An Unreliable Witness
Rebecca Hoogs Sees Everything
Rebecca Hoogs is an observer. Reading the poems in her new collection, Self-Storage (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, $16), you start to picture her as a pair of enormous eyes floating around and soaking every little detail in. She stores those details in tiny, clearly marked boxes and then excavates them as needed, to be used in just the right poem at just the right time. In her poem "Commute," she's sitting in traffic, trying to keep herself from staring into other people's cars and failing miserably. Here's the first half of it:
The evening's amber alert lights up.
Modern sunset, another abduction,
and fuck, traffic is bad. The girl
in the next lane texts while driving,
her mouth like the knotted pucker
of a helium balloon. Everything electric blows
eventually: lightbulbs, crushes, what have you.
Even dynamite has fizzled to mean super.
You've been in this car; you've felt this dull-edged panic attack, a cross between a kind of prehistoric ennui and an orange fireball of apocalyptic rage. And Hoogs has seen you there.
Self-Storage is smartly broken into three distinct sections. The book opens with a spray of short, funny poems like "Commute," which also has the line "I commute but am not moved." If you attend more than three readings a year in Seattle, you've probably seen Hoogs read one or two of these before. "Another Plot Cliché," one of her funniest, most performance-friendly poems, begins:
My dear, you are the high-speed car chase and I,
I am the sheet of glass being carefully carried
across the street by two employees
of a plate glass company, two generic men
who have parked on the wrong side
of the street because plot demands
that they make the perilous journey across traffic.
The poem ends, predictably, with a shattering, but Hoogs transforms the moment into a euphoric (yet still angry) burst of freedom. Other poems in the first section compare the French word for zero (due to its "eggy form," they call it l'ouef) to love, or imagine the sex lives of a pair of newlyweds who managed to stay celibate until marriage ("even the words we're enjoying/the toaster seem scorched onto the thank-you note,/seem frenzied with innuendo"), or watches herself living life as a duller, lesser version of herself, a "so-so blurb on the back of a book."
The second section of Self-Storage is an eight-page poem called "The Long Spell," a poem that ties together bee behavior, the fate of Napoleon's horse, hay bales, atomic science, sightseeing in Italy, and the history of the periodic table into an autobiographical confession about memory and the guilt of not feeling the emotions you used to feel so distinctly, and becoming a whole new person in the same old skin. After the rat-a-tat pace of the first section, "The Long Spell" is a meal, a complex quilt of trivia and memoir that demands and rewards rereading.
The third and final section of Self-Storage returns to the format of the first, a series of shorter poems, but the reader's trip through the book has changed the perception of these poems somehow, deepened them. They echo the sadness and the half-formed personhood (sometimes literally—one poem is told from the perspective of a fetus: "Like roe, I haven't got a thick skin yet./I'm still a little see-through, not much/more than a deposit, a bit of dirt/at the mouth of a river"). The format of Self-Storage echoes its themes: Hoogs sees everything, and she keeps it all locked away in her head to reexamine years later. But she discovers that the time in between, the act of reassessing, is always different than that first moment of observation. You can never see something for the first time twice.