ON SECOND EMPIRE BY RICHIE HOFMANN
ALICE JAMES BOOKS, 2015
REVIEW BY NATHAN BLANSETT
“Everything seemed / recognizable again,” admits the speaker of Richie Hofmann’s poem “After,” which comes near the end of his debut collection Second Empire. Recipient of the 2014 Beatrice Hawley Award, Second Empire is a collection of poems that feels like the libretto to an opera that is at once elegant, detached, erotic, and restrained.
Hofmann’s collection stands apart primarily because of its indirect silences. In poems guided by loose form and restraint, many of which are written in the amorous tradition of the sonnet, Hofmann presents a speaker who feels in the presence of something mysterious and yet utterly immediate:
You know from the windows that the houses
are from a different time. I am not
to blame for what changes, though sometimes
I have trouble sleeping. (“Fresco”)
In “Fresco,” the speaker remembers a set of gates flanked with a decorative brass lion, “warm to the touch / even in what passes here for winter,” before remarking that “last night, when I closed my eyes, / it was not the lion that I pictured first.” Hofmann’s braiding of direct statement and image creates a tensioned marriage between what is said and what is unsaid; his poems feel rich with an architectured silence:
[…] didn’t the flight
of stairs rise up above the cobbled street
didn’t the key clamor
in the lock flood
the vestibule with clattering didn’t we climb
the second flight
toward the miniature Allegory
painted on the ceiling
and touch the flat-faced girls
winged part animal
who did not flinch and did not scamper (“Keys to the City”)
Perhaps most striking are the love poems that feel in touch with deeply antique elements—a fascinating approach, considering that an arguably great deal of contemporary poetry feels resistant to the classical forms and themes of love, loss, and grief. In fact, Hofmann discussed this idea last year in a podcast with Poetry Northwest, saying, “I understand people wanting to resist those traditions, but I think it’s impossible to. I’m quite moved by the longevity of some of these stories. […] I feel like these themes are inescapable. I want to make art that engages with them.”
In much of Second Empire, the speaker inhabits new, exquisite realities: “We always arrived late, / sometimes in masks. You wore a sword / at your side,” says the speaker in “At the Palais Garnier,” a poem of fantastic illusion and baroque desire.
Hofmann’s poems evade excess sentimentality, but still feel deeply intimate; they possess a sense of distance, but they never feel lyrically austere. For instance, consider Hofmann’s forceful mention of pleasure with a formative lover (“the body / he drank cool water with, the body he salted, mile after mile / along the coast, fucked me with, with which / he told me what troubled him”). Consider, in its entirety, “The Harbor”:
Afterwards everything whitened
like paper or breath—
The room was suddenly anchored to itself,
the chains stopped groaning.
I knew I could not leave with you.
The sea outside was like the sea
on the map. A sea-god was blowing
into a crosshatched arc of sails.
So much of Second Empire obsesses itself with love, and there is, through the interacting bodies in these poems, a unique willingness to yield, to loosen—“When I open my mouth, I am like an insect undressing itself,” declares the speaker of “Idyll.” The sonnet triptych “Three Cranes” is interrupted by parentheticals from Hart Crane’s letters: “Then, your lips on my neck / (‘I think the sea has thrown itself upon me / and been answered’) before I closed the book / and turned my body under yours.” And the muscular “Braying” ends on a gratifying note: “What wickedness clings to me, it sticks / to the last. I will keep my mouth with a bridle.” The bodies in these poems desire not simply to know someone, but to be known themselves. Hofmann’s strength in writing so elegantly about the dark beauty of sexual intimacy and the body comes from his poetry’s Cavafian sense of indirection. Just enough is said, and just enough is withheld.
But it isn’t simply romantic or sexual love to which Hofmann’s speaker feels drawn. So present in these poems is also the interdependence between all forms of art—namely, the relationships between poetry, visual art, and music. For Hofmann—and for his speaker—art seems to be a conduit through which one can, to borrow a line from Jane Hirshfield, “become more intimate with their own life.”
Hofmann’s technique recalls the painter Caravaggio’s exploration of themes in his early work. Though drawn to the compulsively personal, Caravaggio often chose to insert himself via self-portrait in scenes separate from his own reality, thus detaching himself from the immediacy of the theme but still maintaining a sense of lyric intimacy nonetheless. “Erotic Archive” speaks to this concept of self-identification directly—the speaker feels an almost spectral connection to (presumably) James Merrill:
We sleep in his bed
among his silent books.
Though I never knew him,
I’ve spent my life thinking it’s his ghost
I belong to.
Amid the blue hour, the speaker looks “past the window / the light changes through” as the window returns the image of “the sea as unattainable / and distant as art, / our lovers far away.” Here is the privacy of the artist even in his own art. “Erotic Archive” undeniably feels like Hofmann’s ars poetica.
While Hofmann can be seen as the inheritor of such poets as Carl Phillips, Henri Cole, Merrill, and Cavafy, Hofmann’s speaker seems to give access to an entirely new, even clearer vision. These poems awaken something inherently personal in their reader:
That was shame
leaving the body.
[…] Wet and glistening,
twisting toward light, everything seemed
recognizable again: a pheasant lazily dragging
his plume; the cherries dark and shining
on the trellis; moths hovering cottonlike
over an empty bowl; even myself,
where I reclined against an orange wall,
hopeful and indifferent, like an inscription on a door. (“After”)
The permission these poems give to their reader to speak cannot be articulated. Here in Second Empire is the self disclosing to silence, to beauty, to love, to being known at the hand of another.
Richie Hofmann is the winner of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and his poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. Find his poem “Midwinter,” originally published in The Adroit Journal and subsequently published in Best of the Net 2014, online here. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MFA program, he is currently Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.
by Richie Hofmann
Alice James Books, 2015
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-938-58416-9