Tony Hoagland has a smart and sassy way of thinking about America in his work. He is one of the few poets self-consciously trying to come to terms with -- to find a way to think about -- the apparent omnipotence and inescapability of the mass culture that surrounds us like a sea. We are endlessly swimming through its waters. His third book, with its comic, self-mocking and very American title, What Narcissism Means to Me, heads off into uncharted territory. It is his best collection yet.

Hoagland's poetry suggests that we're in the midst of an unprecedented cultural situation where everything feels like it is being spun all the time. It's hard to break through into genuine feeling. Thus a lovely summer night becomes the "Commercial for a Summer Night," with merchandise-wearing models again this year, and a friend says that, of all the available systems ("There's Socialism and Communism and Capitalism,/ . . . Feminism and Hedonism,/ and there's Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism"), "I think Narcissism is the System/ that means the most to me."

When one of the teacher-poet's blue-haired, tongue-studded students declares that "America is for him a maximum-security prison// Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes/ Where you can't tell the show from the commercials," the speaker can't tell "if this is a legitimate category of pain,/ or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade." The concluding stanzas of "America" show Hoagland's zany insight into contemporary American culture:

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes

And I think, "I am asleep in America too,

And I don't know how to wake myself either,"

And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

"I was listening to the cries of the past,

When I should have been listening to the cries of the future."

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable

Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you

And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you

And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand

Which turns the volume higher?

Hoagland's vernacular has an odd lyricism. His discursiveness is image-laden. He feels that "deep inside the misery/ of daily life,/ love lies bleeding," and he's determined to go through the false bottoms of our reality to uncover it. Here he thinks about the allegorical situation of a friend shuttling between a hospital and an adoption agency.


This year Marie drives back and forth

from the hospital room of her dying friend

to the office of the adoption agency.

I bet sometimes she doesn't know

what threshold she is waiting at --

the hand of her sick friend, hot with fever;

the theoretical baby just a lot of paperwork so far.

But next year she might be standing by a grave,

wearing black with a splash of

banana vomit on it,

the little girl just starting to say Sesame Street

and Cappuccino latte grande Mommy.

The future ours for a while to hold, with its heaviness --

and hope moving from one location to another

like the holy ghost that it is.

(All quotations are from Tony Hoagland, "What Narcissism Means to Me." Graywolf. Copyright © 2003 by Tony Hoagland.)