Threshold and the Jolt of Pain

Turtles that “loom underwater like an apocryphal hippo,” or walk like some “grand, concise, slow-moving id; lions that roar “like pianos pushed along on hollow floors;” dogs with “epistolary anal glands”—Edward Hoagland’s writing is crammed with such similes and metaphors, and in one of his greatest essays, “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain,” we find out one root cause of this.  He stutters.

Threshold4“Being in these vocal handcuffs,” he writes, made me a desperate, devoted writer at twenty.  I worked like a dog, choosing each word.  I wrote two full-length novels in iambic pentameter and a firehose style.”  In other essays on Hoagland—see the links below—I’ve said that his central obsession is the tension between disconnection and connection: stuttering, the disconnect, vs. a style overflowing with the connections metaphors make.

“Threshold and the Jolt of Pain” begins with a typically wonderful Hoagland sentence: “Like most boys in their teens, I wondered once in a while how I would take torture.”  It then moves along following a fairly linear underlying form that marches us up Hoagland’s scale of pain: from the pain caused by boyish pranks, to a sadistic streak that he takes into his first love affair, to his stuttering, to the professional pain of having his first two novels virtually ignored, to the pain of death (his father’s), to what he calls the greatest pain of all—childbirth. Yet a rigid, underlying linearity is hardly what we experience.  As I have said in other articles in this series on The Arts of the Essay, the greatest essays often place a fairly straightforward underlying form in tension with a circling, almost wandering surface.

Threshold1The circling feeling of “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain” begins when he talks about his first love affair.  She was a Philadelphia girl, twenty-seven.  He speaks about her in paragraph three, near the essay’s beginning. We almost forget about her, moving along his scale of pain, hearing about his stuttering and the many cures foisted upon him, being with him as his father dies, but then, almost suddenly, she comes back near the end.  She’s become pregnant by another man, so—in what seems like a non-sequitur, and with another strange metaphor—“We drew out our savings,” writes Hoagland, “and started for San Francisco, that vainglorious, clam-colored city.”  She’s the occasion for the pain of first love, and now will be his tutor on the pain of childbirth, the pain at the top of Hoagland’s list.  The essay combines the straight and circular, moving toward its ending by circling back to its beginning.  But it’s even more complex than that.

We’re constantly thrown off both the straight and the circular because we’re constantly shocked by what Hoagland chooses to reveal about himself and the way he chooses to phrase those revelations.  In “The Problem of the Golden Rule” he admits to sniffing each sock (“just a whiff”) before he jumps into bed.  “The smell of each sock checks precisely with the other one and smells as vital as pigs do.”  In “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain” he admits that, “I did by stages develop the habit of beating her”—his first love, the Philadelphia girl—“briefly with my belt or hairbrush before we made love.” The experience, however, gave him a “contempt for pornography,” and “Seeing eventual disaster ahead,” Threshold2bhe “didn’t go deeply into this vein of sensation.”  Still, near the end of the essay, now in San Francisco with the same girl who’s about to give birth, he says, “I’m ashamed to say that I’d spanked her a little the night before, not realizing it was the night before; I never spanked her again.”  Because of a contract she had signed—partly to make sure she actually wanted the child—she had to relinquish her to a home for three weeks before they would let her have the baby for her own.  During those three weeks, Hoagland tells us, “I was privileged to keep her breasts flowing…a luxury that would have been fitting for Zeus.”  It’s difficult to keep your mind on any structure when these kinds of admissions just keep coming.  Or those odd details, like in this sentence from “The Problem of the Golden Rule:” “We’ve all become reluctant to stop and stick our noses in—a man is run over by a Breakstone cream-cheese truck and we pass quickly by.” Without that detail on the precise nature of the truck, we might connect with the thought.  “Breakstone cream-cheese truck” disconnects us, as do his admissions.  Too strange, too much information, kind of perverted—we think all this, and it stops our connection to what might have been a scene or sentence full of wisdom, generosity, warmth, pathos.

His very style, in other words, embodies his obsession with connection / disconnection, and never more so than in perhaps the central passage of “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain,” one of the best scenes he’s ever written:

“A couple of years after that”—the pain of having his second novel ignored—“I got divorced from my first wife, and bawled like a half-butchered bull for an hour, rolled up on the floor of my apartment, while the two homosexuals next door listed in silence close to the wall, wondering what they ought to do.  It was a purge, but the pain of that experience I remember best was an earlier scene. I’d announced to my wife, whom I loved and still love, my belief that we needed to separate. The next time we talked she crossed the room to my chair, knelt down beside me and asked what was going to become of each of us.  That is the most painful splinter in my life, the most painful piece of the past.  With variations the ache was prolonged through many fugitive suppers.  In fact we still meet, holding hands and laughing at each other’s jokes until we feel tears.”

