Tony Hoagland’s “In a Quiet Town by the Sea,” an astonishing writing on humankind’s greatest and most infamous sin, provides excellent resource for epitomizing what a modern poem should be. More testimonial than literary, Hoagland is intent on keeping the focus as clear and precise as need be, determining the desires of man come directly from thought and not the lack of an experience or situation. The poem itself is a fresh blend of classic poetic devices and methods, each executed perfectly within its stanza and used in a way to create impactful and lasting effect.
It is a rather painful thing, infidelity is, as Hoagland himself states at the very closing of the poem how “there was no one sleeping who did not dream of being touched.” It was not narrated as a simple fact or observation, but the news was “distressing to report.” The thought of giving and receiving love- a natural and desired human necessity—can be an overwhelming one, especially considering each individual’s morales, marital status, age, intentions, etc. It has therefore no longer become a Disney story of the desire of love, but a stressing atmosphere of the unknown sought by all in a relatively conservative, typical town, as supported by the title.
A clear cut example from the text, “the other guy said that the stink from secrets in a marriage/was like the smell of decomposing flesh/rising from under the foundation of your house,” shows how infidelity results in the death of more than just your marriage. It destroys an entire community in your household. It not only brings about the demise of your relationship, it dethrones the very foundations of your house. A close and loving family is at the center of that foundation. Without it, the house is unsupported. It becomes weak and susceptible to damage. Hoagland here stresses the importance of a strong family connection- and the effect cheating can have on more than just your spouse.
An interesting line found later in the poem, “and there was something so typical about these guys/with their alcohol and self-glorifying memories,/their longing to conquer the world/and yet to still be coddled by their mommy-wives,” provides valuable and thoughtful insight on the character of men. The desires and deeds of men, their longing to conquer the world and talks of bragging and honor and achievements, are long overshadowed by their constant and consistent need for a woman, their wife who acts as their mother, to support them and guide them. Even in talks of “[messing] around” with friends and drinks, admitting one’s fantasy containing the removal of a stranger’s clothes, even with the presence of a wife and foundation of a house in the back of their mind, they are reliant on a woman—in this case a stranger or prostitute (or both)—to fulfill their needs. A man cannot be a man without a woman, whether in marriage, love, or infidelity.
Hoagland continues with a brief description of the town’s setting, capturing a haunting reflection of a so-called innocent town by the sea. “Outside the moon gazed upon the earth with wary ardor;/the church cast its shadow upon the plaza/like a triangle and square/in a troubling geometry problem.” The influence of dreaming of another’s touch has slowly left out what other’s believe is more important: religion. Instead of focusing on following the acts of God, or doing what is to be done and picturing the greater good, the people of this town are too caught up loathing in their greedy fantasies of lust and love. The church itself has become merely a shadow upon the town, and struggles to find relevancy and belonging now that it has become a symbol to the people.
As I analyze and dwelve further into the lines of this poem, I cannot help but to imagine my father’s church, the church right beside my house and my High School, and picture it’s shadow over the quiet town of Darien. As I remember the words of final phrase, it makes me shudder knowing how relevant and truthful Tony Hoagland’s words are, even here in Connecticut and in 2017. It is true, how we as humans are often caught up in the wrong idea. It is honest, to make mistakes that we sometimes regret. It is natural, to want to feel one’s sensual touch, even if it means cheating or from one who sells their body. The loudest note, the most iconic and influential and God knows how important phrase, is: love someone who makes you feel as though you are loved.
Love is a basic and understanding right. It is taught at a young age, experienced at a young age, and has influenced relationships, music, ethics, decisions, trade, and language for ages. It is meant for all but not felt by all. It is meant to be shared but is sometimes hoarded. The phrase “love is simple, love is kind” that hangs on my bathroom wall is utter ridiculousness. Love is challenging. Love invites you to travel down a long and winding road. There is little room for mistakes or self doubt or hate. It is sometimes scary, but often rewarding. However, the two men “[messing] around” in the poem are not discussing about love. They are discussing about a possibility to experience something they have not. They have both experienced love well enough to know what they are conversing about is not love. It is the exact opposite. Desire to remove the clothes of a sexualized stranger, as told by one of the men, is not a form of love, or even “making love.” It is in fact nowhere near the same realm of what makes true love so powerful and present. What makes it so distressing to report is the entire town—you, me, everyone you know—has dreamed of this fake love. It has consumed the entire town by the sea, and the waves have swallowed what was once sincere and direct. What remains is not love, but “writing your name in cement.”