‘I was not myself. I was just anyone.’ The person who says ‘I’ in Michael Hofmann’s earlier poems is uncertain, diffident, angry; he seems both gnarled and youthful, like some hoary child out of Hardy, although rather better treated:
Most evenings I was aphasic, incapable of speech,
worn down by tolerance and inclusion.
The titles of Hofmann’s first two volumes, Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Acrimony (1986), lead us to expect harshness and harshness is what we get. Not only harshness, though. The child feels neglected, but he manages to study at Christminster, and he is formidably clever. ‘All around these dangerous sites,’ he says, ‘sheep graze, / horned and bleating like eminent Victorians.’ ‘A man came down the street with the meth-pink eyes / of a white rat, his gait a mortal shuffle.’ Hofmann also has an ear for ironies that leave some sort of opening for kindness, and he has a tenderness for all defiances or survivals of neglect:
The branch-line is under the axe, but it still runs,
rattling and screeching, between the hospital
lit like a toy, and the castellated factory –
a folie de grandeur of late capitalism.
The axe seems for a moment to be literal, we see it hanging over the tree in the previously dead metaphor of the branch-line; the hospital lit like a toy makes the train, by association, seem a train-set; yet it is the line that runs and rattles and screeches – that’s how it keeps going, but also how it feels about being threatened. As the elegant shifts and subdued wit of these lines suggest, Hofmann can make wonderful music out of disarray, out of apparent (even real) helplessness scored for the watchful intelligence. ‘I believe in my abandonment,’ the speaker says in one of Geoffrey Hill’s poems, ‘since it is what I have.’ The character in Hofmann’s poems has his abandonment, and certainly lets us know about it; but he believes in something else.
He travels, in these earlier poems, and remembers former travels: in America, Mexico, Germany. He visits Cornwall, lives in London and Cambridge in appropriately depressed and depressing circumstances, among all the folklore of dereliction. ‘Halfway down the street, / a sign struggles to its feet and says Brent’; ‘Prefabs ran down the back of the Applied Psychology Unit.’ He has relationships with women, but they seem to be under the axe before they run anywhere much, and they don’t rattle and screech at all. ‘Nothing was broken,’ he says of one of them, ‘and we made surprisingly little noise.’ The literal, sombrely comic occasion for this remark is the young couple’s sitting in a single armchair together, and falling over backwards, but we are plainly invited to read in it some kind of epitaph. ‘My humour was gravity,’ the speaker says in this poem (‘Ancient Evenings’); but when you get too grave you end up on the floor. Of another relationship, the poet says with rueful delicacy: ‘We failed to betray / whatever trust was placed in us.’ No folie de grandeur here, only an obsessive, mournful modesty: what we didn’t betray may not have been there anyway.
Acrimony has a fine epigraph from Rilke, all about the unmeasured or the disproportionate, and how it piles up and hurls itself at us (‘so sehr ist überall das Ungemässe / und häuft sich an und stürzt sich uns entgegen’); but the volume itself tells such a cramped and edgy story that the quotation in the end reads like the description of something to be welcomed rather than feared; a burst of intemperate, unmanageable life, with the implied promise of more where that came from – more disorder, but also more relentlessness and energy. There are complicated feelings at work here, since the speaker’s (and the poet’s) father, the novelist Gerd Hofmann, the subject and the addressee of a number of these poems, represents just this sort of energy, but in a form which excludes the son, and diminishes him. The father is described as a bear, too huge and too occupied for any niceties or domesticities:
I could cut the atmosphere with a knife;
the enthusiasm for spice, rawness, vigour,
in the choppy air. It was like your signature,
a rapid scrawl from the side of your pen –
individual, overwhelming, impossible –
a black Greek energy that cramped itself into
affectionate diminutives, Dein Vati, or Papi.
The affection seems less forceful than the effect of cramping, and the father’s energy runs him into love affairs and a life away from home, and produces a strained remoteness when he’s back: ‘Once, you offered me your clippings file – the human touch! / What next: a translator’s essays, a printed interview?’ Yet when the father ages, as he is seen to do in this book, the poems take on a tone of regret: what is left of all that restlessness, where did it go, what was it for? One answer would be: into Gerd Hofmann’s novels, which Michael Hofmann (perhaps rather wishfully) calls ‘dialogue by other means: his main characters / maniacs, compulsive, virtuoso talkers, talkers for dear life’. I think particularly of the remarkable Parable of the Blind, which is the long, bewildered monologue of the group of blind men who are posing for Brueghel’s famous painting (‘Well, we just scream and fall again, more or less as they wish, and scramble to our feel again and crawl up the slope, and the painter says, That’s right, and he goes on painting’).
However, the energy does seem to be that of despair, and the result a furious embrace of helplessness; and the poet, the novelist’s son, is looking for another, less abrasive relation to difficulty and disproportion. He wants – at least this is what the poems suggest – neither to tame the turbulence nor to give in to it, but to live with it on bearable, if awkward terms. Here, for example, is an evocation of failed longing, in language which makes a vivid success of saying what that longing is:
I wanted your mixture of resentment
and pride in me expanded to the offer of equality.
Is the destination of paternity only advice ...?
