Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty
Tony Hoagland
Graywolf Press, 2010
Review by Jeremy Benson

The poems of Tony Hoagland’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty are observations, inappropriate and subjective anthropology reports one would find scribbled and abandoned on the back of a Denny’s menu late on a Tuesday night.

Hoagland’s style has been compared to that of Billy Collins — besides their poems looking similar on the page (a long under-appreciated vein of literary criticism), both knead cultural references and humor into their work. Collins’s first-person observations are scones: dry, sweet, meant to be enjoyed with tea and chuckles. On the other hand, Hoagland writes in fruitcake, full of off-tasting wrinkly bits of the fruits of the American spirit. His poems — incredibly well designed, hilarious, and freshly baked — leave a dirty taste in the mouth, one which is no longer part of the metaphor. No wonder people go running naked into the wilderness, or sink irretrievably deep into their psyches.

Individually, each “unincorporated” poem presents despairing truths of a culture that prances in the “meadows of golden merchandise” and is stopped dead in its tracks by the “historical foghorn … designed to suppress non-categorical fraternization” between people of differing races. The poetry provokes an incredible amount of self- and cultural-awareness … (For that, it’s not recommended to eat at a buffet during or after reading.)

But when the conventions of poetry-reading are (once again) broken — the book then taken as a single cohesive entity — the over-arcing plot focuses on ‘I,’ the cynical speaker of the collection and aforementioned disgruntled ethnologist. I daydreams of meeting an ex-lover here and there, praises friends for divorcing, and observes everything but never seems to speak aloud or respond directly to others. Through this speaker, the book steps beyond a typical criticism of cable TV and fast food, and moves into an expression of loneliness — sometimes self-assumed, but never really fully desired.

In a funny way, Hoagland’s vision of the loneliness inherent in America is an invitation to draw in to the middle-ground of the human Venn diagram, to deny the distances imposed by race, history, and sex, and get to know another person.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010