The nineties

Some of us long for the hypocrisy again.  — Arundhati Roy

We gathered in mall atriums, smudged
our gum under benches. Around us,
our leaders unleashed markets yearning
to breathe free. I skulked outside
the candle store. I wanted a boyfriend
with long, straight hair like a girl, wanted
punk rock and to be called feminist,
not Dr. Hill’s testimony mocked
by macho senators, but three chords
and copyshop zines. Our history books

ended at D-Day and we made up the rest,
mourned animals whose stuffed replicas
cluttered our bedrooms. Some believed
in the necessity of a planet, others
practiced easy detachment. Our problems
were one-note, easily reckoned, the poetry
of CFCs and acid rain and the opaque
beige skyline of L.A. We caught national
abuses on video, like granular tape
of police baton-beating a Black man

prone on the ground, evidence I saw
and didn’t see every day. On Wall Street,
extremists blasted a hole at the base
of our tallest shrines, smoke twisted skyward
and the tag “radical Islamic terrorists”
wormed into our minds like advertising.
Oh, we’d hear it again. By pen stroke
our nation joined the largest free market
in the world. We couldn’t see sweatshops,
didn’t even try, as retail spaces filled

with bright, cheap objects. Untraveled outside
our great white middle, I was impressed
by unlimited salad and breadsticks.
I babysat kids who raised leaden soldiers
to their mouths, as our parents attended
their last union meetings. At the doctor,
insurance paid. Good teeth, good shoes,
good psych drugs, the last mild summer
before wildfire. We watched as cynics
stripped the welfare state, like pulling down

the walls of someone else’s house to rip
out the fixtures as they tried to live inside.
I spent my grandma’s social security
on compact discs and retro housewife
dresses, I ate burritos and mini
microwave bagels decorated to look
like pizzas. No one asked more from me,
yet I was dissatisfied. To live then
was like hitting a drug, all consequences
saved for another day. On the prairie

a veteran blew a federal building
wide open, children inside. The paper
printed the word ‘penis’ for the first time,
and we gawped at Lorena and Tonya,
aired the O.J. verdict in French class.
Clerks shot up mailrooms, workplace
shootings morphed into teenaged boys
decked out with semiautomatics,
the trench-coat myth easier to buy
than the thrall of guns on tap. The dot-com

bubble became the housing bubble
turned to this festering boil we live inside
but haven’t named. Like some others,
I had a modem that screamed into
the night. In chat rooms, I told strangers
my intimate personal details, spoke deeply
about my core beliefs, and that benign
audience, both transparently decent
and brand new at this, put the data
to no use. The Internet that would change

our human synapses had awakened,
but this wasn’t its ascendency. Not yet,
as we persisted in trading real goods, real
services, real dollars. I knew how much cash
I carried. The court convicted one doctor
for euthanizing the ill while others
delivered patients to amber-bottle narcotic
death. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted
to learn about Marxism at a college
to bankrupt my parents. Across the world,

future autocrats scrounged blood lucre
melted off colonial skeletons,
flattered over caviar, dug in their heels.
Always rubles and riyals to be made,
always another dollar. Imagine how
confident we felt in our unquestioned
virtue, how we shied from the webcam,
our future closer than it appeared.
We hugged our own hollow surfaces.
We would never be this perfect again.

The power of passive voice

On a news loop, the FBI director crossed
the Blue Room, his face arranged
in a recursive “oh shit” expression, like
my questions of what to do, how to act,

now that this man is president. I know
my own grandiosity, I am no patriot, and
on that day, I drank house merlot,
unemployed Florida parent drowning in

terrifying but common quicksand. Even as
the Watergate lawyers cited, again,
a new and historic end to precedent,
that afternoon, the security-cleared translator

called Reality Winner had already left work
at the Whitelaw Building in Augusta,
report on Russian election interference
stuffed in her tights. Or should I say

the file was printed and was removed
from a facility, was sent to a journalist,
a chimera appearing by invisible hand
before us, because who was Reality Winner

but our collective, passive-voiced American
conscience, too naive not to breadcrumb
her own espionage conviction? The passive
can be a change agent that obscures

responsibility, might even enable action, but
we know how it’s used in this country,
because Reality Winner is in prison and
everyone else in this story walks free. I suspect

she wanted what I had, a version of family,
my anonymous face frozen in the TV strobe,
all my Lean Cuisines and breastfeeds and job
applications. Where each day is an

exercise in additive futility, concealed
by believing so hard in it. At her arrest,
CNN used an aerial of the federal building
where our offhand mole once worked, all

fluid lines, walkways paved into a series of
curves. The planners might’ve pictured
ocean waves, a current in which to lose
ourselves, day after day of the relentless

neutrality of water as it slips through
so many fingers, strong-armed
double H joined to a single culpable O
shaped like a needle’s eye.

What use are you?

In our final poetry class
my student says his parents who
pay for his education
are making him change his major,
that what I teach is of no use, and waits
for my protest. I am not the person
to ask. My god is so small,
he fits inside a Scantron sheet.
Each bubble opens like his mouth
to wail an ancient lament.
Actually, he is quiet.

According to a middle school test,
I should work in Administration.
Instead I am a teacher
in a school with few resources.
We took the test in the orchestra room,
among the ductwork and violins,
upright basses draped with dustcloths.
We had to carry our heavy instruments
to school and we did not complain.
We were in the art wing,
falling down, holes in the wall
where we crammed Wendy’s wrappers
until the borders of the room fell in.

Projections will say we all need
nurses and HVAC techs and actuaries
but I was told by my parents
not to do those things and so today
I am quiet. I won’t tell my student about
the law school where I almost
but didn’t go because no one I knew
who went got an actual lawyering job.
This is a pyramid scheme
and for it to work
you’ve got to find out too late.
Some of my friends got Hospitality.
Some got Human Services. The best
got doctoral degrees we learned
to regret. The worst understood early
what “con man” is short for.

My student says he’s switching
to Psych and when I ask why,
he looks despondent. My god
is so large he shakes the earth
in that imperceptible way that is simply
the earth moving. Ice melting.
Our heart-calving when the Provost
talks about cutting any program
that will not sustain itself.
The Provost is a kind man
but it is too late. We are finding out
what the verb means,
to use, and about the edges
on the noun, use, its humble slide
into the question
with our bodies at the end.

Erin Hoover is the author of Barnburner, winner of Elixir Press’s Antivenom Poetry Award and a Florida Book Award in poetry. Her next collection, No Spare People, is forthcoming in October 2023 from Black Lawrence Press. She lives in rural Tennessee and works as an assistant professor of English at Tennessee Tech. Fun fact: her poem “On the Origin of Species,” which appeared in Gargoyle #61, was also selected for the 2013 edition of Best New Poets.