Michael Hofmann

for Larry Joseph

que lo único que hace es componerse de dias;
que es lóbrego y mamífero y se peina... —Vallejo

I piss in bottles,
collect cigarette ash in the hollow of my hand,
throw the ends out of the window
or douse them in the sink.

I chew longlife food,
dried fruit, pumpernickel, beef jerky.
I'm forty. I free the jammed light-push with my fingernails
to give the hall a rest.

With one stockinged foot—scrupulous pedantry—
I nudge back the loose stair-carpet on the eleventh step.
Later I might slam some doors
and spend a wet evening under a tree.

I've identified with a yellowish fox beside the railway line,
followed silent firework displays on the Thames,
seen two shooting stars burn out over London
and made wishes on them.

I can't remember when I last wrote a letter
or picked up the telephone. My smile
goes on shopkeepers and bus drivers and young mothers.
It dazzles me.

I think continually about money, and the moths eat my clothes:
the thing about earthly treasures was true.
For half an hour, amid palpitations, I watched
two children I was sure were mine.

Most of the day I'm either lying down
or asleep. I haven't read this many books
this avidly since I was a boy.
Nights are difficult. Sometimes I shout.

I'm quarrelsome, charming, lustful, inconsolable, broken.
I have the radio on as much as ever my father did,
carrying it with me from room to room.
I like its level talk.

(Approximately Nowhere, Faber & Faber, 1999)


I've written about this poem before, noting how much those final lines evoke the activity of poetry: listening to, tuning in on "level talk" from distant stations. Just as Jean Cocteau's Orpheus became obsessed with the poems the beyond would recite to him over his car radio.

The epigraph is taken from one of Vallejo's Paris poems, "Considerando en frío, imparcialmente..." Vallejo is masterful at writing about melancholia without falling into self-pity. He evokes his own suffering not to rid himself of it but rather to map it, to notice its particular characteristics. Hofmann seems to be doing the same here, even to the point of appropriating Vallejo's anti-heroic stance.

The first line always confounds me and I can't place it within the rest of the poem. Except as a way to shock, or disrupt, the reader immediately. Hofmann has been vocal about his affinity for Robert Lowell and I suppose one can find a type of humorous self-deprecation in Hofmann's poems that recall moments in the former's work.

Lowell was the first poet I read in earnest, while I was still in high school. I read through his Selected Poems, admiring his ability to make himself look bad, blurring the line between autobiography and lament. I've gone back to Lowell in recent years (his massive Collected Poems) and still find plenty of things there I like.

I find myself enjoying the moments of near hallucination in Hofmann's poems, how he blends them with the mundane: "I watched / two children I was sure were mine." The more I write, the more I think imitation has its place in poetry. How each of us borrows from others, remixing, redrawing variations of ideas and experiences. Hofmann's "imitations" of Lowell end up developing their own distinct register.

I think that register in Hofmann's work includes an awareness of the self as being permanently exiled. The "I" in the poem above is secluded, using the quatrains as a way of enduring, or acknowledging, pain: "Nights are difficult." Whether he's writing about (or from) Florida (where he teaches at UF), England or Mexico (in his 1993 collection Corona, Corona), Hofmann often distorts those places through language, rebuilding them according to his own experience. His series of poems about Mexico evoke his own artificial position as a tourist, while capturing certain intense and weird moments. I like how he writes about Mexico without the least bit of condescension or romanticization. I keep thinking that Hofmann's poems are often about distortion, whether in oneself or in the world. I enjoy and imitate their sound.

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