Here, at least, the disconnecting strangeness—the half-butchered bull, the homosexuals listening through the wall, the fact that he and his wife still meet and hold hands—bookend that affecting, touching scene. They don’t interrupt it.  We can connect, can sympathize, empathize, if only for a moment.  Then we realize we’ve connected so strongly to a scene of disconnection.  Or is it?  Hoagland is one of my favorite writers, partly because he’s so strange, but more so because he’s always telling us this: there’s never connection without the shadow of disconnection, and the opposite is true as well.


  Go to the lead post in the series The Arts of the Essay, where you’ll find links to articles on other Hoagland pieces like “The Courage of Turtles,” “A Low Water Man,” and “Dogs and the Tug of Life.”

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Dogs and the Tug of Life

DogsTug1bThe chances of me ever owning a dog are slim to none, though not having one is one of my wife’s constant complaints.  “Everyone has a dog but me!”  She’s fond of the exaggeration, saying it in half—but only half—jest. I think it’s less of an exaggeration that if we did have one it would probably be me doing most of the dog walking, dog scooping, dog grooming, dog feeding.  Still, if anything would ever convince me to get a dog it would be something like Edward Hoagland’s essay “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” one of my all-time favorites, so much so that it’s worth quoting the entire first paragraph, a paragraph I read over and over, regularly, to remind me of what great prose is: rhythmic, deeply insightful, filled with an almost alchemical combination of empathy, pathos, and a realism bordering on cynicism.

“It used to be that you could tell just about how poor a family was by how many dogs they had. If they had one, they were probably doing all right. It was only American to keep a dog to represent the family’s interests in the intrigues of the back alley; not to have a dog at all would be like not acknowledging one’s poor relations. Two dogs meant that the couple were dog lovers, with growing children, but still might be members of the middle class. But if a citizen kept three, you could begin to suspect he didn’t own much else. Four or five irrefutably marked the household as poor folk, whose yard was also full of broken cars cannibalized for parts. The father worked not much, fancied himself a hunter; the mother’s teeth were black. An old bachelor living in a shack might possibly have more, but you knew that if one of them, chasing a moth, didn’t upset his oil lamp some night and burn him up, he’d fetch up in the poorhouse soon, with the dogs shot. Nobody got poor feeding a bunch of dogs, needless to say, because the more dogs a man had, the less he fed them. Foraging as a pack, they led an existence of their own, but served as evidence that life was awfully lonesome for him and getting out of hand. If a dog really becomes a man’s best friend his situation is desperate.”

DogsTug2It’s the ambiguity in that last pronoun—”his”—that fuels this essay.  Does the “his” refer to the man…or the dog?  Turns out it’s both, but especially the latter.  Before we get to that rather sad conclusion, however, we’re treated to typical Hoagland delights: loads of interesting facts and connections served up as casual strolls through fascinating neighborhoods, or deep woods marked with small, weird, sudden clearances.  “‘Dog’ is ‘God’ spelled backward—one might say, way backwards.”  The sentence seems to come out of nowhere, almost as a breather between stats of how many dogs and deer the U.S. holds, sketches of how wolf behavior always haunts dogs, and those famous Hoagland metaphors.  He refers to a dog having “an epistolary anal gland,” a phrase that’s made me delight in watching a dog as he sniffs along, reading ground smells like a neighborhood message board.  Stool, when sniffed, Hoagland informs us, “conveys how well the animal has been eating—in effect, its income bracket—although most dog foods are sorrily monotonous compared to the hundreds of tastes a wolf encounters, perhaps dozens within the carcass of a single moose.”

The range of those tastes is one thing dogs gave up when they became domesticated, but we both—humans and dogs—lost even more.  “In order to really enjoy a dog,” says Hoagland, “one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semihuman. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.”  But that’s not the direction it’s going. Increasingly, everywhere we look there’s just more human, less nature.  We see this even in the “progress” of the animals we create.  Brer Rabbit, for example, is more rabbit-like than, say, the Bugs Bunny who follows; and the creatures, “the animals,” of Sesame Street or Broadway have lost almost all connection to real animals.  “The basic switch,” Hoagland writes, “has already been accomplished—from the ancient juxtaposition of people, animals, and dreams blending the two, to people and monsters that grow solely out of people by way of dreams.”

“Which leaves us in the suburbs, with dogs as a last link.”

I’ve said, in articles on three other Hoagland essays (“A Low Water Man,” “The Courage of Turtles,” and “Threshold and the Jolt of Pain“) that he’s obsessed with the theme of connection and disconnection.  “Dogs and the Tug of Life” ends with four sentences conveying, briefly, another ominous history of connection becoming a disconnect: “The first reason people kept a dog was to acquire an ally on the hunt, a friend at night. Then it was to maintain an avenue to animality, as our own nearness began to recede. But as we lose our awareness of all animals, dogs are becoming a bridge to nowhere. We can only pity their fate.”

