The Deathbed Editions by Dan Hoy
Octopus Books, 2016; 332 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
“Always start / with a miracle / or language,” Dan Hoy writes in his luxuriously dense first collection, The Deathbed Editions. He chooses to start the book with a very meta, language-y scene—poets at a party upset and talking about the “poetry marketplace.” This moves from language to miracle, to the dark, glittering miracles of our lives that continue as the world continues—without rhyme or reason and under the threat of constant annihilation. Hoy warns us that, “This is a book / of the dark arts / because / the universe is / 99% dark,” and his poems are presented as a series of lived truths and advice for surviving doom and decay, how to subsist in the gradual deadening of the everyday and mundane, and how to live in an eternity that cares very little for your small flash of human life. Hoy writes:
History is the history
Of making history.
The people who make it
& the people who wait for
the people to break it
These are poems that speak to human insignificance. We are so small. We are such tiny cogs in the wheel. Such tiny sparks in the galaxy. How will we ever compare to HISTORY or TIME? What is our place in the seemingly predetermined vastness?
These are poems of sublime alienation, both figuratively and literally. I never played video games as a child, but my husband recently showed me a computer game called X-COM. X-COM is a turn-based game that features an international organization that has banded together to counter alien invasions of earth. I watched my husband play this game, watched the aliens fuzz in and out and reappear and annihilate the humans. The somewhat crude graphics, the relentless invasions. The combat of day-to-day existence.
When I picked up this collection, it felt very much like being invaded, being emotionally ravaged, and having to re-spawn over and over again to stave off the ever-encroaching void, the Sisyphean task of merely surviving this world. Hoy compares morning dew to “alien cum,” references “the star gate” between his lover’s thighs, and that we won’t believe “what people / don’t believe / to survive on this planet.” Hoy muses on the near-impossibility of “asking human / beings to articulate / life / without / human life.” How can we define ourselves if “People / are the disaster / we evade / & hope for,” if “True love / is systematic / collapse”? How can we make meaning? How do we qualify or justify our existence here on this tiny, spinning speck in the universe?
Although Hoy’s poetry is lush with nihilistic overtones, his use of language never feels meaningless. For example, in the poem “Empire,” he writes, “This song is like someone pouring a cherry slush into my ears.” That’s exactly the experience reading this book leaves one with, a rich sweetness resonating, the tone of his song reverberating down to one’s very core. In “After Life,” Hoy tells us that “Everything smells like flowers and people doing it.” There is definitely a glimmering and hopeful beauty, little morsels of extravagance that emerge from the existential fog enveloping the collection. The final section of the book, where each poem is entitled after a Michael Jackson or Madonna pop song, is a slight departure from the book’s mostly gloomy overtones. It includes poems like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’” where Hoy asserts that “Life is / a fight for life” give a sense of resiliency, determination, and purpose.
Hoy is preoccupied with the future in these poems. He writes, “If the future / is printed / out of nothing / become nothing,” that although “The truth is forever,” it’s the future is what actually comes true. The future is definitely a looming, foreboding, and terrifying possibility. It cannot be stopped; it will occur; it will come to pass. It is perhaps one of the only truths that can be counted on—the fact that it will happen regardless of what we do or do not do. “If the future / has no future / this is where I wait for you,” Hoy reassures the reader. He tells us to press on, to embrace the strangeness and uncertainty, to live life and “fuck everything” we know “in the face.”