To Live like a Bird
- Approximately Nowhere by Michael Hoffman
Faber, 77 pp, £7.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 571 19524 5
Michael Hofmann’s poetry is a lament for a lost world. Some years ago, in an article on Frank O’Hara, he talked about New York no longer being the thrilling place it had been in the days when O’Hara and the gang could go downtown to the Blue Note and hear John Coltrane or uptown to hear Billie Holiday. This kind of nostalgia can be tiresome: better for each generation to invent a new idea of the new – to enlarge the temple. In his poems, Hofmann has found a way to do this. In each, no matter how short, one feels the pull of three places – Germany, England and America – and two languages.
Hofmann was born in Germany and lived there until he was four. His family moved about and he attended schools in England, Scotland and the US before going to Cambridge. Approximately Nowhere is his fourth book of poems. The titles of his previous three are not quite so existential: Nights in the Iron Hotel, Acrimony and Corona, Corona. Much of his work is addressed to his often unreachable father, the itinerant scholar/novelist, Gert Hofmann, whose presence gives the poetry access to Germany before the Third Reich – before high aspiration became debased by Nazism. Hofmann is a prolific translator of German prose (Kafka, Wolfgang Koeppen, Joseph Roth and currently Gert Hofmann). He is also editing the selected works of Rilke. His own poetry enjoys a tacit dialogue with the works of Rilke and Hofmannsthal, and suggests a sympathy for the values of High Modernist Vienna (the European precursor of New York City in the 1950s).
For Hofmann, however, there is in the end no exemplary city – and no tower at Muzot, where Rilke began the Duino Elegies. He is adrift, a displaced person, always a temporary resident. As the title Nights in the Iron Hotel suggests, he is a physical as well as a mental traveller, part of the new diaspora of scattered tribes who wander the globe and live on alert, as if they were camping out. The last part of Corona, Corona (1993) is set in Mexico. At first, the poet is at home in this hybrid culture where the real and the imitation are inextricable from each other, with ‘Ostensible Aztecs/stitching their silver Roman-style tunics im Schneidersitz’:
There’s a band
hidden in Eiffel’s unilluminated iron
snowdrop bandstand –
bought by the Austrians here to cheer them up
when Maximilian left the scene – giving it some humpity.
The rondure and Prussian gleam of the horns –
I sit and listen in the Café Viena.
Anything north of here goes, and most things east.
Here, the poet is at ease with a range of European names, an ease which is distinctly absent from the next and final stanza of ‘Postcard from Cuernavaca’:
My room is both.
A steel door, pasteboard panelling,
and so high it makes me dizzy.
The toilet paper dangles inquiringly from the window cross.
A light bulb’s skull tumbles forlornly into the room.
Outside there is a chained monkey who bites. He lives,
as I do, on Coke and bananas, which he doesn’t trouble to peel.
‘Postcard from Cuernavaca’ is an oblique homage to Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano is set in Cuernavaca. In ‘Shivery Stomp’, Hofmann spells out his identification with Lowry and how ‘it produces a strange adjacency,/to have visited so many of your sites, Ripe and Rye,/Cuernavaca and Cambridge’, while ‘Postcard’ shares the grisly humour, if not the tragic tone, of Lowry’s novel. Everything is turned inside out: height is discomfiting instead of inspiring; a light bulb evokes a skeleton on the Day of the Dead – the day on which Under the Volcano is set; the monkey is cast against type, quite the opposite of cute. The flourish at the end – the business of not peeling the bananas – makes the poem better than good. It also implies that the poem, dedicated to the late translator Ralph Manheim, is about taking trouble – that poetry is itself a form of translation, which requires effort.
Hofmann’s poetry is blessedly free of notions. The taut, sinewy, almost bone-dry language is anything but symphonic or oceanic. It resists the flux and makes the reader scrutinise the line. The details appear to be concrete and exact, but the poems themselves have an oblique edge. In ‘Malvern Road’ (from Approximately Nowhere), a 48-line poem that consists of a single sentence broken into seven stanzas, Hofmann wants to keep the reader from moving too quickly. That his intention is to hold us is evident from the first line,
It’s only a short walk, and we’ll never make it ...
Why not? Because movement is impeded by psychology and history. Malvern Road lacks neutrality: it is not easily negotiated. The poet’s gait is hampered because of the significance the place has in his life. The poem traces the passage of a relationship from the exhilaration of two lovers when they first begin to live together to the sadness and emptiness of a married couple who have separated:
It’s only a short walk, and we’ll never make it,
the street where we first set up house –
set up maisonette – together ... do you remember ...
