Wading low through marsh and grass,
quick and cautious, the crane, too,
knows this: there is a freedom
in submitting to another. Cranes mate
for life. With necks outstretched,
they take flight, a double arrow's stab
of silver, released and then gone.
I have searched for nourishment
in you, like a long, black
in the earth. How was I to know
what I would find there? Every night,
we shrieked our presence to each other,
desire or grief lacquering us onto our lives
like birds on a paneled screen.
long, the men built
another bridge, stacking slabs of metal
and concrete near the barrier island
where we lived. I was worried we had fallen
from each other. Silent on the
we watched machines hoisted on and off
Standing one-legged in the marsh:
a crane, all steel and orange light,
binding the horizon.
What will become of us? I almost said.
Gulls wove in and out of the cables,
shrieking up and down within the stacks,
in unison, I noticed, with our breath.
It almost looked like a living thing.
Lying on my
Crane's letters again, I felt a hand
behind me. Orange light pressed
the window. The hand that touched
my shoulder was yours ("I know now
there is such a thing as indestructibility").
Your confessor, I listened for your breath
("the cables enclosing us and pulling
but felt only the ceiling fan,
and traffic, somewhere, chafing against
a wet street. 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.
From the outset I hated the city of my ancestors.
I was fearful I'd be put in the dungeon below
The best example of the Romanesque
a guide was saying in German in English in French
where are buried
eight German kings four queens
twenty-three bishops four Holy Roman Emperors
all of whom used this
bishopric on the river as the seat
of the kingdom. On the old gate at one end a clock
told an ancient form of time.
I sulked along behind
my parents as the guide gave facts about the war
with the Saracens about the place where
the Jews bathed
about the child like me whose father the Peaceful
having already produced an heir by his first marriage
could marry for love.
Once nothing separated us but the gossamer
of sheets--white and gauzy in the summer, when a world
of heat blew in, inflating
the curtains into the room that
and mine, when no one else was there--
nothing between the body, whose hot-bloodedness,
I had come to know
the duration of my life,
and the body
he drank cool water with, the body he salted, mile after mile
along the coast, fucked me with, with
he told me what troubled him
--the two of us in our bed
of Egyptian cotton.
The sea reflected us, our human emotions.
Then the sea refused
us, like the sea.
-from Second Empire, selected by
Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Richie Hofmann is the
author of a collection of poems, Second Empire (Alice James Books, 2015), winner of the 2014
Beatrice Hawley Award. He is the recipient of a 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and
his poems appear in the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, the New Republic, Ploughshares, New
England Review, the New Criterion, Yale Review, and Poetry. He has been
featured in the New York Times Style Magazine, on Poetry Daily, on the Academy of American
Poets Poem-a-Day, in the anthology, Best New Poets 2014, and in Poets & Writers Featured
Debuts of 2015. He has received the John Ciardi Scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Peter Taylor
Fellowship from Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference,
a scholarship from the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Michael Peich Scholarship from West Chester
Poetry Conference. A graduate of the University Professors Program at Boston University and the Johns Hopkins University
Writing Seminars MFA program, he is a doctoral candidate at Emory University, where he has held the Creative Writing
Fellowship in Poetry, and also teaches in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. With Kara van de Graaf, he founded Lightbox,
an online educational resource featuring original interviews with poets and materials for classroom use. He lives in Chicago.
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
A Review of Richie Hofmann's
Second Empire by Peter LaBerge, first published at Iowa Review
“Standing at the water’s edge, I
watch myself / loosen into a brief, exquisite blur.” Though we begin our journey through Richie Hofmann’s stunning
debut poetry collection Second Empire with the freedom to move and self-express, it is a destination of sorts for
Hofmann himself. The collection functions as a deeply personal glimpse into the immediate and long-term effects of the tension
Hofmann experienced growing up as a queer man in Western society: tension between security and connection, beauty and fragility,
tradition and identity. The collection as a whole is far from sole introspection, however. From the first poem, Hofmann
is interested chiefly in answering the larger question, What do you do when you don’t fit tradition? On
the surface, this may sound like a simple question, perhaps even a self-explanatory one—but for Hofmann, and consequently
for the reader, it is anything but.
