for John and Joe

The blue-grey steeples of the pines,
the lake’s cold oval: our perception of these shapes
makes us particularly human.
Like tourists living on the shore
of what really matters, we can lean back
and say “These clouds are marble quarries.”
or, “Life would be much simpler
if people were like birds.”
And sometimes, between the thick brushstrokes
of what we plan to see,
we glimpse the thing itself:
the water sliding down its description.

Our broad disagreement
on the nature of god
must make him very happy
when he returns, late at night,
to eavesdrop from the dark just off the porch–
to us, tossing marked cards at
an imaginary hat,
and telling stories to stay warm:
how the sparrows got into the stars
and ate them up like breadcrumbs,
or about the man who was so perverse
he ended each relationship
just when it was perfect.

If there’s no future in the dark
I think that it increases
the value of just sitting here,
getting drunk on talk.
You can’t ignore the dark, for god’s sake
or argue against faith.
The porch swing creaks its old tune,
“Maybe. Maybe Not”,
and discussion ends like this–
each voice shoving off into the silence
like men in boats;
as if they were certain of their fates,
or had chosen their indifference.
But now the silence has a different shape.

Tony Hoagland

Born on November 19, 1953, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Tony Hoagland authored witty, poingnant poems that comment on contemporary American life and culture.

His books of poetry include Unincorporated Personas in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf Press, 2010); What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Donkey Gospel (1998), which received the James Laughlin Award; and Sweet Ruin (1992), chosen by Donald Justice for the 1992 Brittingham Prize in Poetry and winner of the Zacharis Award from Emerson College.

Hoagland’s other honors and awards include two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the O. B. Hardison Prize for Poetry and Teaching from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the 2008 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers magazine, as well as the Poetry Foundation’s 2005 Mark Twain Award in recognition of his contribution to humor in American poetry.

In 2002, the American Academy of Arts and Letters praised the poet’s work with a citation stating, “Tony Hoagland’s imagination ranges thrillingly across manners, morals, sexual doings, kinds of speech both lyrical and candid, intimate as well as wild.”

He taught at the University of Houston and Warren Wilson College. He died of pancreatic cancer on October 23, 2018.