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book image What Narcissim Means to Me
Poems by Tony Hoagland
Graywolf Press
$14.00, 82 pages

Reviewed by: Steve Mueske
Book rating: 8.5 out of 10 stars

View three poems from What Narcissism Means to Me here


I must confess that Tony Hoagland is one of my favorite poets. I had the same joy of discovery reading Donkey Gospel (Hoagland's second book), as I did reading Billy Collins's The Art of Drowning and Thomas Lux's Half-Promised Land. And I'm not alone. His poetry regularly appears in some of the best literary journals in the country, including Ploughshares, 88, Indiana Review, and others. His poem, "The Time Wars," appears on the back cover of the November/ December edition of The American Poetry Review. With the release of his third book, What Narcissism Means to Me, he seems poised for even greater success. In fact, the book has already reached an enviable sales rank for poetry on

So why is his work so well liked? Well, for one thing, his poems are fun. They are, in the words of Eleanor Wilner, "playful narratives, lyric meditations, and overheard conversations...exploring the spiritual comedies of American satisfaction." His work often has an anecdotal feel, as though he were inviting us into a private conversation. Once he has our attention, the joy lies in discovering where he'll go next—and "next" is often an emotional minefield.

In this excerpt from "Dear John," for example, Hoagland begins by jarring us:
I never would have told John that faggot joke
        if I had known he was gay;
I really shot myself in the foot with that neanderthal effort
to make a first impression.

I thought he was just a skinny guy from New York City
with clean hands and allergies..."
The title is a play on "John" as one who solicits sexual favors, and it also resonates with the generic "John Doe". It begins in portraiture, the speaker deftly probing a caricature of a gay man, but makes a surprising turn ...
I don't know what he does for sex or money,
but it's taken me a decade to recognize that I love John,

[stanza omited]

On someone like that you can lavish your affection
in perfect safety—
that's nothing to be proud of, I suppose—
and yet, obscurely, I am.
This complicated idea of sexuality and friendship, of homophobia and safety rings true because it relies on our own perceptions, whether wrong or right, for effect. And the poem, like most of Hoagland's, has hilarious moments, even though they serve a larger, more serious theme.

It is this seemingly effortless mixture of human failure and comedy that makes his work so appealing. Whether the poem's speaker is buying a bad CD for an estranged brother or describing a cartoonish parade that becomes a conceit for racism, Hoagland—like Billy Collins, like Thomas Lux—gives me the feeling that he is stealing all the good ideas.

Physically, the book is divided into four sections—America, Social Life, Blues, and Luck—each loosely (and I mean loosely) governing the topics of the poems in that section. Many of the poems could just as easily move from one section to the next, the common theme being perceptions of our culture— how we relate to one another; how we view consumerism and love; how we navigate through our lives bearing our frailties and foibles through our actions—filtered through a poetic eye. Perhaps Hoagland's "Narcissistic" position is best summed by the close of "On the CD I Buy for My Brother." Here the speaker makes the comparison of life to a train (which he knows is a cliché) and is ruminating—using the lens of a singer with bad lyrics—on artistic motive: know the cargo in those boxcars is some serious business,

while the singer goes on bringing the news
                            that all the clichés are true

and the sunsets are breaking their records for beauty.

What Narcissism Means to Me is a deeply moving, funny book by one of the country's best poets.

View three poems from What Narcissism Means to Me here

Poet's Biography:
  Tony Hoagland is the author of two other books of poems, Sweet Ruin (1992) and Donkey Gospel (1998), which received the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. He has recently joined the faculty of the University of Houston, and he has taught for many years in the Warren Wilson College low-residency M.F.A. program. A book of prose about poetry, Real Sofistikashun, is near completion.

© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.