Prose from Poetry Magazine

Disorder and Early Sorrow

A taste at the edge of memory.

by Michael Hofmann

Thanks to social networking, G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” has recently been given wide, if undeserved, circulation; anyone who consults the Poetry Foundation’s online poetry archive will find his claim not to be true. Hoping to disprove any larger point he may have been making, however, we asked several poets to mix memory and desire — for food — in the pieces that follow. Bon appetit!

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I was born in Germany, in the fifties, to young and poor academic parents. They were in fact newly arrived Ossis, long before such a word existed. Both of them had starved during the war, they were conscientious, a little traditional (for want of anything else), remote from grandparents and advice, anxious to do well by their first child. My mother raised me on carrot juice (pressed with insistent effort through a piece of twisted muslin from carrots she had rasped herself) and (it appalls me to say so) shavings of raw horse’s liver. The one was rich in vitamins, the other, dare I say it, in protein. I was, in the German sense of the word, a feisty child: firm-fleshed, with cheeks you could, like the breasts of some celebrated mistress or other, crack fleas on. My complexion glowed a healthy lunar orange from the carotene, or perhaps it was the horse. I talked and quipped and sang, and my besotted mother wrote it all down. Once, I was parked in my pushchair, in my favorite place on the veranda, which was at the head of the street and overseeing all of it, so that I could coo out my jocular commentary on whatever transpired there. My young and exuberant father (Kafka!) swung a bag of shopping over the parapet, tin cans, spuds, bottles, whatever, not knowing I was there; I took no harm. Nor from another occasion when I was found in the bathroom with an empty bottle of bleach and an ambiguous smile. Had Ihadn’t I? Who knows?

My earliest memory relates to food. I was four, in fact it was my fourth birthday, and I was allowed to go to the baker, all by myself, to buy fresh pretzels. No sooner, though, had I attained this level of perfect and infinitely auspicious competence than I was uprooted. My father took a job—his first job—in England. We were emigrating. I will have sensed the upheaval, the finiteness of things, so many more times of this, three more times of that, the last time of anything at all. I was solemnly presented with a pair of new shoes, “for England,” which I took and deposited in the stream at the bottom of the garden (Freiburg, if you don’t know it, is charmingly full of flowing water). I don’t know whether I was trying to save us trouble and expense by allowing the shoes to go there under their own steam, the way corpses, in the Jewish faith, go trundling along underseas to Jerusalem—conceivably, I would have had some sense of rivers flowing into each other, and then, along Father Rhine, and into the sea—or if I was simply making my somewhat literal saboteur’s protest. My doubt, or equivocation, didn’t save me. The shoes were expensive. (Everything was expensive.) My father, a practical, hands-on, and, truth to tell, irascible man, beat me. I was unable to expedite the shoes or prevent our departure. We took our way from Freiburg to Bristol. And then, on the boat, crossing the Channel, not in England, nor in Germany, neither departed nor arriving, but extra-territorially, in suspension, in no man’s land, I had something indescribably delicious to eat. I haven’t the first idea what it was. I don’t know even whether it was warm or cold, here or there in its inspiration, commercially wrapped or newly made. It was just “on the boat,” a prepositional phrase standing in for a noun. I have a hunch it was savory rather than sweet, because that is where my preferences lie; but for a child, even a child of the horse-and-carrot variety, that seems a little unlikely. I think perhaps it was something like Turkish delight, with its magical ingredient of rose water, but chances are it was more like beef jerky. At times, I have seemed close to remembering it. I may have seen it or known it in dreams. It was paradisiacally delectable, something experienced only by the barefoot in transit. Even its memory is fugitive. Perhaps it was my shoes.

Originally Published: July 1, 2011

COMMENTS (1)

On May 10, 2012 at 9:55pm Barbara wrote:
Oh my god, what charming, maddening memory. An exquisite something that has nearly slipped from memory, but not quite. And now everyone who reads this will be wondering, What in the world did the little Michael Hofmann eat on that boat? And where can I get some?

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2011

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Biography

Michael Hofmann’s annotated translation of Joseph Roth’s letters was just published by W.W. Norton; Impromptus, his Gottfried Benn translations, is expected later this year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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