Priest Turned Therapist
Treats Fear of God: Poems
Paperback: Graywolf Press, 2018
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Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
Some children, it seems, belong to secret societies. Their approaches to life suggest membership in good standing with the Future Tinkerers of America, Mini-Mechanics Guild or Tiny Troubleshooters Union. Curiosity leads these children into taking action, and taking apart perfectly good appliances to find the secret buttons or where the wires connect.
Not me. As a child, I assumed every gear and gadget had its right place and right to be undisturbed. Who was I to strip away all the magic and see how one thing led to another?
As an adult, however, my wonder about the mechanics of the world only grows. I look to my writing practice, and the words of others, to tease out connections which go unseen just beneath the front panel yet make life hum. Some writers describe; others prescribe. The most interesting take the world apart to see how it works, even if their mission ends in a shrug—or they find themselves with a bigger mess on their hands.
Tony Hoagland is this sort of writer. In his latest collection, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, the veteran poet dissects and undoes all manner of people, places and things—including his own persona—not to repair, so much as reveal.
Hoagland makes his motivations plain from his first poem. “Entangle” is an exercise in self-awareness as he acknowledges the poet’s blessing is also the poet’s burden. A sharp eye and quick mind which see past the surface to motives and connections—some firing, some frayed—can cause even the most astute writer fits. Observing a knot of plants, Hoagland writes:
The white and purple combination of these species,
one seeming to possibly be strangling the other,
one possibly lifting the other up—it would take both
a botanist and a psychologist to figure it all out,
—but I prefer not to disentangle it,
because it is more accurate (7).
Hoagland begins “A Walk Around the Property” with a declaration: “There are too many characters in this book I’m reading. I can’t keep track of them all.” Yet he puzzles after the details of their stories, which leads him to turn over and look under the rocks of his own.
How did Ellen, who hates to be touched, get pregnant?
Who is Sam in love with? Is Emily gay?
What does my neighbor do at 3 a.m., when his office light is on?
Was I wrong to think of life as work? (9)
Hoagland’s verse grows more penetrating the deeper he journeys into his own origins. The most quietly devastating poem of the lot, “Playboy,” gazes back with hindsight in an effort to understand what his mother—or his narrator’s mother—must have felt coming across her husband’s hidden-in-plain-sight cache of pornography in the family bathroom.
Maybe she wiped away a sparkle of urine
where the seat had been left down again.
Maybe she said to herself out loud,
‘Housework Times Fornication
Divided by Taken for Granted
Equals Decade of Burnt Meatloaf.’
I wish she had, but I doubt it (44).
In a more implicit—yet equally surgical way—Hoagland considers the male ego in “Dinner Guest.” There, a woman spies into the medicine cabinet of her host and finds “a bottle labeled Male Enhancement Formula” (46). Her inner monologue, hilarious and pointed, exposes the male fragility “that has caused so many wars … so many murders and exploded buildings … so many smashed-down doors and refugees.”
At his best, Hoagland writes to our time yet frees his poems from belonging to a single age. “Data Rain”—with its opening lines, “The information dam had broken in the hills, the town was flooded with information” (66)—resonates whether the poem is read as recent past, present or near future. The title and content of “Cause of Death: Fox News” provokes laughter to prevent readers from crying.
Paired together, “Ten Questions for the New Age” and “Ten Reasons Why We Cannot Seem to Make Progress” dig into our perpetual cosmic clumsiness with humor and heft. “Examples of Justice” leans into everything from schadenfreude to self-destruction and spiritual refuge.
Other poems, however, take apart a moment or Moment with unconcealed glee yet contribute little in the way of understanding or even amusement. The narrator of “Moment in the Conversation” changes his amorous course when discovering his dialogue partner is married, yet takes a glib view of the whole arrested affair.
“Hope” counters earlier poems in the set, painting Hoagland’s narrator as a curmudgeon cut from sturdier cloth, created for another time. Yet the poem, especially its opening lines, commit the sin of tired critique.
One can imagine the central figures in these poems landing on Hoagland’s list of “Good People.” The narrator is sure he knows the difference, even as he searches for proof of good somewhere beneath the skin of the painfully trite, filthy rich and literal Nazis.
Hoagland has long been willing to try on unflattering personas—revisit a poem like “Dear John” from his National Book Critics Circle Award finalist What Narcissism Means to Me. But in these instances, all the winking, nudging and grinning fail to overcome a lack of compassion or even self-parody. Usually the joke is on even the most twisted of Hoagland’s narrators; in these two poems, at least, the plot and punchline are hard to find.
Is there simply a short in Hoagland’s X-ray vision or do these characters suffer from arrested development? We leave these poems with more questions than answers and, unlike the rest of the book, they leave us worse than they found us.
Despite these few moments of pause, Hoagland leads readers to water often. “Marriage Song” connects visions of the divine and domestic. God officiates a wedding—and seems to be ad-libbing. But, being God, his remarks hit the heart’s bullseye.
He said Let them make
A gate in themselves
Through which the other can pass
And may the gate never be closed
So they can feel the truth
Of being entered (51).
Hoagland’s pen-knife is sharp throughout Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God. For all the blood, guts, scar tissue and screw-ups he reveals, he leaves readers with reasons for hope. He concludes his penultimate poem, “I Have Good News,” with this beautiful promise:
The dark ending does not cancel out
the brightness of the middle.
|Your day of greatest joy cannot be dimmed by any shame (69).
We might not always be able to find our way from Point A to Point B, or perfectly put the world back together. But proverbs like that make taking the world apart, and spreading the pieces out on the table before us, a worthy endeavor.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. His work is concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen and find more of his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites