Tony Hoagland (1953 – 2018) was a witty and acerbic poet from North Carolina. Many awards. Some great and demonically intense poems. Here goes:
If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.
Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.
Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.
Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,
amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.
And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.
If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy
because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.
What a poem! What a rendition of a crooked relationship with a mother! The power struggle, inversed at the end of the mother’s life made visible the cruelty that was. For me, it is very hard to imagine my mother as an enemy. I lost her early in life. My mother, and my mother figure, was hit by a bus when she was 53 and I, 24. Okay, that explains the feeling in my stomach when I read Tony’s acerbic words. But he entitles his poem ‘lucky’. The luck of closure perhaps, I’ve never known.
The imagery is so vivid. “Childish skeleton”, “sorry ruin of her flanks”, “frayed gray cloud between her legs”, “creature mouth” – one does not surpass that.
The luck consists in symmetry, we learn half way the poem, my heavy debt of punishment and love / with love and punishment. The terms are inversed – it happens on his terms now. The rhyme of tub and stop (was he about to put her in the tub or get her out?). The inversion of the terms means everything. The sensations of power and weakness are now present in the room and understood. That is as good as it gets. What enables us to get so such rapport is the recourse to our more animalistic nature, in the case of this poem the tastebuds. They are still working fine and warrant the bond that could during most of the mother’s life only be lived with a negative emotional charge.
Sweet is sweet in any language. How comforting that sounds at the end of such a poem.
In an interview mr. Hoagland says:
It’s a disservice to readers and poetry not to seek lucid contact with those darker facets of life. Poetry can speak from the shadow to the psyche; life obliges us to be uncomfortable, and to form new stances. […] Staying alive is about the perpetuation of curiosity, and there’s always something new to be curious about.