Perhaps the most
compelling element of Second Empire is the repeated mention of “the city” from whence the narrator
originates. From the narrator’s perspective, the city encompasses a portrait of tradition and ancestry that is equally
inflexible and inauthentic. In “Fresco,” for example, the city is referred to as “perfumed," “decorated,"
and “ornamented." Equally compelling is Hofmann’s initial portrayal of the human body in relation to tradition.
In such poems as “Egyptian Bowl with Figs,” where Hofmann links the traditional process of embalmment with the
notion of “paint[ing] [history] in gold,” and “Idyll,” in which Hofmann refers to the body as being
“built," the human body seems tailored to fit the city, rather than the other way around.
This focus on shame and the manufactured quality of tradition illuminates a profound sense of vulnerability in
Hofmann’s narrator, caused by the ever-changing world clashing with his unchanging body and unchanging tradition. Throughout
the collection, emotional undercurrents of insecurity and restraint govern the overall tone and direction many of the early
poems adopt. In “Idyll,” for example, Hofmann doesn’t “know that I possess / a body built for love.”
In “Sea Interlude: Storm,” he “clung / like a feeding gull to the sureness of flesh." In the third
movement of “Night Ferry,” he recalls the sense of relative freedom he derived from wearing the Venetian mask
that “kept me from my life.”
As the collection
progresses, however, Hofmann narrows his focus to unpacking the complicated relationship he has with the expectations for
him outlined by tradition. This culminates in the epiphanic image of the “whole city … reflected below / the
city” in the fourth movement of Hofmann’s poem “Night Ferry.” No longer must Hofmann’s narrator
live in the shame-inspiring wake of his ancestors; now, it is he (through reflection) who holds the keys to the
city that has restrained him for so long, he who is the “hierophant / to the past," he who
may interpret the tradition of his ancestors to create a revised version of tradition for himself. Hofmann references this
exact realization at the beginning of his poem “Erotic Archive”:
We sleep in his bed
among his silent books.
Though I never knew him,
I’ve spent my entire life
thinking it’s his ghost
I belong to.
as in much of the collection’s later half, we witness striking growth in the narrator. Whereas he initially “pray[ed]
I might shake off this skin and be raised / from the ground again” (“Idyll”), he now recognizes the principal
roles that he, his queerness, and his lover play in the shaping of tradition—both in the present, as well as for the
future. Gone, it seems, are the days of “desire or grief lacquering us” (“Three Cranes”), the days
of “liv[ing]...from small relief to small relief, like a boy pulling a thorn / from his foot” (“After”)—they’ve
been replaced by days of liberation, of self-ownership, of “nothing between the body...and the body” (“Egyptian
Cotton”). Elsewhere, Hofmann is even more overt in his delivery. In “Bright Walls,” he simply states, “To
bend, to kneel before some greater force— / that was no longer what I wished.”
Keith Leonard: I’ve always admired how the line breaks,
whitespace, and short declarative sentences in your work carefully slow the reader down. Why are you drawn to this particular
pacing in a poem?
Richie Hofman: One of the things I love about poetry is
that it demands a particular kind of attention—and rewards attention. I think that’s rare in our world, in which
everything feels so fast-paced, so abbreviated and truncated, so multi-tasked. It’s probably impossible to control
how a reader reads your poem—every one reads differently, or imagines the voice of the poem differently—but
the features you mention are tools I hope ask a reader to pay closer attention. I like to think of poems sometimes as objects
for contemplation—I imagine an exhibit at a museum, in which the elements of display around it—the kind of pedestal
or vitrine, the color of the walls—all contribute to how you might apprehend and understand the object. White space,
punctuation and line breaks (which are also a form of punctuation) help define and create the space in which a reader comes
to the poem.
