Selected Poems, by Michael Hofmann.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $25.00.
Michael Hofmann is fascinating, brilliant, and hard to write about. It’s not that his poems are difficult reading. He uses autobiographical subjects and strategies to explore the pettier human emotions in the most vital way imaginable. He isn’t primarily a political poet, but history, deteriorating landscapes, and the dross of contemporary society haunt his work. He has many modes, some of them quite hospitable, like this four-line poem, with its offhand subversive elegance, not-quite-vaginal title, and sexy impact:
I can really only feign disapproval
of my youngest
dibbling his semolina’d fingers
in the satiny lining of her red coat.
Part of the difficulty is that we’re encountering a life’s work mid-stream. Though some of his four earlier books of poems were published in the US, Hofmann is most familiar here as an essayist, editor, and prolific translator of prose and poetry from the German. (His Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology is terrific.) Selected includes varied treatments of lovers and family members; it also includes shiftingly strange poems like “Sunday in Puebla,” where the poet matter-of-factly states that he saw the same face on a bloody Christ figure in the Mexican city’s cathedral and on two revolutionary Mexican martyrs:
The Christ lay coffined in glass like Lenin.
He had more than the usual five wounds,
he had all the abrasions and contusions consistent
with being crucified.
—He must have been the work of a police artist.
Next he relates the bizarre slapstick death of one of the revolutionaries at the hands of other police artists. The martyr
hid under the floorboards for eighteen hours—
there was the neat trapdoor, out of Doctor Faustus or Don
and when he came up, crying “Don’t shoot!”
one bullet passed through his windpipe,
another unhinged the top of his head.
Hofmann seems obviously a poet of the Left, though the Christ-Lenin comparison is shot through with all the ironies of twentieth-century history. And he’s immune to Leftist sentimentality, which can swamp even the best-intentioned poem. “Sunday in Puebla” begins in the cathedral, then switches to a museum room full of “mildly heretical old banknotes,” pious paintings of revolutionary scenes, and portraits of Mexican politicians. Hofmann’s reaction? “A dreadful indifference took me.” Then the poem, as if operating out of his control, breaks into a strange anaphoric chant which in turn segues through a trailing ellipsis to a final flowering:
Christians in sweatpants,
Christians rocking up in flexitime,
Christians leaping hotfoot from racing bicycles in long tight
Christians carrying 40-watt Puerto Rican briefcases . . .
The sun shone all that day as it did most days,
the young Mexicans were visibly fond of one another,
and red spiky chrysanthemum blossoms were starting to appear
on the otherwise bare colorín trees.
The ending makes me wonder, is this a Christian poem? I think not, but I like that I had to ask myself. The chant’s tone is neither satirical of, nor identified with, Christianity; there’s hardly a clue as to how to read it. We’re not sure where the Christians are—at church? in a gym, suggested by the sweatpants and bike shorts? The list is odd—two pairs of pants, a gaudy briefcase, and a mass of people in movement. Flexitime—I had to look it up; it’s a British translation of a German term—is a variable work schedule (rather than a nine-to-five workday). The line is suggestive without being completely explicable, except that it seems to make the Christians into middle class non-revolutionaries. Disconnected from their own past, they’re here in Puebla for Hofmann to muse upon because invading Christians murdered the murderous Aztecs “on their own altars.” The last stanzas seem to jerk the poem from a place of overwhelmed apathy to a place of lovers, sunshine, and flowers. Until, that is, I notice the color of those final spiky chrysanthemums. Those aren’t flowers, those are gunshot wounds. Everything is blood.
Michael Hofmann was born in Germany, raised in England, and writes in English. He now teaches at the University of Florida, and lives there and in London. It’s possible to guess at bits and pieces of his influences—Larkin’s descriptive capabilities and defiant bad character, Brechtian toughness of mind, American confessionalism. He’s been compared to Lowell and Berryman, selections of whose work he has edited for English audiences. But except for a certain Lowellian glumness—leavened by Hofmann’s playfulness—these influences seem glancing at most. It might be Paul Muldoon he’s closest to, in that both play elaborate intellectual and linguistic games while going deep into the human psyche, but they also seem to me temperamental opposites.
