The poems in Paul Hogan's new collection "Inventories" (BlazeVox Books) explore themes of legacy and loss, corporeality and physical pain, the errant qualities of human attention and limits of speculation about natural phenomenon, usually set against the more pressing agendas of the flesh. "What is precious/cannot be delivered all of a piece, polished and pointed at,'' he writes in his poem "Deliverance":
What is precious is what can be or not be, depending
only on faith that it will not be held simply
within things we believe to be shatterproof.
Hogan--who read from and signed copies of the new collection Friday night at the Western New York Book Arts Center and will join poet Morani Kornberg-Weiss in a reading at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday afternoon in Buffalo State College's Butler Library as a guest of The Rooftop Poetry Club--is not a confessional poet in the sense that his work attempts to dramatize the inner life of a constructed literary subject, but it is instructive to read his work as a kind of formalized soulcraft in which the constraints of the writing process permit him to methodically strip away layer after layer of psychological armor, until the familiar masculine cadences of his narrative voice fall away, and he is face-to-face with his own vulnerabilities, his own mortality, and the terrifyingly irreducible fact of his own body.
As was the case in his previous collection "Points of Departures" (White Pine Press, 2008), the results of this denuding can be as unsettling for the reader as it presumably is for the poet. The awkwardness of intimacy, the confusing continuum that is sexuality, and the shifting ground that is identity and gender attribution are touchstones of his work, even if the emotional impact of these self-interrogations can sometimes transfigure his poetics into an existential ordeal.
"I am terrified I’ll lose/ you as a/ lover even though/ I keep you as/ a wife mainly/ because of my/ body which I/ am less ashamed of/ than resigned to," he writes in one of the most harrowing poems in the collection, one in which he describes in almost excruciating detail the extent to which his current physical condition limits his plausibility as an erotic subject.
In the poem that lends this volume its title, Hogan situates himself in the gene pool of first born sons of "west Euro Celtic" descendants, with all that implies in terms of ethnography, cultural affinities and prejudices. The poem unfolds as a kind of exorcism of a mindset--almost akin to the evolutionary assertion of the frontal cortex over the primitive reptilian brain--that leads the poet to at once both acknowledge and repudiate the tribalism of his own heritage:
we all are racist, sexist, classist – repeat:
homophobic, geocentric, fanatic – repeat: until
every one of us drawing breath now
gets that we cannot be part of the fix
that tears off those plates of that armor
we never think anyone sees, until
we give up that we’re wearing it now,
and count it, once and for all.
At the core of Hogan's work is a kind of sustaining pessimism--think Beckett, or later Yeats, or even Robert Creeley's "Bresson's Movies"--that even while he is taking his dying dog out for some fresh air in "The Walking," refuses to sentimentalize or seek some redemptive quality in small gestures:
...I know he’s dying and there’s nothing
either of us can learn from it. We can’t
examine the faults of our lives
through the misapplied lens of the other; can’t
find clarity in the lack of sense of this, can’t
weigh down this walking with wanting
different paths. Even if I call his big eyes wise,
I know it helps only me.
He knows better than to ask
anything of me other than a walking pace
a quarter-step quicker than I’d prefer; water
when we go in; an ice cube if he reminds me.
But after all the trees rush past like so many people
in so many quick lives, there’s nothing, finally,
to learn beyond the fleeting messages at each next
tree we lurch toward, though by the end of this
walk I’m afraid he’ll forget all he’s known
in his innocent rush
to get to what’s next.
The twenty-five poems in "Inventories" are complemented by a series of a half dozen intaglio and wood cut print images by the Buffalo area artist Cynthia Hand reproduced in whole and in various degrees of detail by the artist. Although not created in specific collaboration with Hogan's text, they serve to highlight its rough, furrowed grace nonetheless.