In their ecstasy of growth, the bushes along the drive
scratch your bodywork, dislocate your wing-mirror.
Every year, the heraldic plum-tree in your garden
surprises you with its small, rotten fruit.
The line-break at ‘resentment’, ‘pride’ collecting in the next breath, the car hustled by ecstatic nature, the ‘plum-tree’/son with its double or triple surprise – how small or how rotten the fruit is, how strange that the thing should nourish so insistently at all – everything conspires to borrow the father’s experience while deploring its unfatherliness. An accusation is sustained, never quite becomes a tribute; but the crispness and indirection of the writing make a kind of peace with what can’t be had.
When this effect doesn’t work it results in a kind of wary aloofness, frozen some where between a haiku and a sneer:
The man in Bermudas
with a chemo-Mohican
hip-limps into the sea,
is seen hopping still
between the feeble waves.
Sentences turn into staccato notations (‘Bombardments. Tricks of the light. Graphic wounds’); observations into stark whimsy, as where Trotsky’s house in Mexico city is compared to the house of a recent president, as if such casual glances, city tourism, could really yield some comment on ‘The Out-of-Power’, as the poem is called. These examples all come from Hofmann’s new volume, Corona, Corona, which is in many ways more uneven than the earlier ones but also trying for, and getting, quite different effects, exploring new relations with the unmeasured.
The book has three sections, the first a serie of ‘lives’ or glimpses of lives – Hart Crane, Kurt Schwitters, Marvin Gaye, an anonymous serial-killer – starting appropriately with a bouncy account of reading Plutarch; the second a series of places, people and moments in the poet’s own life; the third a Mexican (and I think in one case Nicaraguan) travel journal. There is an elusiveness of reference in these poems which makes some of them hard to read, more puzzles than poems – you keep reaching for information the poem doesn’t give and you know you haven’t got – but there are also some astonishing successes. There is a poem about Richard Dadd (1817-86), who made the Grand Tour, it seems, did drawings of his friends with their throats cut, murdered his father and ended in Bedlam.
He saw himself as catspaw, Osiris’ right-hand man
on earth. His digs in Newman Street
contained three hundred eggs, and the earth
cracked when he walked on it.
‘Catspaw’ is amazing, a slangy joke in the midst of nightmare, and there is something of the same feeling, in a quite different register, in the poem ‘From A to B and Back Again’, where railway lines are like scars, and the body is a city, and names and alphabets and pronunciations (‘There was Barnet, my glottal stop’) offer unassuming secrets, quiet braveries:
we found your name, down among the Os,
and there you were, my brave love,
in a loose hospital gown that covered nothing;
pale; on an empty drip; and eager to show me
your scars, a couple of tidy crosses
like grappling hooks, one in the metropolis,
the other some distance away, in the unconcerned suburbs.
Hart Crane, drowned in the Caribbean, is seen as taking such discretion to extremes, his waving, sinking arm all he has to show as a flag for his ‘landless name’, his ‘small state without frontiers, guarantors or governance’. It is in this poem about Crane that the title words of the volume appear. Corona is a brand of Mexican beer but also a make of typewriter, and drinking and typing, to the sound of music, are, in this picture, the chief motions of Crane’s short life:
A sufficiency of drink, the manic repetition
of a mantric record – any record – and he typed.
Corona, Corona, Victrola and a Columbia loud needle.
The Mexican poems are sometimes a little glib – ‘The crazy zocalo tips at a loco angle’ – and if you’re going to speak casually of piles of oranges as montones and of lorries or trucks as camiones, you probably ought to get the Spanish right and not make it sound like mock-Catalan (montóns, camións). The suggestion that Cortes’s Indian mistress, la Malinche, is ‘the one enduringly unpopular – because xenophile – Mexican’ manages to miss four centuries of national ambiguity on the subject of this woman. But there is news from the old country in the affectionate and amused poem ‘Aerogrammes, 1-5’:
It felt like my life talking to me, after two months,
talking to me again – saying it had bought a new duvet
but was still dithering on the matter of children.
The last poem in the book, ‘Guanajuato Two Times’, is a triumph, catching all the disarray of Hofmann’s earlier poems, adding a note of promise and possibility – a faint and travestied note, but detectable all the same. The poem is structured as a series of options, declarations of what the speaker might do (‘I could keep returning to the same few places ... I could slowly become a ghost’):
I could learn the Spanish for
‘I shall have returned’ or ‘Hullo, it’s me again!’
and get the hang of the double handshake,
first the palms, then the locked thumbs.
My dreams would moulder and swell and hang off me
like pawpaws. I could stand and sway like a palm,
or rooted like a campanile, crumbling slightly
each time the bells tolled, not real bells
but recordings of formes bells,
and never for me.
The mock-pathos of the last line reaches for the missed experience which lurks in all of Hofmann’s poems, but it reaches with a large irony, it is a parody of too eager disappointment, and it is backed by the dreams which moulder and swell, and hang heavier than any smooth renunciation will allow. You need to have missed a few experiences to write like this – and you need to know something about the abundant clichés of supposedly missed experience – but you don’t expect to miss them all, or for ever. You’re ready for the unmeasured, even the unmeasurable.