loaded onto barges rusted, planks swollen, gangrenous, bitter as iodine and its ignominies, the conglomerates stuffed into my mouth before my tongue was pulled out by the roots, I want my crooked teeth,   language before orthodontia, the sounds unbarred. . . .

And on she swaggers, pushing the catalogue at times almost into jazzy shorthand then bringing it back towards the golden mean with lyrical description.

Mitchell almost everywhere keeps in mind that poetry should please us with a fine excess. In “Wave” she is in a particularly playful, Stevensian mood. Looking out over the Atlantic, she willfully and outrageously colors it with tropes. She sees a violet expanse incised with swelling, breathing green stripes in which the sun is “encaged like a canary.” But having painted this undulating surreal canvas, she turns on it puckishly:

If that’s too difficult to visualize, think of a green grape inside lime Jell-O, the frigid cafeteria air, the iced celery, the chartreuse translucency your are about to take into your mouth. Its palpitations.

Orality and liquidity flow through her poems like desire. In “Wave” she goes on to rhapsodize about water sparkling like “rhinestone drumsticks” above its “purpurate / empurpling into which I yearn / violently to be dipped” so as to rub against the “ink pads of the ocean” and “feel the scratch of floating sargasso.” She stops long enough to add almost cheerfully that her appetite is “impossible to gratify,” but that does not stop her purple, lime, and tangerine careening through a mental seascape.

One particularly daring and extreme envisioning of the axiom that meditation and water are wedded forever occurs near the end of the volume, in “From a Book of Prophets,” a three-part poem, the first section of which begins with a redaction, reminiscent of Pound’s, of an Anglo Saxon text, in this case, a West Saxon scribe’s version of what Jonah says, after he returns to land:

Blown through the knothole, the tophole, the hole in its   head with the fat of whale on my hands and knees with whale blubber sticking to me

Out of the gut maze, lifted up, drawn forth I speak now through the jaw of the whale, through bone, baleen, teeth not my teeth where the whale breath wheezes, words whistle and sing—

I who swam in whale blood, bedded in the divine clots where the darkness rises and sets knowing nothing of whale

Losing the word for water, I swam Losing the word for breath, I sang Losing the word for deep, I fell headfirst beating

The Jonah section of the poem ends here, fusedly and confusedly in the middle of a fall; Mitchell thus puts the emphasis not on coming back to preach obedience to god but on the liberating derangement of the plunge into the destructive element. Mitchell, a language-loving poet, nonetheless wants to leave us with the thought that the prophet’s renewal began only after language, with all of its distancing, collapsed. Jonah swims then sings and sinks even as he is being swallowed. If this scribe’s version does actually exist, we can see why Mitchell chose to make it new. It has to do with transport of the most extreme sort, not just being beyond words, or being beside or beyond oneself, but actually being in the belly of leviathan. The evocation of Jonah’s persistence through a rite of rapturous unknowing is itself rapturous, something really extraordinary and paradigmatic of Mitchell’s oceanic arena of aspiration, wherein the self becomes the other, the knowing and the unknowing are wrapped together in a bipolar unity, and the desire for unmediated vision is, paradoxically, imagined convincingly within the mediations of language.

In his own way, Tony Hoagland is just as extravagant as Mitchell. Hoagland, a poet with a cult following among his peers, has finally won, after three chapbooks, a prize, the Brittingham, for his first full-length book, Sweet Ruin (Wisconsin $14. 50 cloth, $9. 95 paper). With a gift for hyperbolic simile, a penchant for the vernacular, Hoagland writes an edgier, and darker poetry than Mitchell. But the poems are as funny as they are edgy, borrowing heavily as they do from the rollicking and anarchic energies of adolescence. Even as it records the dark and self-destructive aspects of growing up on a diet of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, Sweet Ruin succeeds in its project of salvaging the energy of youthful wildness and defiance for the uses of mature, if bedeviled, understanding.

A master of beginnings, Hoagland typically starts a poem off with a mixture of manic flamboyance, wild tropes, and a sure, quick-paced sense of dramatic timing, as for example the outset of “Paradise”:

When my dear zooms off In her smart grey tweed, All shoulderpads and scimitar lapels For a thoroughly executive evening At the office,

The kiss she leaves imprinted on my lips Glows with exactly the smudged glow Of the smouldering peach clouds Above the bay.

