Tony Hoagland’s 2018 death from cancer hit me hard. My loss of an uncle, an aunt, my grandmother, a friend, and a beloved cousin soon followed—all this before 2020 and the historic, insurmountable loss we all share. Professors in undergrad had introduced me to Hoagland’s lupine, rhapsodic verse years earlier, and I clung to his poems in my grief. I was grateful for his loose caress of images through language reminiscent of 1970s honky-tonk and Lutheran hymns. I tell people I love him because he is a painterly writer, concerned with gesture and the palette of word choice. In truth, it’s the pining that hooks me. Hoagland wrangles bathos and nonchalance into cinematic lines of gorgeous pop, like “I like the long prairie of waiting.”
So imagine my joy when I located Turn Up the Ocean (Graywolf Press), Hoagland’s last manuscript of verse, elegantly edited and reorganized by his partner, the writer Kathleen Lee. “About beauty, I am not prepared to say,” the poem “Homework” begins. In “Peaceful Transition,” “The wind comes down from the northwest, cold in September, / and flips over the neighbor’s trash receptacles.” The book is a testament of prescient psalms from beyond the beyond. It opens with a poem called “Bible All out of Order,” in which Hoagland writes that waiting for death is like “being tossed this way and that, askew and asunder, / in this blithering whirlwind of wonder.” In “Botany,” he confesses that he has “loved them— / I mean the words— / better and more honestly / than I have ever loved a person.” (I feel this way about Grand Manner portraits sometimes.) Over and over, Hoagland returns to an elastic tool kit of metaphors: the red lights of a squad car (his complicity in his white privilege); ocean sounds (other possible lives); and the hyperobject of his gratitude, which is too vast, too wonderful, to define.
Horace D. Ballard is associate curator of American art at the Fogg/Harvard Art Museums.