And once the forward trajectory is stopped, the poem moves inward. What is touching here is the hesitance (‘somehow in truce’, ‘probably we were happy’) of the poet’s attempt to remain reconciled with the world after the loss of love. He celebrates her ‘jaunty primary touches everywhere, fauve and mingled’, and sets them against his own ungainly domesticity:
my room a grave navy (‘Trafalgar’) with my vast desk
like an aircraft carrier that I had to saw the legs off
to get upstairs, and then fitted the stumps on casters
so when I wrote it rolled ...
The father/son struggle is in the foreground of Hofmann’s poetry, but his Oedipal situation is highly untypical – even for an artist. Lowell, who is Hofmann’s favourite 20th-century poet, set out aggressively to win his Oedipal battle (identifying with great conquerors, pretending to be Napoleon). But it was no contest: he was smarter and physically stronger than his father. His victory becomes his burden of guilt and remorse. Gert Hofmann, on the other hand, was a Titan: a man so obsessed with creating fictions that he barely looked up from his typewriter to nod at the family. In this sense, he abdicated the role of authority and Hofmann was able to develop a quiet confidence of his own. In his earliest poems, there is a sense of entitlement and assurance. He seems never to question that what he says is worth saying.
In the earlier books, Hofmann’s poems about his father are searing studies in ambivalence: here Gert Hofmann is gargantuan and diminished at the same time. The son is angry at the father for not paying attention – which is precisely what his poems insist that we do. He regards himself and his siblings as ‘one of two or three unself-sufficient, cryptic,//grown-up strangers he has fathered’ (‘Author, Author’, in Acrimony). The estrangement is not exactly personal, because the father is so self-absorbed, abstracted and prematurely old. In ‘My Father at Fifty’, from Acrimony again, Gert Hofmann can no longer maintain his ‘marvellous, single-minded regime’.
Things are different now ...
Wherever you are, there is a barrage of noise:
your difficult breathing, or the blaring radio ...
You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,
fat heads of state suffering horribly ...
The title Approximately Nowhere pinpoints the kind of irony Hofmann favours. He likes to portray himself in compromised or reduced circumstances, at a disadvantage, and rarely writes a poem without the narrative voice undercutting itself: his narrative ‘I’ is a Prufrockian anti-Übermensch. Many poems strike the same note as ‘Giro Account’ in Acrimony:
I was nineteen and a remittance man,
embarked on a delirium of self-sufficiency,
surprised that it was possible to live like a bird:
to stay in a hotel, to eat in restaurants,
and draw my father’s money from a giro account.
At the end of my feeding-tube, I didn’t realise
that to stay anywhere on the earth’s surface is to bleed ...
His father’s death in 1993 leaves Hofmann approximately nowhere. Among the many portraits of Gert Hofmann in this book, ‘Cheltenham’ stands out:
Then a family event if ever there was one:
my mother reads my translation of my father,
who hasn’t read aloud since his ‘event’.
Darkness falls outside. Inside too.
Ted Hughes is in the small audience,
and afterwards asks my father
whether he ever, like an Innuit,
dreamed of his own defeat and death.
My father, who’s heard some questions, but never anything
like this, doesn’t know Ted Hughes,
perhaps hears ‘idiot’, gives an indignant no
in his miraculously clear English.
The elegies to Gert Hofmann are tender, but they also have an Ovidian quality, a metaphorical outgrowth of the father’s self-absorption: he doesn’t appear to recognise Ted Hughes despite his long residence in England; his real deafness is a further extension of his lifelong inattention to his son.
‘Intimations of Immortality’ illustrates Hofmann’s to and fro between the high Romantic and the everyday. The poet writes from Gainesville, Florida (retirement country), where he teaches one semester a year, far from the lake country and the fabled beaches. Only language can give character to this place: ‘where little old ladies//squinny over their dashboards/and bimble into the millennium,/with cryogenics to follow’. To depict this mundane octogenarian scene, he quarries a word from King Lear (‘dost thou squinny at me?’), then quickly shifts gear with the homespun ‘bimble’. He rubs it in with ‘eyes that sting from salt and sun-oil’ and discovers the flatness of the landscape and a world gone bad, with two wry, original lines: ‘I drink orange juice/till it fizzes and after.’ The reader needs no further convincing. These poems are oblique laments at how far we’ve come from turn-of-the-century Vienna.
Hofmann can be mundane and apocalyptic in the same poem without any visible strain in the language:
Planetary weather. A glittering
canopy of gas, otherwise not a cloud.
The sweet creep of green this English summer.
Trees addled by heat and monoxide
put out panic shoots they probably can’t afford,
that then again might be the future.
I get out of breath walking twenty minutes
to the bank to draw money,
new spicy beef-and-tomato fifties.
I’m in mourning for my life –
or ours; or ours?
(‘Is It Decided’)
What really glitters, of course, are the words themselves, radiant particulars in a world that is mostly inhospitable and bleak.