A English Nighthawk: On Michael Hoffman’s Selected Poems

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Foreign poets who receive the “FSG treatment” are guaranteed attention. When I learned that Michael Hofmann, the German-born English poet was to receive it this spring, I expected more. Hofmann is a prolific and often trenchant critic. He is a respected and amazingly prolific translator who has Englished, among others, Hans Fallada, Franz Kafka, Ernst Jünger, Wolfgang Koeppen, Durs Grünbein, Joseph Roth, and several works by his own father Gert Hofmann. I am grateful for his version of Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March, especially grateful for Roth’s “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind.” From 1933, that piece appears in the collection What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, and reads like an extraordinary, terrifying prophecy of the Holocaust.1

Hofmann, who has published four collections, writes short poems. He is an aftermath poet. (He employs the hyphenated ‘aftermath-poems’ to describe Joseph Brodsky’s work.)2 He walks through the remains before they are proper ruins and takes notes. His tone is so even that he might be sleepwalking. No loss surprises him, which is not to say he is unmoved.

When reading Hofmann, Americans are liable think of another recent beneficiary of the “FSG treatment.” Though Farrar Strauss Giroux has published August Kleinzahler, the ‘poet of New Jersey,’ for years, his New and Selected was a sort of coronation. And Kleinzahler is indubitably king of the White Castle pictured on the cover of his Sleeping it Off in Rapid City. Both poets are liberated from conventions that they cannot but disdain as bourgeois. (Both seem proud to put the ‘boor’ back in bourgeois.) Both offer a hard-to-credit accounting of a natural history of self-destruction, a proud catalogue of self-destructive behaviors. Even if we can’t quibble with the hangovers, the condom-wrappers, times “… the vinegary/ smell of cruel spermicide carried all before it,” reading them can be too much like hearing the neighbors have sex. Some nights I listen with prurient interest, some I count the groans as I might count sheep, most nights I cover my ears.

The next line – it begins the fifth stanza – of “Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket” is pitch-perfect: “Familiarity breeds mostly the fear of its loss.” This is a characteristic poem. The scene is intimate. The figures in the carpet and wallpaper receive as much attention as the figures in the drama. The language is contemporary; the setting is squalid; and the action is gritty melodrama, as filmed by Mike Leigh.

Among seven previously collected poems, the six-liner called “Poem” is rare, because it is so explicit. It testifies to sympathy, and the strain of suppressing it. It is a sort of artists’ statement.

When all’s said and done, there’s still
the joyful turning towards you
that feels like the oldest, warmest, and quite possibly
best thing in me that I must stifle,
almost as if you were dead,
or I.

The need to stifle is clear; the cost of this stifling is huge.

Reading Hofmann I thought of a remark of Lucian Freud’s, another transplant from Germany who has gone native. “Freshly felt emotions can’t be used in art without a filter. It’s like people thinking manure is just shit, so they shit in a field and they think the plant will grow and in fact it half-kills it.”3 I don’t quote Freud’s pungent speech to suggest that Hofmann stinks – far from it. If Hofmann fails it is because he stifles so much that, on occasion the poems are not smoke from great fires but ephemera, smoke-signals from cigarettes.

When he opens up; when he turns his jaundiced, blood-shot, exile’s eyes outward, when he surveys the aftermath of Europe and the past century, the results are superb.

On Fanø

Acid rain from the Ruhr strips one pine in three …
To supplement their living, the neutral Danes
let out their houses during the summer months –
exposure, convexity, clouds and the shadows of clouds.
Wild grass grows on the manure of their thatch.

There are concrete bunkers among the sand dunes –
bomb shelters, or part of Heligoland and the V2s …?
German hippies have taken them over, painted them
with their acid peace dreams; a cave art of
giant people, jungles, a plague of dragonflies.

This short poem from his first book, published in his twenties, is what Hofmann does best. He is an excellent craftsman. “Acid” bites the ear, the vowel audible in and corroding “living” and “hippies.” Hofmann makes much of how acid, or some other substance, exfoliates not just trees but strips minds (and no doubt mines) too. No word retains its innocence in his hands. The next poem in this selection chronicles an earlier generation “destroyed by madness.” In the elegiac “Fates of the Expressionists” Hofmann, no hysteric, dryly observes: “Their hold on life was weaker than a baby’s.” Indeed.

