Alice James Books. 2015. 100 pages.
Reviewed 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
of herring.

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 o