Portrait d’une Femme

By Michael Hofmann Michael Hofmann

The age demanded an image
of its accelerated grimace
            —Ezra Pound

Idiot Wind,
Blowin' every time you move your teeth
            —Bob Dylan

You were energized by your epoch.
The difference between a harmless nut—John Doe, Jane Doe, plain Jane,
practically any mediocrity—standing on a beach
and the same harmless nut
riding a wave of (now) cultural self-righteousness
about to tube. A tsunami armed with thunderbolts.
Empowered—yea, packing.

You played everything to the sympathetic studio theater
of your hearers, a chorus-cum-sounding-board.
They were your doo-wop boys and girls,
your clique and claque and Marshall stack. The church hall chairs scraped,
the cheap black crepe backdrop rustled “cutting edge” at you.
You paid attention to how they oohed and aahed for you,
and then pantomime hissed, and balled their fists and bayed for blood:

the half-lustful half-men betraying their half-gender
when they weren’t speculating what you were like in bed,
the frightened girls who’d never seen anything like you
but thought it might be fun (after Goth) to be a Maenad,
the Pharisaic mothers going home to their chilly fires,
their dim, furtive, put-upon husbands and their neo-feral offspring
with a “there but for the grace of God” on their bony lips.

And it was all you, the decisive impulse, the focus, the leadership;
why, there was the beef, right there with its bleeding footin its mouth.
The venomous articulation with its trademark solecisms
(naive to wonder how anyone with a Cambridge degree in it
could hurt the language like you).
A sort of chronically over-emphatic sub-style of maimed English,
a testosterone debris of nursery babble, pop psychology, tabloid yelp and obscenity.

Strangers were helpless in its vortices,
lawyers needless to say loved it—
what they would have given (M’lud) to be able to solicit like that.
It was all as humdrum as grafitti, vivid and appalling
and unutterably humdrum, it was Mary Elizabeth
Bott in the William books going
“I’ll thcweam and thwcweam and thwcweam.”

It’s strange, you were ungainly, but you were never wrong.
You had the yessers and nodders and eggers-on
to take care of that. Ungainliness in this instance
happened to be the price of rightness.
You espoused ungainliness. Worshipped it.
Ungainliness was the new duty. The new beauty.
Disinhibition ruled. Wa-hey.

And so it somehow had to be. You did it for them.
You erupted out of Englishness and made an exhibition of yourself.
(Tiny terremoto in Derby that I read about in Mexico, 2 point something on the Richter Scale.)
Once it might have been said where you came from youforgot yourself,
but that style of rebuke went out of fashion. Anyway, you weren’t into
forgetting yourself. You were into remembering yourself.
As you would have said, 24/7.

It would have been good to do smoulder like Anna Magnani
or have a wronged profile like Dante’s, whoever the fuck Dante is.
But you couldn’t hack that.
So you chucked glasses and went public.
Bridget Jones thuggee. Jordan tragédienne.
The English rose goes ape.
Deal or no deal.

You were good value at cocktail parties. For about five minutes.
Then you were a bore; and as the good book didn’t say, the bores are always with us.
You would have loved a column like Margaret Cook. (Not acooking column.)
Your mother was dead, your godmother was dead,
look what happened to them. (They died.)
Perhaps there was something you could do,
and so you stayed alive and humbly served the numties.

Source: Poetry (June 2009).

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2009
 Michael  Hofmann

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

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Gender & Sexuality, Popular Culture

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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