Hofmann is idiomatically slippery. These poems feel written in the sense that they reflect little of the American post-Williams tradition of idiomatic speech. They can sound like listening to someone who talks like a writer. But Hofmann’s subtle shifts of diction feel like weaponry, selected from an extremely varied linguistic arsenal. I also have the sense, reading him, of another language behind the language, the translator’s shadow. People who write in a second language they speak flawlessly must always feel a little outside whatever language they’re working in. The following poem, one of seven new ones in the Selected, feels just slightly translated, by which I mean, not incompetent—quite the opposite—but effectively, and deliberately, estranged from its own idiom:
When all’s said and done, there’s still
the joyful turning towards you
that feels like the oldest, warmest, and quite possibly
best thing in me that I must stifle,
almost as if you were dead,
The poet risks the first three lines sounding like sincerity-pap—I’m willing to bet for the fun of it—in order that the fourth line and the conceptual murder-suicide that follow, twist like a knife. Hofmann’s poems are frequently triumphant violations of the workshop dictum that a poet should never break his poem’s initial contract with the reader.
A favorite Hofmann subject is father-son relations. In the early “Family Holidays,” Dad, a writer (like Hofmann’s father, the novelist Gert Hofmann), is pretty much making love to his typewriter instead of his wife—“you could hear the fecundity of his typing/under the green corrugated plastic roof”—while she “staggered about like a nude/in her sun-hat.” The poet’s sisters, in an inexplicably horrifying image, are compared to half-baked bread, “doughy . . . / swelling out of their bikinis . . . . / . . . they were never done.” But Hofmann saves his harshest words for the final couplet, and himself:
. . . Every day I swam further out of my depth,
but always, miserably, crawled back to safety.
Poems that only attack others feel like they’re hiding, or missing, the problem. In Hofmann self-laceration is everywhere. His poem-fathers are often toxic, but betrayed by their children. The typical deteriorating-parent poem by the typical middle-aged narrative poet, with its display of sympathy and underlying point that the poet foresees his own demise, reads like unconscious aggression against the parent. Hofmann is aggressively conscious of his own failures. Vengeful emasculation runs through these poems. “My Father at Fifty” addresses the father directly. Once “virtually as a savage . . . of strong appetites, governed by instinct,” Hofmann writes:
You never cleaned your teeth, but they were perfect anyway
from a diet of undercooked meat; you gnawed the bones;
anything sweet you considered frivolous.
Things are different now. Your male discriminations
—meat and work—have lost their edge.
Your teeth are filled, an omnivorous sign.
Wonderful pun, “omnivorous” where the reading brain wants “ominous”—and this sort of fooling around, energetically and woundedly vicious, is one of the pleasures of reading Hofmann. We feel sympathy for both father and son. The latter goes on, in a more decorous echo of Plath’s father-Fascist, “You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,” and, in a voice close to scorn, catalogues Dad’s distempers: “Your kidneys hurt, there is even / a red band of eczema starring your chest.” But we end with the son’s guilt: “A Christmas card arrives / to ask why you don’t have any grandchildren.”
Attack is, of course, evidence of love. Why trust anyone who only relates admirable memories? If you can’t say anything mean about family members, better not to say anything at all. Yet an interesting thing happens when Hofmann drops the attack after his father’s death: his poems appear on the surface to feel much less. The body is no longer present in “For Gert Hofmann, died 1 July 1993.” The poem describes the house after the man is gone: windows, blinds, the “white wastepaper basket / empty and abraded by so much balled-up paper”—which stands in for the writer’s (father’s, son’s, any writer’s) life of frustration. The poem concludes with this exquisite image of absence:
on the mountain ash already orange and reddening, although
the inscrutable blackbirds will scorn them months more.
A blank pre-vision of the poet’s own death.
