By Matt Morton
The virtue of quietness is not in vogue in much of the poetry of our moment. The majority of poems I read by young writers—and I am one of them—are more concerned with associative movement than with clarity; more interested in bounding over psychological terrain than in establishing single, distinct impressions. These poems are loud, unruly, and brimming over with energy. They tend to wear their hearts (or lack thereof) on their sleeves.
In nearly every way, the poems in Second Empire, Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, run counter to these trends. Like the Psalms that they reference, Hofmann’s poems are hushed and measured. Recalling in equal parts the work of Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill, Carl Phillips and Henri Cole, these poems nevertheless stand apart from their influences, painting with delicate strokes, simultaneously concealing and revealing their concerns.
“Sea Interlude: Dawn,” which opens the collection, is representative of Hofmann’s typical approach. It begins with several lines of relatively straightforward description:
Smoke green mist leans into the rocks,
where fishermen whistle and mend their nets,
practicing rituals of brotherhood
before the luster of sky and sun,
which flashes against the pale horizon
with the oily turbulence of a swarm
This first sentence, which makes up half of the poem, sets the stage for the delayed turn—the entrance of Hoffman’s speaker in line 10: “Standing at the water’s edge, I watch myself / loosen into a brief exquisite blur.” The speaker finally compares himself to Antinoüs, “turning away from love / toward what he knows, even then, is loss.” “Sea Interlude: Dawn” introduces many of the themes that will be taken up elsewhere in the collection: the speaker’s conflicted relationship to, and fascination with, history; the problem of coming to terms with one’s identity; the possibility of loss that lurks on the margins of every apparently innocuous experience.
Like “Sea Interlude: Dawn,” the poems that follow also display Hofmann’s attention to form. While many of the poems resemble sonnets, others make use of less familiar formal constraints. “Three Cranes” comprises three sections, each of which references a different “crane” (the bird, the construction machine, and the poet Hart Crane). “Mirror” is made up of a single stanza of alternating rhyming pairs, the first line of which is loose iambic pentameter, the second a short line of two syllables:
You’d expect a certain view from such a mirror–
than one that hangs in the entry and decays.
past my reflection toward other things:
burnt gold upon blue, which decorate the wall
those objects collected from travels . . .
Similarly, in “Night Ferry” we find four long sections of irregular-length rhyming couplets:
Tonight, distantly, the cold air
comes off the square,
where all those people, bundled in winter coats,
line up to buy tickets for the boats.
Everywhere the city disguises
them from each other. The black ferry moves. The water rises
in the dark.
The people disembark.
These poems exhibit a careful construction that makes them feel oracular and at times disembodied, even inhuman. They are characterized by hitches in otherwise unassuming surfaces, moments of surprise which often take the form of wonderfully strange and precise verbs. In “Description,” Hofmann’s speaker recalls,
And snow shawled the branches.
And you took the keys from your pocket. And snow feathered the grass
which was mine to remember and forget.
“Antique Book” finds the sky “crazed with swallows;” “Bats tacked blackness / to the sky” in “The Surround.” Hofmann’s poems resemble Cole’s in their texturing of light, airy sentences with sharp, precise diction. They are at once minimal and forceful, authoritative and reserved.
Because these poems are so quiet, they demand to be read slowly if they are to be deeply felt. The attentive reader, however, is rewarded with a moving narrative arc. Through a series of hints, memories, and subtle impressions, Second Empire presents the story of a relationship in peril and the speaker’s simultaneous struggles to come to terms with himself and his place in history. As in much Classical writing, what is omitted in these poems is as important as what is on the page. Take the short poem “Purple,” for example, printed here in its entirety:
From the Phoenicians, they learned to extract
the color from shells.
When their dogs ate sea snails along the coast,
their dog-teeth were dyed purple—that’s how the Phoenicians knew.
To darken it,
the Romans added black, which came from scorched wood,
which abounded, one imagines, in an empire.
The economy of language here is stunning on its own, as is Hofmann’s ability to punctuate his sentences with bizarre diction like “dog-teeth.” However, when read in the context of the other poems and the fear of loss that haunts them, “Purple” takes on even greater significance: it simultaneously points toward the violence that must be at the foundation of any civilization and asks to be read as an allegory revealing the speaker’s fear that what he loves most is at risk of being destroyed—a fear so great that he can only acknowledge it indirectly, through a historical lens.
The fear of destroying what one loves permeates Second Empire. Nowhere is this fear more evident than in the final section of “Night Ferry,” the most ambitious—and, for me, the most moving—poem in the collection. “Section IV. Serenity” opens with the speaker passively observing how “The city cleaved things: together / and apart.” But by the end of the section, it is the speaker who has become culpable for the separation of things. The rudder of the speaker’s boat
cut its dark path through the water,
pushing wake to either side, as if sorting testimonies of love
from jealousy: from above,
it must have looked like the black canal was rent
apart, halved, no matter where I went.
In these lines, which close Second Empire’s third section, Hofmann’s speaker finally experiences the moment of epiphany toward which each of the preceding poems has been building: he is confronted by an understanding of his capacity to harm, to sever what seemed indivisible.
The book’s fourth section explores the speaker’s reactions to this understanding, and it is not until the final poems of the collection that we observe how
When the sun broke up the thunderheads,
and dissonance was consigned
to its proper place, the world was at once foreign
and known to me. That was shame
leaving the body.
In this way, Second Empire ends not in dissolution, but in reconciliation. The final poem, “Imperial City,” suggests that Hofmann’s speaker has begun to find a way forward by looking, once again, into the past. The poem, which takes the form of a nearly unpunctuated memory, closes with the boy speaker listening to a tour guide discuss
the child like me whose father the Peaceful
having already produced an heir by his first marriage
could marry for love.
Here Hofmann turns away from loss toward love, a decision that ends the collection on a note of hopeful uncertainty—a clarity in which exists the possibility of reunited lovers and a unified self. This is as loud a moment as any in the book, a moment of triumph; for this reason, it is a finale worthy of all that precedes it. With these remarkable poems, Hofmann truly transcends the “debut” label.