The Operating System and Liminal Lab


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There are books of poetry that have played large parts in periods of my life, the call and response of certain life events or challenges. The book that has remained closest to me throughout has been Tony Hoagland’s Sweet Ruin. The collection was Hoagland’s first, published in 1992 when he was in his late thirties. From the very first poem Hoagland presents a disruptive mirror—I startle when I see myself reflected in the harsh light his honesty sheds.
[box]In a little while the radio will
almost have me convinced
that I am doing something romantic,
something to do with “freedom” and “becoming’
instead of fright and flight into
an anonymity so deep
it has no bottom,
only signs to tell you what direction
you are falling in:
(from “Perpetual Motion”)
Hoagland confronts me. He won’t let either of us leave again, without admitting that it is becoming more than habit, the same manner of repetition that can lead a river to create a canyon without addressing the impact. There’s a terrifying comfort in embracing the coping mechanism of adventure. Yes, we mask it in ideas that seem appropriate and enlightened like freedom and becoming. However, the action is the legacy. And the consequences led the adventurer to points and places that were never destinations. They are just where you find yourself. As Hoagland locates, “I am here—/ here where the desire to vanish/ is stronger than the desire to appear.
Hoagland is unrelenting throughout the collection. Every poem he admits something difficult and broken. More, he pulls those confessions out of the reader by creating moments for recognition and self-awareness. These are the impulses behind our actions.
[box]It’s seen my kind
a million times before
upon this parapet of loneliness and fear
and how we come around in time
to lifting up our heads,
and looking for the kindness
that would make revenge unnecessary.
(from “Oh Mercy”)
One minute was small talk, the next
my face was moving down to meet her
wet and open, upturned mouth. It was a kind of patriotic act
pledging allegiance to the pleasure
and not the consequence, crossing over the border
of what we were supposed to do

and I thought of my friend, who always tries
to see the good in situations—how an innocence
like that shouldn’t be betrayed.
Then she took my lower lip between her teeth,
I slipped my hand inside her shirt and felt
my principles blinking out behind me
like streetlights in a town where I had never
lived, to which I never intended to return.
And who was left to speak of what had happened?
And who would ever be brave, or lonely,
or free enough to ask?
(from “My Country”)
as part of evening the score,
part of practicing the scorn
it was clear I was going to need
to get across this planet
of violent emotional addition
and subtraction. Looking back, I can see
that I came through
in the spastic, fugitive, half-alive manner
of accident survivors. Fuck anyone
who says I could have done it
differently. Though now I find myself
returning to the scene
as if the pain I fled
were the only place that I had left to go;
as if my love, whatever kind it was, or is,
were still trapped beneath the wreckage
of that year,
and I was one of those angry firemen
having to go back into the burning house;
climbing a ladder
through the heavy smoke and acrid smell
of my own feelings,
as if they were the only
goddamn thing worth living for.
(from “One Season”)
There are other plot-lines and motifs.
But the story stays the same: some of us
would rather die than change. We love what will destroy us
as a shortcut through this world
which would bend and break us slowly
into average flesh and blood.
(from “The Delay”)
The poetry captivates me. Hoagland’s protagonist is more thoughtful than his own actions. Yet, the voice never allows itself the ugly intellectual crutch of justification. The voice holds the wonder of looking down and seeing what you have done. Recognizing, at last, the consequence and the motivation, almost simultaneously, and holding both at equal value, important but short of determining anything.
A decade ago, I read Sweet Ruin for the first time. Since then, it has become a touchstone that I revisit at least once a year. Further, it is the book that I have recommended to more people than any other. Several of my friends have begun their own journey with Hoagland’s collection. His poetry is not intimidating or precious; his poetry is life—too close to home, disruptive, the type of thing you nod and shake your head at the same time. He has catalogued so many of the experiences that the people around me struggle valiantly against. Those struggles will remit and resurface darker each time. And Sweet Ruin will be there each time. As Hoagland writes,
[articlequote]This is how history catches up–
by holding still until you
bump into yourself.[/articlequote]
[box] We are both Odysseus

trying to protect
what didn’t need protecting
from what couldn’t be saved
Tony Hoagland

I saw you the next day
a drive and a city separated
from my actions. Sitting next to you
on a hotel bed retracing bruises, I remember coke
as a stipulation I acquiesced to
knowing what
it’d fuel her and I toward.
Her mouth tasted alkaline,
the base of our weaker
impulses and stronger appetites.
Shame resulted from not the act,
but the consequences clear and unheeded.
To clarify, I wasn’t sorry—I was
devastated about who
I was, the reality of that
for both of us. You laughed
thinking I was only being shy.
The opposite, as we walked
through the small Saarinen
chapel and watched the light
play across the brick, being
moved by the water’s reflection
I was bore wide open, a cadaver
with no use but experimentation.
Standing encircled
in the hallowed room
I could feel your hands inside me
removing the dead organs
for a better view.
The idea of being revived
was irrelevant, not part
of the exercise. I hope that
corpse taught you something.
I hope you can ignore
what it taught you and soon
you can look at me without
seeing the dark mouth of the cave
or the boy with a small lantern
pantomiming exploration.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Ben Wiessner, founding co-editor of the OS’s PRINT! magazine, is a man of many talents and a wearer of many hats. Among these are a current role as producer on Patrick Wang’s highly anticipated upcoming feature film, The Grief of Others, and a long time member of the film collective ornana.  I’m always happy when he takes a moment to lend his words to our online efforts, which happens whenever it can.
I’m particularly grateful he’s chosen Tony Hoagland here – if his words weren’t reason enough, there’s much to be learned from the lesson of Sweet Ruin being Hoagland’s FIRST book, in his late 30’s – for all you 20 somethings thinking it’s already too late. It’s never too late to create! Just make things, because you love it. Recognition is a strange and broken game.
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