Monday, April 15, 2013

A mean poem that makes you think - "The Change" by Tony Hoagland

In Tony Hoagland's "The Change," the narrator is a racist character who shudders at the success of black women at Tennis.  The poem makes us cringe, and thats probably what its meant to do.  Its meant to push us towards change because time for racism has past but we continue to be mired.  On a broader level it makes us think how difficult it is to say the truth.  It reminds me of Guru Nanak's poem in the color of Hope:

It's hard to sing truth's essence
But I have no other option
I live as long as I sing
as soon as I forget I die

While there are a lot of poems that critique people, social norms and customs, this is somewhat uncharacteristic of poetry -- where the narrator himself is part of the picture that is bad.  Hoagland in his essay, How to talk mean, confesses that "To speak in a voice equal to reality ... will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them, in very personal ways."

More info on "The Change" -

The Change
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.
But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,
and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes
as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure
and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.
And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.