The finest kind of reporter, he lets things speak for themselves. Listen to this, from “Aerial Perspective”:

I can only hear the big AWACS aircraft
homing back in the fog across the North Sea –
tailplanes like leg-nutcrackers, and ridden by
their great, rotating, white-striped black toadstools –

No one who reads this will ever see an AWACS the same way again. Hofmann’s malevolent image is exact and indelible, bleeding across the boundary between nature and the apparatus of fear.

He is not inclined to declare yet one of my favorites finds him declaiming. “Nighthawks” begins: “Time isn’t money at our age, its water./ You couldn’t say we cupped our hands very tightly…” This must be among the most succinct definitions ever written of precocious youth. An instant classic worthy of the Classics, it exhibits one his tics: he is in love with the ellipsis.

I could devote the whole review to “Nighthawks.” Among other things, it anatomizes an excruciating feeling we all know too well: hell might not be other people but we have all wished others dead.

I met a dim acquaintance, a man with the manner
of a laughing-gas victim, rich, frightened and jovial.
Why doesn’t everyone wear pink, he squeaked.
Only a couple of blocks are safe in his world.

The word that saves this harrowing portrait is ‘victim:’ Hofmann acknowledges that the man has turned into what he turned to for relief.

He encounters this dreadful type often. In “White Noise,” the first poem in the book, Hofmann judges himself while remarking on the commitments of another:

You hoover twice a week, and in my eyes
that amounts to a passion for cleanliness.
The vacuum, its pre-war drone in the corridor.
Thin and snub-nosed, a gas-mask on a stick.

Whether these folks are born without souls, or lost their souls along the way, is not clear. He has written: “I grew up as an English poet: small-scale, occasional, personal, wincingly witty, articulate about dirt.” I’m not sure how many English poets would accept this characterization. For small-scale he means willing to air dirty laundry, confusing an admiration for stains with the transvaluation of all values. Even in situations of domestic agony, Hofmann remains a character in character, a method actor unsure if he can resist the world’s corrosive blandishments.

Hofmann begins a review of Robert Lowell’s Collected Prose with Lowell’s observation about Hawthorne: “His most confident writing is, perhaps, autobiographical.” Hofmann, acknowledging a debt, continues: “…it might be at least as true of [Lowell] himself.”4 He is committed, even devoted to the aesthetic Lowell posed as a question, looking back from “Epilogue:” “Yet why not say what happened?” Hofmann does not eschew the “blessed structures” Lowell evokes in the poem’s first lines, but he seems less troubled by the dichotomy that urges us beyond mere responsibility: to give “each figure in the photograph/ his living name.” Of course the named figures need not live, nor is there any reason to assume they did. They might just as well be figments a name vivifies.

Lowell hardly knew how apt he was in turning to Vermeer as his august model of terrestrial grace. All agree that Vermeer employed a camera obscura that made the visible new.5 There is disagreement about whether this device allowed Vermeer to capture mere effects or reproduce ‘a new knowledge of reality.’ In the poem, Vermeer’s grace is the accuracy of recording the sun’s illumination, the word with more syllables, and so much more symbolic weight than mere ‘light,’ it swamps the mapped world. But how to comport Lowell’s praise with the fact that what gives Vermeer’s girl her solidity is yearning? She is nameless.

Compared to Lowell, who is comfortable setting poems throughout History, Hofmann’s cast of characters is small. He dares to be intimate with History only on those rare occasions it is intimate with him, as when his neighbors are kidnappers intent on making it. Memorable poetry is the product of these encounters. 6Take the last two stanzas of “Withdrawn from Circulation”:

I was going to Cambridge. A few doors down
was the cellar where the RAF kept the Berlin Senator
they had kidnapped and were holding to ransom.

From time to time, his picture appeared
in the newspapers, authenticated by other newspapers
in the picture with him. He was news that stayed news.

As he does with military hardware, so he does with aphorisms. Hofmann has left his graffito on the Modernist cliff. I will never hear Pound’s dictum without this echo. Of course this tweaking of Pound is respectful, but it is nonetheless a pinch. Gallows irony at the expense of a Senator martyred to a bookish ideology, pointed joke at Pound’s virulent prejudice. (The Senator makes the news, and is authenticated by the news, a pawn in an ideological battle, or what some have called “the terrible battle for meaning.”) Kidnapped from the present he becomes the past before he has passed. And this is remarkably similar to the fate Pound chose, living his last years in Italy in a self-imposed silence, an exile in aphasia. Withdrawn from the world, Pound and the Senator lead a posthumous existence in the only way Hofmann acknowledges life after death: as and in texts.

