On Tony Hoagland's"The Story of White People"
by Martha Collins
The Story of White People
After so long seeming right, as in
true, as in clean, as in smart,
being smart enough at least
not to be born some other color,
after so long being visitors
from the galaxy Caucasia,
now they are starting to seem a little
deficient, leached out, spent, colorless,
as in being too far and too long
removed from the original source
suffering from a slight amnesia
in the way that skim milk can barely
remember the cow
and this change in status is
mysterious, indifferent, and objective
as at the beginning of winter
when the light shifts its angle of attention
from the mulberry to the cottonwood.
Just another change of season,
not that dramatic or perceptible,
but to all of us, it feels a little different.
Now that the formal experiments of recent years are as commonplace as writing about your abortion or breakdown once was, it would seem that the “confessionalists” didn’t get it all said after all. The body continues to deliver its news, whether in the plainstyle of a Sharon Olds or the baroque of a Carl Phillips, and there’s also news from the racial front, most of it from the stunning achievements of some poets of color, but some of it not.
At the center of “not” is Tony Hoagland, who was featured in Major Jackson’s 2007 essay about white poets and race, and who in 2011 was (as I’m sure almost every reader of this essay knows) publically taken to task by Claudia Rankine for his poem “The Change.” I’m not a great fan of that poem; but what’s gotten lost in all the kerfuffle about its depiction of an African American tennis star with “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” is the poem’s title, and what that title represents.
In “The Story of White People,” Hoagland engages the subject again, rewriting the poem from—apparently—the other side of the racial divide: the “white people,” throughout, are “they.” There are a couple of similes in the poem—the one about skim milk and the cow pretty funny, the other, about the trees, a little opaque. But the poem relies, to an unusual extent, on adjectives that come in lists, beginning with “After so long seeming right, as in / true, as in clean, as in smart”—evoking the old adage that begins “If you’re white you’re all right” and continuing, ironically, in definition mode. The dictionary or thesaurus also appears to be the pseudo-basis (pseudo because what word is being defined here?) for the third stanza’s contrasting list of what “they” are now “starting to seem.” This is where the poem catches my attention—not because it tells me how the poem’s implied “we” might be starting (starting?) to see people like me (though that’s what it professes to do), but rather because this seems like a rather large truth about how it feels to be “white” in the 21st century—“deficient, leached out, spent, colorless / thin-blooded, indefinite”—and I can’t think of another poet who’s had the guts to say so. Two stanzas later the title of the earlier poem appears, followed by another clump of adjectives: “this change in status is / mysterious, indifferent, and objective”: well, hmm, maybe maybe not; but there’s a little thread that goes from “indefinite” in the third stanza to “indifferent” here to “different” at the end that seems worth following, though it’s not absolutely clear where it takes us: one can read the last line as referring only to the not-white (“but to all of us”) or as referring to everyone (“but to all of us”). In either case, “it feels a little different.”
Why this uncertainty about point of view, this apparent appropriation of voice, which is not for a minute convincing, at least to me? I’m not sure, but try the poem using “we” and I think you’ll see that it doesn’t have anywhere near the same emotional power. Michael Broek has defended “The Change” on the basis of complex use of point of view (see APR, Nov./Dec. 2012); if I had more space, maybe I could do the same for “The Story of White People.” Or maybe not.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. In the last line of “The Confessional Mode” (from Donkey Gospel, 1998), Hoagland identifies himself as increasingly “capable of saying anything.” It’s been awhile since “saying anything” was considered risky: such an aesthetic takes us back, indeed, to the “confessional mode” of the 1960s. But there are still some risky things to be said, and I’m grateful to Hoagland for saying some of them, even at the risk of making trouble for himself.