Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland



Most great celebrations, like my daughter’s wedding last month, begin long before the celebration itself. Yards of cotton chosen years ago, to be turned into a quilt. Endless bottles of vodka turned into homemade gin, enough for 180 miniature party favors. Evenings with my daughter and a letterpress kit, hand-stamping each letter of each name of each place card.

Early mornings, late nights: hand-stitching, hand-stamping, hand-steeping juniper and cardamom. Moment after moment in which I thought about how much I love both my girl and her now-husband. Nothing was hurried. Everything took time, time, time, and every moment of it was a reminder that, among our endless rushing, time itself is an act of love.

The Word, by Tony Hoagland

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.


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Words by Winter: my podcast

Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland

IMG_0325A couple of months ago I hurt a friend when I pushed a semi-joke too far. The friend didn’t say anything or change expression, but I went to bed uneasy. Despite the Painter’s assurances that he had noticed nothing and all was well, my gut said otherwise. I woke up and sent an apology, the gracious acceptance of which proved that my gut was right.  In the weeks since, shame and sadness keep bubbling up in their familiar way. How many times a day do you feel like a failure? I once asked the Painter. All day every day, he answered, to which I nodded.

Four years ago, on a whim, I sat down at my dining table and hand-wrote myself a letter titled “Letter to Self.” Dear Alison, it began, here are some things you did in 2015. The letter is a simple bulleted list, but each entry, such as loved your children and stayed in good shape despite plantar fasciitis, holds within it an arc of emotion and effort and accomplishment. I hadn’t looked at the letter since I wrote it, nor the subsequent letters I wrote to myself in 2016 and 2017, but I read it again just now. Everything I tried to do that year came rushing back over me, along with a deep sense of being just one of a long line of humans who are all just trying. Which brings me to this beautiful farewell poem by Tony Hoagland. Its ending lines, which I had to read twice to understand were not an admonition but a gentle acknowledgment to himself that he had been a good man who should have been kinder to himself, brought me to tears.

 

Distant Regard, by Tony Hoagland

If I knew I would be dead by this time next year
I believe I would spend the months from now till then
writing thank-you notes to strangers and acquaintances,
telling them, “You really were a great travel agent,”
or “I never got the taste of your kisses out of my mouth.”
or “Watching you walk across the room was part of my destination.”
It would be the equivalent, I think,
of leaving a chocolate wrapped in shiny foil
on the pillow of a guest in a hotel–
“Hotel of earth, where we resided for some years together,”
I start to say, before I realize it is a terrible cliche, and stop,
and then go on, forgiving myself in a mere split second
because now that I’m dying, I just go
forward like water, flowing around obstacles
and second thoughts, not getting snagged, just continuing
with my long list of thank-yous,
which seems to naturally expand to include sunlight and wind,
and the aspen trees which gleam and shimmer in the yard
as if grateful for being soaked last night
by the irrigation system invented by an individual
to whom I am quietly grateful.
Outside it is autumn, the philosophical season,
when cold air sharpens the intellect; 
the hills are red and copper in their shaggy majesty.
The clouds blow overhead like governments and years.
It took me a long time to understand the phrase “distant regard,”
but I am grateful for it now,
and I am grateful for my heart,
that turned out to be good, after all;
and grateful for my mind,
to which, in retrospect, I can see
I have never been sufficiently kind.

For more information about Tony Hoagland, please read his obituary.

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Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland

img_6112Q: Does writing about hard things ever make you agitated and upset, so that you have to walk away from the writing and regain your equilibrium?

A: Nope. Life is what’s hard. Writing is always solace.

This exchange took place in a university undergraduate creative writing class a couple of weeks ago. Writing is how I translate all the emotion and experience of living into something that’s bigger than me. It’s a means of transcendence, a way to push away all that hugeness and also absorb it. To make a connection with other human beings you don’t know and have never met.

So is reading, poetry especially. For decades Tony Hoagland’s work has been solace. It’s like he saw into my heart and wrote poems meant just for me, even though he was beloved by so many. I meant to write him a letter this fall, telling him how much he means to me, but he died last week, so my letter will never be written. Don’t take it personal, they said; but I did, I took it all quite personal– Oh Tony, I’m so sad you’re gone.

 

Personal, by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal—

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain—
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

 

 

I’ve sent out many Tony Hoagland poems in the past, and I could send out Tony Hoagland poems every week for a year; that’s how much I loved him. For more poems by Tony, please click here.

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