It’s a late-model Sunset, slung low On the corporate skyline In a turn-of-the-century city Thriving on illusions—see how they wink & advertise themselves—

The landscape in this poem is comically or satirically seen as transmogrified by commerce. In ersatz harmony, lipstick matches the clouds above the sunset, which in turn resembles a sexy sports car. In another poem, Hoagland’s speaker worries that his attention span may have been permanently damaged by too much television, but the fact is his poems are compelling partly because at his back he hears the TV’s siren wail of desire drawing near, reminding him he has to be really interesting and vivid if he hopes to hold common readers’ attention long enough to tease them beyond conventions of mass-media which he mimes in order to critique. So his poems begin with a jet-assisted roar which then modulates as the poem moves into orbit in the upper atmosphere of lyrical, or philosophical meditation. Sometimes the high energy beginnings, like youth, are hard to outlive and so end up overshadowing the subsequent reflections. But when the transitions are handled well, as they often are, the results are galvanic. Youth and wisdom combine in a volatile, high energy cocktail.

It is something of a paradox, though, that Hoagland’s poems are as enjoyable as they are, given the burden of their themes. While there is plenty of romance, sexiness, and humor in Sweet Ruin, the metaphor of ruin is all too germane. The persona in these poems is often his own worst enemy, stove in by the very adolescence that buoys him up. The poems often explore masculine dilemmas, how males put a lid of silence on their interior lives, deny them, and then isolate themselves from one another out of homophobia and reductive definitions of strength. America is figured forth in a parallel fashion: in nomadic flight, boisterous, self-deceived, heedless, emotionally immature, and bent on squandering love, nature, and peace of mind. The counter forces at work are humor, male friendship, and moments of communion with nature and between the sexes. The central theme is loss and the governing critical vision is highly romantic and anti-institutional, and thus very much in the vein of classic American literature, as much reminiscent of Mark Twain as Frank O’Hara.

The volume begins with a series of poems about lighting out for the territory ahead, about traveling as a self-exiling, though exhilarating, fool’s paradise. The presence of pain, particularly of ruptured relationships, looms very much in the foreground. As a result we are grateful for the extravagant, Mercutio-like metaphorical play that aims to win something back from the stark divestitures which dog the poet like persistent nightmares. There is a sense of pressure in the poems, pressure to be going, to leave things behind, which the poems barely mitigate. These poems are momentary stays against the inevitability of a departure which they alternately mourn and affirm as inevitable for growth.

Nowhere is the poet’s basic outlook more explicitly adumbrated than in the opening poem, “Perpetual Motion,” whose first two stanzas read:

In a little while I’ll be drifting up an on-ramp, sipping coffee from a styrofoam container, checking my gas gauge with one eye and twisting the dial of the radio with the fingers of my third hand, looking for a station I can steer to Saturn on. It seems I have the traveling disease again, an outbreak of that virus celebrated by the cracked lips of a thousand blues musicians—song about a rooster and a train track, a sunrise and a jug of cherry cherry wine.

As with Susan Mitchell’s opening poem, “Havana Birth,” song figures in Hoagland’s “Perpetual Motion” as a way of mediating loss and celebrating the pleasures of merely being. Both poems are jaunty. But Mitchell’s main character is a pre-adolescent discoverer, and the poem elides emphasis on pain and separation in favor of celebrating the participation mystique. For all its hip invocation of “cherry, cherry wine,” Hoagland’s moment of highway ecstasy is soon overcome by an upbraiding parental voice who critiques the very heart out of the adventure of the open road:

In a little while the radio will almost have me convinced that I am doing something romantic, something to do with “freedom” and “becoming” instead of fright and flight into an anonymity so deep it has no bottom.

That voice, that judge, both deliver an important antiromantic corrective, and also rains unjoyfully on his parade. However daring, a Hoagland poem is never far from the “masculine tickertape of leaves / [that] whisper judgmentally above you.”

Perhaps the wittiest and most poignant appearance of that critical voice occurs in the poem “My Country.” The leavetaking in this poem is metaphorical, entailing an abandonment of principles in favor of the pursuit of immediate gratification through adultery. The selfish act is hyperbolically, indeed outrageously, identified by Hoagland’s speaker as implying something essential about the way things happen in America:

When I think of what I know about America, I think of kissing my best friend’s wife in the parking lot of the zoo one afternoon.

just over the wall from the lion’s cage.

