Thursday Poem: Requests for Toy Piano by Tony Hoagland

Hey look at this, I’m on time and everything, it’s a miracle! Or, to be more accurate, a total accident, but a happy one at that. Before I get started, I have other happy things to say: one of the poems I was lucky enough to have published in Arabic by Najwan Darwish, A Handful of Sky, has gone up in English over at Sajjeling. I’d love it if you popped over and checked it out. Also, I have a few more poems coming out, one in an anthology called Gaza Unsilenced, a response to the horrific bombardment that occurred last year, and another in a forthcoming issue of Tincture Journal.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s get to ‘Requests for Toy Piano’ by Tony Hoagland. I actually think this is the first instance of a poet appearing twice in my little weekly poetry segment, which I’ve been trying to avoid but was inevitable at some point. I randomly read this one yesterday, and I loved it, so here we are. It begins:

Play the one about the family of the ducks
where the ducks go down to the river
and one of them thinks the water will be cold
but then they jump in anyway
and like it and splash around.

Unlike most people, I’m a big fan of innocuous openings. In most writing courses, you’re going to be told that you absolutely need to start as big and strong as possible, that you need to grab the reader from the first word and the first line, and there’s no two ways about it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as advice goes, except for the ‘no two ways about it’ anyway. There’s always another way. The reason I love innocuous openings is because they stand out from the action-packed glut that has become the norm, because it always makes me wonder why the author has started so small and so mundane, and because it’s a sign of enormous confidence which immediately eases me as a reader.

It’s the writer saying, ‘I’ve got this, I know what I’m doing and yeah, I’m starting out with ducks, because fuck you, just sit back and enjoy it, you’re going to love this.’ Having said that, I’m actually not a huge fan of the third ‘the’ in the opening line, it’s unnecessary, but aside from that small blip, I love this poem, and the second stanza sets up why:

No, I must play the one
about the nervous man from Palestine in row 14
with a brown bag in his lap
in which a gun is hidden in a sandwich.

Compare and contrast that with the opening stanza and you’re almost dealing with two separate poems. Here’s the other reason innocuous beginnings are so great, and can be used to such great effect – in fiction too, but especially in poetry, where there is unlimited room for lateral and unexpected movement not just between stanzas but between lines, and Hoagland demonstrates that to great effect here.

Play the one about the handsome man and woman
standing on the steps of her apartment
and how the darkness and her perfume and the beating of their hearts
conjoin to make them feel
like leaping from the edge of chance—

Okay, so I won’t quote the rest of the poem, I just wanted to establish the rhythm of it, the fact that what he’s really getting at here is the fundamental desire we all have for beauty, which is so frequently at odds with our equally powerful desire for truth, for reality. He wants to write about, to sing about these lovely, often innocuous moments but is compelled instead to hold up a mirror to darkness, to showcase horror and shame and bitterness in exquisite detail. This is something that resonated strongly with me; sometimes, I don’t want to write about painful things, sometimes I’m goddamn tired of hurting, of stretching myself so thin in sympathy — sometimes I just want to use language to craft love with words.

And I am so rarely afforded that opportunity, as my mind and body are compelled to respond first to pain, like an EMT or first responder, rushing from crises to crises, dredging emotion, never having the time for the little things. Even though it’s the little things which often make life worth living. That’s why I find this poem, in its own quiet way, so incredibly sad.

You can, and most definitely should, read it here in full.

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