KL: In “First Night in Stonington” the speaker claims, “So rare in this country
to pace the streets/ of another century.” Could you speak to how American history (or maybe notions of history in America)
have influenced you work?
RH: Many of my poems are interested in history—not just the American past, but European history,
as well, and the history of art and music. “Second Empire,” as an adjective or historical term, usually refers
to France under Napoleon III (1852-1870), a period known for, among other things, Haussmann’s “renovation”
of Paris, and the building of the Palais Garnier. While I did put a Palais Garnier poem in the book (“At the Palais
Garnier”), I was most drawn to the title, “Second Empire,” because of how it suggested that even things
we think of as monumental can be replaced. That there could be a second also implies (as history has often proven) that
there could be third or a fourth, as well. As for America, we are living in a sort of changing empire today, and I’m
interested in the way that fragility—political, artistic, and personal—affects our identities and relationships,
our artists and our lovers.
KL: So much of this beautiful book is focused on love—the joy, the erotic, the difficulty.
What is it like for you to write a poem that takes love as its subject?
RH: I love love. I love speaking
to someone privately in a poem that also speaks to others. As a reader, I love overhearing that private speech. I love poems
that enact desire, through their forms and withholdings and denials. The book is, for me, about the consuming uncertainties
of love and sex. Most of the poems in the book take the form of the sonnet—the traditional form of the love poem.
Three of the book’s elements—sex, history, and the sea—seem to be metaphors for finding connection with
others that affirms the self, that reminds you you are part of something bigger, something older, something wilder.
Music—particularly opera—figures prominently in the collection. As such, it seems fitting that “Old
World Elegy” won the 2013 Art Song contest and was scored by composer Brian Baxter. Could you speak a little bit about
the experience of listening to your poem turned into song?
RH: I care deeply for music—I spend
most of my time listening to, and learning about music. You’re right—opera I love especially, and musical theater
and vocal music. Texts are powerful and music is powerful—but in song you have both verbal and musical elements working
together. To have a poem of mine win the Art Song Contest—it was an incredible experience: Brian Baxter’s beautiful
setting of the poem, and the live performance of it at the Poetry Foundation, the gorgeous venue, the singer, the quartet—all
incredible. People say there are “musical” elements to poetry, which may be true, but they’re nothing like
real music lifting poetry off the page and into the ear. Brian’s interludes between the sections of the poem add so
much to the experience of “Old World Elegy,” I wish I could put them in the book, too. “Old World Elegy”
is going to get a studio recording this fall, I think. And I’ll be collaborating with Brian Baxter on another venture
soon, too. Memorious’s contest not only advances the tradition of art song, but also brings together artists
from realms that don’t often connect enough. That’s the best part.
KL: What are you working on now?
I’m starting to write the first chapter of my dissertation for my doctorate in English at Emory University on twentieth-century
poetry—I’m focusing on questions and texts that have meant a lot to me as a reader and as a writer, about music
and opera, theatricality, lyric form, and authority. The best part, for me, is reading and re-reading poems by W. H. Auden,
James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, and others.
I’ve also been working to procure interviews
with poets I love and to develop classroom materials related to their work for Lightbox, a new online educational resource
for students and teachers that I’ve just launched with my friend, the poet Kara van de Graaf. It’s been a lot
of work, but also such a pleasure, especially to read the responses from the poets we’ve interviewed and to think about
how we might approach teaching the work. We’ve been fortunate to get to ask questions to established writers, like
A. E. Stallings, Maurice Manning, Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Salter, and Claudia Rankine, and to writers whose first books we’re
excited to dive into, like Rickey Laurentiis, Ocean Vuong, and Solmaz Sharif. I really hope teachers will use these interviews
and the accompanying in-class activities, discussion questions, and writing prompts in their classrooms, and that writers
of all ages and levels can use these materials for self-study.
for an audio interview with Richie Hofmann at Poetry Northwest
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
for a reading by Richie Hofman