It was a kind of patriotic act, pledging our allegiance to the pleasure and not the consequence.

While the poem seems to imply that adultery, certainly a global phenomenon, is somehow quintessentially American, the deepest emphasis of the poem is actually on radical loss; it is about squandering something precious, irretrievable, when desire overpowers a person’s sense of moral consequences. The beauty and the tension of the poem stems from the way mature reflection alternates with and is undercut by libidinous transgression:

                    Over her shoulder I could see the sun, burning palely in the winter sky and I thought of my friend, who always tries

to see the good in situations-—how an innocence like that shouldn’t be betrayed. Then she took my lower lip between her teeth,

I slipped my hand inside her shirt and felt my principles blinking out behind me like streetlights in a town where I had never

lived, to which I never intended to return.

And who was left to speak of what had happened? And who would ever be brave, or lonely,

or free enough to ask?

There is a wonderful celerity of tonal change here that moves without blinking from the unironic voice of conscience, to an almost surreal, farcical perspective wherein sexual touch corresponds with switching off the street lights in the town of one’s principles, to the bereft concluding questions which are proffered in a very different, suddenly serious, emotionally stranded, querulously sad and lonely register. The concluding passage echoes key words from the conclusion of the National Anthem. But here “the land of the free and the home of the brave” seems part of a lost world, the world of principles sacrificed on the altar of pleasure.

The darkest poem in the book, “Emigration,” shows that Hoagland’s gift for metaphor does not always result in humor. It concerns a long illness which is experienced by the victim as a form of forced travel, coerced emigration:

Try being sick for a year, then having that year turn into two, until the memory of your health is like an island going out of sight behind you

and you sail on in twilight. . . .

until the very sky seems pharmaceutical, and the faces of the doctors are your stars whose smile or frown means to hurry and get well or die.

This conceit of an involuntary night sail captures our childlike vulnerability to the enveloping nature of pain and disease, the way it usurps the familiar world and replaces it with a restricted set of landmarks all referring to one thing, illness. Finally it is the sheer, inexorable persistence of the voyage that is most terrifying, and tiring:

  you stop wanting to make love because there is no love in you.

only a desire to be done. But you’re not done. Your bags are packed and you are traveling.

This is the forced march of an injured body. And this is the darkest register of Hoagland’s master conceit of life as travel. It is good that the note is struck here in such an unalloyed tone of grim, straight-faced reportage. It reminds us that there are places in the soul where humor offers no bridge to transcendence. But the wit in the poem, as chiefly evidenced in its carefully construed extended metaphor of travel, is the verbal equivalent of human resiliency, or the capacity of the spirit to establish vantages above the dust.

Language as an analogue and enabler of human resiliency in the face of tragedy is everywhere evident in the work of Tess Gallagher. In a prophetic essay published in 1984, “The Poem as a Reservoir for Grief,” Gallagher meditates on her flood subject, grieving, which she praises because it “allows us to value fully those events, those people who are irreplaceable.” In what she sees as a brutally practical, now-oriented America, poetry becomes a way to “bring one’s loss into communion with other deaths and mythic elements which enlarge the view of solitary death.” Gallagher goes so far as to imagine poems of grief as providing a kind of “live-in church” which we might enter to transform our grief. When Gallagher’s husband, the writer Raymond Carver, died before his time, her essay on grief changed; it now reads as an uncanny apology for her greatest achievement, Moon Crossing Bridge (Graywolf Press, $17. 00 cloth, $10. 00 paper), a book of elegies and meditations on the experience of her husband’s death and his afterlife in her heart.

In this great-souled, reckless, boundary-crossing book, Gallagher’s grief overflows the resevoir. It reads as if Rilke, Whitman, and a platoon of Zen Buddhists had guided her onto the moonlit bridge of the title, suspending her there between love and nothingness so that she might sing songs of sumptuous destitution. The book’s imaginative fecundity, its seemingly unquenchable commitment to all the nuances of loss, its singular obsessiveness, all work to set it apart. Her love, talent, and emotional predispositions have begotten a book like no other.

The opening poem, “Yes,” is one of many in which she directly speaks to her late husband. Invoking as she often does the influence of Buddhism, she tells him they have become like the “cone of sand / in the garden of the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto / designed to appear only in moonlight.” This said, she asks him a rhetorical either/or question: does he want her to mourn and wear black or does he want her to shimmer like the sand in moonlight? The answer is that she must do both.

