Will Burns reviews Michael Hofmann

One Lark, One Horse published by Faber and Faber (2018)

It has been twenty years since Michael Hofmann’s last book of poems, and there is this kind of temporal strangeness in reading this book in that light. For instance, one wonders if an intelligence like Hofmann’s, sceptical as it always has been, could have imagined itself here in the present climate. The pleasure of that intelligence, especially Hofmann’s vast vocabulary is, as always, ever-present and in fact seems not only undiminished in these latest poems, but even more pronounced. Puns and strange rhymes abound. They are even sign-posted, sometimes in parenthesis, as if the Hofmann behind the Hofmann-speaker cannot even resist marking up his own poems—“Seducer mellotrons / (What’s a tron, mellow I can do?)”, “or whenever the Guardian had a piece  about a nasty practise called ‘astroturfing’. The world is full of false accounting and conniving.” but there is some doubt about it all—“the whole stack -/ shale, vertebrae, pancakes, platelets, plates -/ won’t balance anymore…”

Throughout there is a sense of taking stock, of the re-reading introduced in the first poem—how else would a poet like Hofmann come to any kind of reckoning of later-life than the accrual of language, lists of words—the stuff (“staff”) of life “breaking explosively” on the page? The risk, perhaps, is of sounding too clever, impersonal, arch. But there is always enough bruised emotion to avert the crisis. In fact, there is a kind of sense that all this reading, all these books, these beloved or otherwise authors (Lowry, Lowell, Auden, “F.S.”), all this thinking, adds up to a kind of life that the speaker of the poems at times hardly believes in. The “soft knocks that school a lifetime” from ‘Cricket’ but what about that “—no?”. It weighs heavily in the balance. And there is a wonderfully delicate and resigned, ‘Ah, me’ at the end of a poem called ‘In Western Mass.’ that suggests something similar.

There is a genuine poignancy and something unnerving about this sense of slippage, of memory being used as a buttress against its own fragility. From the opening prose poem on there are references to errant words, “half-remembered scraps of things” that “come out of my head”. Most explicit in the poem ‘On Forgetting’, where Hofmann lists the words he might have lost, be losing or those he manages to “keep a firm hold on”. He writes “I remember, I wrote ‘apotroically’ once,/I wrote ‘anamorphosis’, I wrote ‘aporia.” Again the poignancy of this is not just that of a very clever man regretting his vanishing vocab, but in that repetition of ‘I wrote’, the insistence of it, the sense of it not having been, somehow, quite enough. Not at least in the physical reckoning of these “Late Middle Years” of the “incalculable spreading middle” and “The ninth complement of fresh—stale—cells.”

There is also throughout the geographical detachment – dislocation is not quite right – which has been a generative tool for Hofmann since his first book, and which allows the poet to bring his formidable, forensic eye to bear on his surroundings. Although perhaps more accurately it is the ear at the forefront, picking up the language: “The local parliament yammers all day – / you can get used to the phantom / pinpricks of short ‘i’s in words / like beach, bush or bake”. Hofmann finds another kind of poignancy in these places too, not just his “embarrassment of poverty” – although that is another ever-present quality – but the pressure that place always seems to exert on his speakers. And always described in surprising ways. “Did I fly there? I may have flown there.” the doubt, the shifting backdrops, the “strange effortful / Repositioning of yourself.” And he finds time to land a few jabs on the cultural nose, too. In ‘Letter from Australia’ the speaker asks, “If you can’t have little Englanders, / can’t you have little Americans”, while in ‘Venice Beach’ we are given an exquisitely observed essay on aspects of a certain plane of Californian life with its “cut-off thoughts”, its “product placement thoughts” and its “running very hard in no shirt and sixpack thoughts,”. It doesn’t quite constitute an attack, this poem, where many of the observations are too smart, too sad or too large to be mere thrown-off insults. And coming as it does, again, with this attendant sense of the poet as over-thinking and therefore equally culpable—“These are all thoughts – of course.” and we know whose.

Elsewhere, Hofmann can be at his most brutally acerbic. ‘Less Truth’ piles on with a palpable sense of anger until the final line’s desultory, almost hopeless, landing. But it is in ‘Portrait d’une Femme’ that he takes aim with particular gusto. There is a joyousness in a takedown which perhaps inevitably saves its own most “venomous articulation” for an assault on the addressee’s: “…trademark solecisms / (naive to wonder how anyone with a Cambridge degree in it / could hurt the language like you). / a sort of chronically over-emphatic sub-style of maimed English, / a testosterone debris of nursery babble, pop psychology, tabloid yelp and obscenity.”

The more prosaic insults, one senses, do not quite get the poet’s blood running at the same temperature. ‘The Case for Brexit’ runs through an accusatory list of reminiscences from a version on England that is shabby and sad and divided, rather than the chesty nation of heroes some would pretend. Bad cricket (again), bullies, tricks. In ‘Silly Season, 2015’  Hofmann goes for the American political jugular, a country that is “good for an atrocity a week (‘gun violence’), and doesn’t get it.” and while some lines are exacting, “Walls go up against Serbia, Mexico, Palestine. A large body of water is of course (Australis) ideal.” the final line feels a little too easy. “Religions have feelings. Cartoons aren’t funny. Speech costs.” Perhaps a tendency to see through all manner of bullshit makes it hard to declare sides clearly when it feels as if that’s what the epoch, and the poem, might demand.

In the preface to his 2014 book of essays Where Have You Been? Michael Hofmann described the critical work that made up that book as his ‘most regular and responsible’ writing. One Lark, One Horse is certainly a welcome return for this irregular (20 years…!), irresponsible stuff, although it feels at times like it might be the last we see of it—in ‘Poem’, for example, which sums up the poet’s ambivalence rather sadly, and rather well: “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 musts stifle, / almost as if you were dead, / or I.” Or as he puts it elsewhere: “Stop trying to be a poet. There isn’t time.” Indeed.

Will Burns was born in London and raised in Buckinghamshire. He is one of Caught by the River’s poets-in-residence. He was named as one of the four Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014. His debut pamphlet in that series published in October 2014.

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