Turn Up the Ocean
reviewed on September 14, 2023
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that Tony Hoagland’s Turn Up the Ocean released to muted acclaim back in July of 2022, since which time the only outlets to review it, as far as I can tell, have been Terrain.org and two journals blissfully naïve, it would appear, to the culture wars in which Hoagland mired himself: Library Journal and School Librarian.
One has to wonder, though, at the lack of publicity afforded the book by Graywolf Press, who seem to have preferred to usher Hoagland offstage without incident rather than remind audiences that they are, in fact, his publisher. I would love to be corrected in this assumption. The fact, however, that so committed a Hoagland follower as myself—one of the few American poets to defend him in print—missed the publication of the book suggests that Graywolf opted in this instance to discharge their obligation, salve their own conscience, and move on.
But I do not want to asperse.
His last, Turn Up the Ocean is hardly Hoagland’s greatest book—how could it be?
Written in the final months before his death from pancreatic cancer, the collection ranges widely in subject matter while maintaining the wry observational mode—adjacent to the Ultra Talk of Mark Halliday, for instance—on which Hoagland built his reputation as a poet. In poems on everything from Spring Break and school shootings to traffic, oncology wards, and interfaith airport chapels, Turn Up the Ocean offers more or less similar takes on the “situational” or “observational” lyric, wherein the situation in which Hoagland’s speaker finds himself is identified early on and returned to toward the poem’s close. “Now that I’ve bought a machine that plays noises recorded from nature,” Hoagland announces in the book’s title poem, “I can have […] Sonorous Ocean / at the push of a button, […] all the comfort I ever wanted." Predictably, Hoagland concludes that poem with the pledge, at once resigned and recalcitrant, that he is “going to turn up the ocean.”
Hoagland, we know, imagined this collection as a chapbook, so one might forgive Ocean its occasional flat-footedness.
Far more effective, though, are those poems that veer or turn in unexpected directions from their founding situation. “[Y]ou have to be arrested to really find out what it is,” Hoagland writes in “Squad Car Light,” only to reorient himself—dizzyingly, dazzlingly—a few stanzas later: “This was the light that splashed the leaves / that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.” In such moments, Hoagland is the Hoagland of old, his whiplash redirections tracking a restless intellect and evincing an ambitious rhetorical reach.
Equally compelling in Turn Up the Ocean is the tonal range through which Hoagland moves, veering between irony and pathos in ways that register thematically in the poems themselves. “You have arrived at the edge of the world,” he writes in the poem “Gorgon,” “where the information wind howls incessantly // and you stand in your armor made of irony / with your sword of good intentions raised—”. Transparent self-portraiture, the moment—Hoagland as contemporary Byronic hero—serves as a kind of thesis for the collection as a whole, which tests the psychic and aesthetic limitations of irony when confronted with that ultimate limitation: death.
Turn Up the Ocean returns to—if doesn’t quite refine—many of the strengths Hoagland tapped across his career, from the ability to lift the trash of American life into something like radiance to the acerbic critique of late-capitalist simulacral bombardment. There is something both horrifying and sublime, for instance, in the image of “the feeder roads and interstates / from high above, at night, rhinestoned and seething,” just as there is a jarring frankness in the first line of a poem called “The Reason He Brought His Gun to School”: “Well, what the fuck did you expect?”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Turn Up the Ocean, though, is a powerful rhetorical obliquity new to Hoagland’s repertoire, a technique involving statements nearly direct but aslant, it seems to me, at magnificent angle. “His character was a fraction,” he writes in the previously mentioned poem, “of evangelist radio / divided by a flock of high-school girls / in tank tops." Similarly, the last poem in the book, “Peaceful Transition,” looks forward to an ecological apocalypse from which Hoagland himself will be spared, offering an original—indeed striking—take on well-worn subject matter. “I am hoping the humans will be calm in their diminishing,” he writes. “It is important that we expire. / It is a kind of work we have begun in order to complete.” The passage almost makes one proud, I think, of our species’ wanton recklessness.
As in “Peaceful Transition,” Turn Up the Ocean seems to gather the technical threads of Hoagland’s career while looking forward, as if through a veil, into another mode of existence, one which charges the book with a permeating mystical current.
Hoagland taps that current, and—if I might mix my metaphors—peers across that veil in the late poem “Homework,” in which the speaker endeavors to fix the apron of a basement door, glancing backward and forward at once.
“Sometimes I think I’m not really qualified for this job,” he writes in the mode of ars poetica.
And then, at the doorway: “About beauty, I am not prepared to say.”