  This article is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay.

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Fenton Johnson Inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

FJohnson-Induction2On September 14, 2017, I was asked to be one of the speakers at a ceremony inducting Fenton Johnson into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  Also on the program—co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and held at its wonderful John-Ronan-designed headquarters in Chicago—were literary historian Alexander W. Jacobs, poet Vida Cross, and legendary poet-publisher-professor Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press and an architect of the Black Arts Movement.  Professor Michele Jolivette, Fenton Johnson’s great grand niece, accepted the CLHoF statue from the Hall’s founder and executive director, novelist Don Evans.  Ms. Cross and youth from the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble performed some of Fenton Johnson’s poetry.  The following are the gist of my remarks and some afterthoughts as well, which expand upon a previous post, “Fenton Johnson: Request Denied.”  Since Johnson did his most famous work in the early 1900′s, and people would probably not be immediately familiar with his work, Don Evans ask me to give a sense of why this poet needed to be honored today.


When I think of Fenton Johnson, I think of a poet who played the game so well…until he didn’t.

I mean that he did well what the white world allowed black poets to do.  It allowed dialect verse, for example, so Fenton Johnson wrote some of the finest dialect verse ever written with pieces like “Fiddlah Ike” and “Questions,” the latter of which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  “Whaih’s de sunlight, Mammy Lou?” it begins, and runs to the sentimental conclusion that the questioner is Mammy Lou’s “wahm sunlight, and his “love’s de moon o’ night.”  Black poet’s were also allowed to write sentimental verse not in dialect, but properly formal.  So Fenton Johnson wrote that, too, as well as poems related to the “Sorrow Songs,” poems of grieving, religious deliverance, Battle-Hymn-of-the-Republic triumphalism.  With “The Vision of Lazarus,” “The New Day,” and “Children of the Sun”—which begins “We are the children of the sun / Rising sun! / Weaving Southern destiny, / Waiting for the mighty hour / When our Shiloh shall appear / With the flaming sword of right”—he also wrote some of the best poems in that genre.  For this skill alone, he deserves induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation's magnificent library behind us.

Don Evans and I congratulating Michele Jolivette, the Poetry Foundation’s magnificent library behind us.

But even more so he deserves this honor because he went far beyond what was allowed.  He played the game so well…until he didn’t.  To go beyond what was allowed, black poets from the spirituals, through the blues and beyond practiced a lot of signifying, so that the surfaces of their works comforted the gate keepers of decorum, the watchers of what was allowed, but also fooled them, conveying meanings only those in the know would understand.  “Steal Away to Jesus” meant, on the surface, getting away to be alone with Jesus—and it meant this sincerely—but it could also signify when the Underground Railroad was coming though so a slave could get on and “steal away” to freedom up North.  I’ve tried to catch the signifying undertones of Fenton Johnson’s poetry, but have had a hard time hearing them.  When he broke from the game, he broke from it spectacularly with poems like “The Scarlett Woman” and “The Daily Grind” and, most of all, “Tired,” perhaps his most famous poem, which begins: “I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.”  It addressed M’Lissy Jane, saying, “Throw the children in the river; civilization has given us too many.  It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.”

Such powerfully direct expressions of despair took America by surprise.  In his seminal anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson says that Fenton Johnson’s startling effect on American poetry, “…was in some degree due to the fact that [his poetry expressed] an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced.  Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.”  At least,  sounded it so directly, so openly, so harshly.  Arna Bontemps said Johnson had succumbed “to a more rugged influence.”

FJohnsonI have tried, as I said, to hear a stronger signifying undertone to Johnson’s poetry.  How much could he really have meant to “Throw the children in the river,” for example?  Is this the same kind of bravura blues singers partook in when they sang, “I’m gonna lay my head down on the railroad track… / When the train comes, I’m gonna snatch it back”?  Perhaps. But the blues song finally cops to that false threat, and the music pulses with so much life that we question the threat from the beginning.  So while Johnson might not really have meant what he said about the children, and while I try to hear some redeeming “humor” in the name The Last Chance Saloon—where M’Lissy, and the Scarlett Woman, and the poems’ speakers drown their sorrows—there’s nothing pulsing with as much life as the blues, nothing that winks at the threats, thus guiding us clearly to a signifying intent.

In poems like “The Banjo Player” and even “Prelude,” the first poem in his famous 1916 volume Visions of the Dusk, there are strong hints that he knows he’ll get tired of playing the poetry game, that dialect verse and humble peasant stuff was something to break from.  When he finally did, he did it in such clear, spectacular fashion, seeding so much of the strong directness in black poetry and culture that would follow.  It’s for both his skill at playing the game and his spectacular denial of that game that he deserves our notice tonight and every time we think of great poetry.

  Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.


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