Her mourning is characterized by a commitment to open herself utterly to its every allurement. In different poems, she describes keeping her late husband three nights in the house, talking to him all one night, oiling his feet. After he is buried she makes frequent visits to his grave site in all kinds of weather, wears an egg-shaped path around his grave to keep warm while talking to him, kisses the earth and in other ways goes beyond where she can go, violating at times both her rational and her religious commitments:

                   I believe what I don’t believe in the way of true apparitions—that he uses my longing to call himself to me, that my senses are inhabited like the log into which a bear has crawled to dream winter away.

The bear image implies her mate might be hibernating in her, awaiting a return. Although she does not consciously believe this, the feeling is understandable given that she is haunted not so much by his absence as by his presence.

Although she accepts the sundering—in Moon Crossing Bridge, there is almost no self-pity and not a single o-why-me? —the fact remains she is infatuated, occasionally to the point of bedevilment, with the phenomenon of his continence. The difference, living and dead, between his influence on her is “silk-thin.” In fact, as both the title and the poem “Now that I Am Never Alone” declare, his influence has increased since his death. In the poem, even the sight of a stranded moth is enough to remind her of her husband. The speaker is showering, looks up and sees a brown moth “pressed like a pair of unpredictable lips / against the white wall.” This triggers a memory of her husband pouring spring water down her neck, an act she remembers so clearly it ceases being memory and becomes pure presence, a presence that she describes as

                    Beautiful mischief. that stills a moment so I can never look back. Only now, brightest now, and the water never hot enough to drive that shiver out.

This is the extravagance that Gallagher realizes so well in this volume: expressing the pressure of memories so great that they swallow the present. Death displaces the convenient perspectives and distances by which we organize our experience, creates a subjective omnipresence.

In an epigraph to the second section, she quotes from a letter, presumably of condolence, “If we believe in the soul, then perhaps we have more in common with the dead than the living.” And that commonality means that every gesture of farewell is a way of continuing the relationship. One of the most powerful of these poems of leavetaking-undone-by-longing is “Un Extrano.” Of all the poems which explore the paradox that her husband’s death has amplified her experience of their love, this is the most daring, the most erotically charged. The poem begins with an artfully cadenced catalogue of genesis, of what continues to begin despite death:

Light begins. Snow begins. A rose begins to unhinge its petals. Sleep begins. An apple lets go of its branch. Someone tells a secret like an echo wrapped around a shadow, a shadow soaked in love. . . … . . The heart begins its savage journey towards love and loss of love. But you, you don’t begin. I stare at your hand on my breast. Their dialogue is the wingless strength of the stem bearing its flower in rain, in sun.

Partway through this opening stanza, the poem turns from what is apparently a third person catalogue into an intimately addressed love poem to a dead man who, very strangely, seems to be holding out his hand to touch her. Is this just imagined or has the speaker, just moments after her spouse’s death, impulsively clasped his arm to her bosom? Is it something even stranger? This disturbing ambiguity hangs in the air even as the poem moves on to contrast the intensity of their bond to that of “loveless lovers” who are unaware that “to begin is to agree / to live among half-forces, to shine only when the moon shines and all is ready.” The final stanza is the most full-force of all, a Lorca-like duende in which the speaker declares her utter readiness and her utter refusal to begin lovemaking.

You make me ready but you do not begin. I let you never begin… . .           We taunt love as the bullfighter taunts death, preparing the dangerous lunge until it catches us unawares that split second in which love shudders its starkest glimpse into us. The magenta cape swirls its silk across our lips like a breath unraveled in the moment the matador kneels to the bull. My adorno, el novillito. Don’t begin. Don’t ever begin.

In this passage, shapes shift much as they do in the Inferno. The speaker compares herself and her husband to a bullfighter taunting death on the threshold of a kill. But when the sword lowers, the couple becomes the bull; the sword becomes distinctly phallic, and then the matador, who now seems to be just the speaker, addresses her husband, now the bull, in Spanish terms indicative of both love and respect. Eros and Thanatos are so thoroughly entwined that the final chant, “Don’t begin,” is spoken in a tone drenched with desire for the opposite. This is a wild and strange journey deep into the minotaur’s labyrinth. Like much of the rest of the volume, it goes beyond where it can go and comes back drenched with the unforgettable.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading