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Writing Race: Tony Hoagland’s “The Change”

Dion O’Reilly

When I was in an MFA workshop, one of my teachers—on at least three occasions—  

characterized poet and essayist Tony Hoagland as a misogynist and a racist. That was not

the only time I was privy to such accusations. On another occasion a young graduate from

Bennington spied Hoagland’s National Book Award finalist, What Narcissism Means to Me, on

my desk and said something to the effect of “You read that racist bastard?” Indeed, it is difficult

to discuss Hoagland’s work without mention of his incendiary poem “The Change.” A quick

Google search brings up the heated exchange between Hoagland and his colleague Claudia

Rankine from the 2011 American Writing Programs’ conference. In an open dialogue, Rankine

accuses Hoagland of racism and asks for an explanation. He responds with a glib dismissal of her

claim and a defense of his work.

 

Hoagland died in October 2018 at sixty-four. His passing sparked a spate of tributes, but

none of the elegiac articles I read tackled the problematic nature of “The Change.” I agree with

the accolades heaped on Hoagland for his exhilarating honesty and craft, but I would like to take

a moment to examine the controversy concerning Hoagland’s “The Change.”

Let me be clear, I am a fan, and I am White. I read all of Hoagland’s books during my

MFA, wrote essays on them, studied his craft— his elastic lines, his imagery, his distinctive

voice, his ability to turn the lens on his failings. I admire how he unites the personal with the

political, how he speaks frankly about America and his own participation in its legacy. His essays

on craft are utilitarian and clever. Toward the end of his life, I marveled at his resolute

commitment to facing his decline; his final poems are existential, beautiful and sad. Moreover,

he influenced my thinking and writing. Reading his poem, “Lucky,” for example, where he

examines his relationship with his mother, helped me decipher my ambivalence about my family.

Simply put, Hoagland showed me a way to admit my complicity. Let’s look at “Lucky”:

 

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

 

to stop,

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 taste buds at least are not broken

because there is a bond between you

and sweet is sweet in any language.

 

 

I love how Hoagland’s speaker connects his transgressive delight in mildly torturing his

mother to the all-too-human tendency to rejoice in “power over weakness.” His history with his

mother is subtly portrayed. We sense a revenge-taking and the mother’s acceptance of it as

deserved— a kind of archetypal give-and-take. I love the way the speaker also treats his mother

tenderly and how the dynamic, albeit a little sadistic, is still a creature connection. Complex,

non-polar, playful— the kind of nuanced examination of relational dynamics that is often lacking

in our public and academic discourse. This poem satisfies, ultimately, because I am convinced by

his portrayal of an instinctual, albeit thorny, love. Furthermore, I am enriched by a greater

awareness of the tragedy inherent in our necessary human bonds— my vision is widened. The

depiction is more than merely shocking, it is also instructive.

 

At the final residency of my MFA, in a discussion with Kwame Dawes about Hoagland,

Dawes said this: “Hoagland thinks it’s enough to be honest about his worst thoughts, but it’s not.”

 

With that in mind, let us look at “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.

 

 

As Rankine points out, Hoagland’s speaker favors the “European blonde” over the

American. Why? Because the American is “so big/ and so black,/ so unintimidated…” He ends

his lines on “big,” “black,” and “unintimidated” as if to emphasize the narrator’s misogynist,

racist, and entitled stance. However, his statement goes deeper than racism or misogyny, it is

tribal and primitive. Hoagland’s speaker states he “couldn’t help/ wanting/the white girl to come

out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe../” In other words, Hoagland is refining

his template of who his (female) people are: compliant, slender, White and of European heritage.

Then he simply moves on. He does not question his thinking. He does not connect it in any

meaningful way to larger American or personal issues. He does not question this erroneous

notion or provide any discovery to grapple with the abhorrent disclosure.

 

So I would have to respond to Kwame’s query with, No it is not enough to simply express

vile thoughts.

 

That being said, the difficulty and necessity of admitting one’s worst presumptions

cannot be overestimated. Indeed, how many White writers are able to do it well, if at all? Very

few. We can hint at it, as Sharon Olds does in “The Subway.” But tribal thoughts are ugly and

violent; Hoagland addresses that. He dumps a doozy on us— evoking slavery, colonialism, and

genocide— when he uses the word Zulu in such a derogatory and dismissive way. He digs

deeper than Jim Crow or our current issues into the very root of domination and disdain. His

speaker sounds just as bad as a racist should. But to quote Stan Lee, “With great power comes

great responsibility.” After his powerful disclosure, Hoagland leaves the reader on a limb, he

impugns African Americans, especially women; and he does not satisfy with his ending. If I were

in a workshop with Hoagland, I would suggest he talk more about that tribal impulse, and, as Joe

Millar puts it, “keep his nets in the water” a little longer. Learn something. Teach something.

Really change. Take us deeper into this prehistoric tribal impulse that defines our species. What

in the narrator’s history makes him such a tribalist that his loyalties extend beyond nationalism?

 

Hoagland asks none of those questions. Instead, he relates that after watching the Serena

avatar defeat the tough European blonde— after watching the humiliated “little, pink judge”

place the medal around her neck…

 

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.

 

 

Ignoring the idea of putting “it back where it belonged”– which is yet another opening

for an exploration—  the truth is, we know that post-Serena and post-Obama, “we” indeed, are

not changed. Racial issues persist at the forefront of American politics. Furthermore, if the

assertion is the speaker is changed, the reader is likewise unconvinced. An astute reader knows

such blatant tribalism runs too deep for a tennis match to fundamentally change it. That’s an

absurd idea.

 

So the problem is not that the poem is racist. The problem is, although the piece

graphically describes a racial issue, it does not dissect it. The work is a strange combination of

brutally honest and facile, and, despite being honest, it is not true. If the point is insight, the

poem fails.

 

Calling Hoagland and the poem racist and misogynistic, unfortunately, ends the

conversation and does not permit greater understanding of craft as a form of well-considered,

progressive concepts. It appears that Rankine was shocked by this poem partly because she did

not previously perceive Hoagland or her workplace as racist, She was surprised at his defensive

attitude because she was “so used to everyone reassuring everyone that everyone accepted

everyone and race didn’t matter.” And, to the extent that anyone can be not-racist, I would assert

that, most likely, Hoagland was not-racist— that he was sincerely attempting to say something

important about race. However, craftsman that he was, why didn’t he work toward a peripeteia?”

Why didn’t he provide a true revelation?

 

If his detractors had raised that question, perhaps the conversation would have been more

edifying and less divisive. Still, I can understand why African Americans would not feel a

responsibility to school Tony about his insulting prosody. But as a White writer and an admirer

of Hoagland, I’m saying the following: As difficult as it is, let’s speak our shameful truth. Like

Hoagland, let’s speak it with clarity and power, but let’s not pretend that is enough.

 

 

 

 

Dion O’Reilly's poetry appears or is forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Rattle, The Sun, Canary Magazine, Spillway, Bellingham Review, Atlanta Review, Catamaran, and a variety of other literary journals and anthologies, including an upcoming Lambda Literary Anthology. Her work has been nominated for Pushcarts, the Intro Journals Project, and was sent to the judges for The Folio Literary Journal Poetry Contest and the Peseroff Prize.