What gives solidity to Hofmann’s senator? What gives it to his neighbor pushing her “gas-mask on a stick?” To his “dim acquaintance?” (Hofmann means, “dim” in both senses. The man himself is dim; and the acquaintanceship is dim, either because it is a product of ill-lit places like the station bar, the nighthawks’ perch, or because real affection has never lit up their faces.) Is there a characteristic force that guides the fate of Hofmann’s figures, and of Hofmann himself? It is not yearning so much as yearning curdling into loss. Contempt is innate; intimacy is terrifying. (Hence the need to stifle it.) More of his poetry has come from his fraught relations with his father than from any other source.

What Hofmann praises about Elizabeth Bishop applies just as well to his most memorable work: “The particular virtue of Elizabeth Bishop is the balance between the self and the world, between the eye (or ‘I’) and what it sees.”6 It is what Hofmann opts to eye, to size up, or, as is more often the case with him, to downsize, that makes him different. Like Bishop he writes well of his elsewheres, especially of Mexico. Not so well of the States, where he spends part of the year teaching at the University of Gainsville. We offend so many; we stifle so little here.

To continue regarding Hofmann in light of Bishop: he has “looked and looked [his] infant sight away.”7 The poetics of the recent “Poem” means just this. Hofmann knows himself, knows his instincts and knows he must do more than, and quite possibly the opposite of, what comes instinctively. This sets him apart from so many poets who interpret the advice “write what you know” to mean, “Write only about yourself –” those grown-ups with the focal length of infants. If it is a weakness, and I think, even if it is conscious and intentional, it qualifies as a limitation, it is also undoubtedly a strength.

Hofmann’s best work is deeply gratifying: “Outside, the controlled prostitutes move smoothly/ through the shoals of men laughing off their fear.” “Dogs vet the garbage before the refuse collectors.” “Whitewashed against white ants, the yew tree trunks/ look spindly and phosphorescent, like stalagmites/ in the caverns of their shade. The birds wont sing.” “It was – what? –/ the triumph of hope/ over experience. / But what triumph/ (and what hope)?” So gratifying in fact that I forget about the weak or the vague until I page past it. “Tea for My Father” (my favorite poem about their fraught relationship) and the elegy “A Minute’s Silence” are sadly missed in this Selected. If the selection had been more rigorous Hofmann’s seriousness would have been made plain. His best work will last.


1. In his review of Hofmann’s translations of Roth J.M Coetzee has taken him to task for exceeding the translator’s task, and improving Roth’s writing. See Coetzee. J.M., Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005, with an introduction by Derek Attridge, New York, 2007, PGS 91-93. Coetzee introduces his analysis this way: “However, Roth did not always write as well as he could, and what Hofmann does when Roth is at less than top form is cause for concern.”

2. Hofmann, Michael, Behind the Lines: Pieces on Writing and Pictures, Faber & Faber, London 2001, PG 128.
Lucian Freud: Recent Drawings and Etchings, including an interview with the artist by Leigh Bowery and an essay by Angus Cook, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 1993. Unpaginated.

3. See Behind the Lines, PG 35.

4. “Indeed, many found the image of a camera obscura superior to the painted image. As Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), secretary to the Princes of Orange and an art enthusiast, wrote in 1622: ‘It is impossible to express the beauty [of the image] in words. All painting is dead by comparison, for this is life itself, or something more elevated, if one could articulate it.’” quoted from “Vermeer of Delft: His Life and His Artistry” by Arthur Wheelock, published in Johannes Vermeer, ed. by Arthur Wheellock, Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, and Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995, The Netherlands, PGS 25-26.

5. See Behind the Lines, PG 45.

6. See “2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” in Bishop, Elizabeth, The Complete Poems 1927-1979, Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1983, New York.

7. The lines quoted are from “Nighthawks”, “From Kensal Rise to Heaven”, “Progreso” and “End of the Pier Show” respectively.

Michael Autrey (© 2010)