Uncategorized | October 16, 2012

Did you hear about this woman who just can’t brook the look of First Lady Michelle Obama?

Lussier’s circling around the issue of, not only the objectification of women, but also otherness and blackness—it’s something else, she claims, manners, a sense of cultural change or a decay of values—reminds me of Tony Hoagland’s controversial poem “The Change,” from his 2003 collection What Narcissism Means to Me.

In Hoagland’s poem, the physicality of a black tennis star (clearly one of the Williams sisters) playing against a smaller white opponent on a t.v. arrests the speaker. Unlike Bobby Lussier, Hoagland’s speaker—fixating on African/tribalness, size, and, in particular, cornrows—does not deny that it’s a black vs. white thing.

Still, I think there’s a similar sleight-of-hand shift in logic, away from a focus on the black woman’s body (in Lussier’s case, the First Lady’s push-up toned arms), to some kind of foreboding cultural change that seems suddenly manifest. In “The Change,” this “change” seems to be something like, “farewell to the white-washed 20th century (America?), a new dawn (of blackness? threatening physical prowess?) is upon us.” The obvious disingenuousness of the poem’s Frost-like, “and that has made all the difference” ending yet fails to defang the poem’s mentality (the poem follows at the end of the post).

Last year, with the ten-year anniversary of “The Change” rolling around, Daisy Fried defended the poem on grounds of its artistic integrity. Her close-reading toys with narrator untrustworthiness but ends up admiring Hoagland’s bold honesty. I think the subtext here is something like, we’re all racists, he’s just not afraid to admit it.

How honest do we want our poems? How progressive our poets? Should poems figure our worst tendencies? Or only our best? Throwing out, for the sake of argument, narrator trustworthiness, assuming it’s the Hoag himself, what do we make of such overt, self-conscious racism? Is it more or less palatable than the oblique racism in so many canonical western writers, like Joseph Conrad or the recently-censored Mark Twain? Chinua Achebe would probably call Conrad’s racism, on the contrary, quite explicit. But you can’t exactly say Conrad knew better—not the way you must say so for Hoagland. So does that knowledge make “The Change”’s admissions more or less daring?—more daring, because of their nonconformity, or less, because of their assured polarizing sensationalism?

Hoagland aims to distinguish himself with edge. Yes, he’s accessible, loose, funny, colloquial. But meaner than your average Billy Collins. Meanness is a quality he values in other poets, and I see why, given the whimpering and truckling, the puling and whining that’s too often published and praised. As Emerson said, “Your goodness must have some edge to it, else it is none.”

But I’m just not sure all truths are equal here. Some things can be true, as in, people really think them, and in some ways, such thinking is ineradicable. Nevertheless, they are regrettable truths, with no value in poetry, which, yes, come to think of it, I suppose I’m arguing should better us. People can be selfish and petty; I don’t need poetry to act that way.

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.