Hofmann’s images keep startling me, maybe especially in his relationship poems, not least in his poem-ending lines. In “Changes,” a young guy’s girlfriend gets a fancy job. He feels both contemptuous and left behind. The poem opens pastorally (“Birds singing in the rain, in the dawn chorus / on power lines”), undercuts itself (“Birds knocking on the lawn, / and poor mistaken worms answering them”), then inveighs against—or, really, whines at—the woman:
Hard to take you in your new professional pride—
a salary, place of work, colleagues, corporate spirit—
your new femme d’affaires haircut, hard as nails.
Hofmann captures, in literary language, recognizable life moments generally ignored in literature. His treatment of characters—self and others—is novelistic. The man and woman in “Changes” are both courageous and both cowardly—though I can’t help being on the side of the uncompromising and problematic speaker. The ending is ultimately tender, a little tragic, and as an image, unforgettable:
Say I must be repressive, afraid of castration,
loving the quest better than its fulfilment.
—What became of you, bright sparrow, featherhead?
“Nights in the Iron Hotel” is a grim lyric about the end of a relationship. Published in 1983, set in Prague pre-fall-of-the-Eastern bloc, the domestic quandary becomes a figure for life under an expiring political system. It’s hard to write about deadness of feeling without killing your poem, but Hofmann tells the reader about boredom without ever being boring, so intricate and varied is his treatment, so full-on engaged is he with the gesture and real-world detail of disengagement. Explicit in its anomie, “Nights . . .” delivers an arresting final image:
We are fascinated by our own anaesthesia,
our inability to function. Sex is a luxury,
an export of healthy physical economies.
The TV stays switched on all the time.
Dizzying socialist realism for the drunks.
A gymnast swings like a hooked fish.
The handful of new poems in this collection are a formally-disparate bunch, concerned with endings and departures. All contain surprises, but “Hudson Ride” stands out. The poem is tagged with an epigraph from Heinrich Heine: ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten—more or less “I don’t know what it might mean.” The train ride up the Hudson River from New York is breathtaking. Hofmann takes his customary pleasure in fine description—“the ice jags are silver, rush spikes gold/in the blue December.” But the poet is
rueing every mile. Some sort of folly and exhilaration.
A caffeinated feeling of being all heart.
“Shouldn’t I ask to hold you forever.” I rather think I did ask.
I like immensely the shift from analysis to bitchiness; that such lyric shapeliness can contain such tonal digression. “My girl, someone’s girl, her own girl,” Hofmann writes a few lines before the girl gets individuated:
you in your kitchenette and sweater among the hi-hats
and bolt-cutters and beheaded pin sculptures.
There’s more going on in this northward ride than love gone sour. Hofmann, noticing the German in upstate place names, merges yearning and fact:
They thought it was the New Rhine, here, or wanted to.
Rhinebeck. Germantown. Dutchess County.
Train rides are familiar ways of signaling rootlessness, but Hofmann, whose life seems to have contained many distances, is after something mystifying and complicated. The poem concludes by going wide-angle, posing Hudson River sites against Rhine River places:
Now here come the hard options: the cracked old Nabisco plant,
West Point, Indian Point, Ossining, Rockland Psych.,
Drachenfels. Bacharach. Loreley. Loreley. Loreley.
Along the Hudson, in clackety-clack railroad rhythms, all our (capitalist) diseases: vanished American industry, military academy, nuclear plant, prison, psychiatric hospital. Along the Rhine, a ruined castle and mountain that figure in the Siegfried legend, a town. Loreley, a Rhine rock where the strong current causes shipwrecks, also one of the Rhine maidens who with their singing lured Rhine navigators to their doom. Perhaps the past, and Germany, are mythical sirens who will ruin the poet, while the American present is, by poem’s end, a landscape of impenetrable political might and oppression set in a rapturous landscape. Nothing’s resolved, though. Hard options, no choice made, the train ride continues to the siren song of the wheels. Another brilliant poem in a brilliant book.