Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2015. 100 pages. $15.95.
Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, Second Empire, contains the fierce construction of a life saturated with love. Hofmann’s speaker looks closely at the world he is born into as well as at the world he would create in its place, the former existing as a battlefield whose rules have not been proclaimed widely enough and the latter being forged from a sensual and uncompromising imagination. These two worlds often appear in the same moment, line, sentence, or poem, like two opposing emotions gripped simultaneously in the mind. Over the course of the book, they move closer, tentative as new lovers. Hofmann builds a steadying cord between the eyes and what they view in both his speaker and his reader. He grants us a tightrope and we walk out of ourselves into what eventually become our lives.
The collection opens with such convergence in the poem Sea Interlude: Dawn, which serves as the first installment of a series of “Sea Interludes” throughout the book:
The ocean gurgles a dead language.
Standing at the water’s edge, I watch myself
loosen into a brief, exquisite blur,
like Antinuous, nearly naked in the cold,
in the morning gone adrift, turning away from love
toward what he knows, even then, is loss.
Antinuous, a pauper in ancient Greece whose beauty so enthralled the Roman emperor Hadrian that he was invested with divinity and named a God upon his death, serves as a poignant entryway into Second Empire. Hadrian named for him the ancient city of Antinopolis, poignant in the context of this collection’s title, and it is said he perished mysteriously at sea.
The speaker in these poems must create the world in which he loves and is loved, a world at once distinct from homosexuality and inextricable from it. This world is not new but rather has been largely destroyed. Appropriately, Hofmann uses an organic image to discuss the path toward his lover—a path that serves as the “dead language” he too learned to gurgle—in Three Cranes: “I have searched for nourishment / in you, like a long, black beak / in the earth.” When he employs a shorter sentence, there is a bluntness and precision that belies a formidable desperation brought about by the violence of history. Looking further when nothing has been found, as with creating a life for which there is little precedent, is ultimately an act of faith. The love Hofmann envisions is ancient, yet his journey toward it marks a return rather than an arrival.
Second Empire does not hesitate to pursue this tenuous journey despite the risks of its faith not being rewarded, and by doing so, his speaker earns an intimacy between himself and his life. This intimacy, in which looking becomes knowing, is pervasive and spills into tenderness, crossing the border of one body to another. Hofmann writes in Capriccio:
Everywhere we walked, you would point out how the Japanese honeysuckle clung
to the walls and fences.
Each star-shaped flower scattered its breath into fragrance,
which the heavy air held around us,
until, as if no longer able,
all the aroma flushed away in the sky’s own sighing—
As with the sentence quoted above, when he employs a longer sentence that unwinds over several lines, its intricacy carries with it an undercurrent of devotion to its subject—of staying—and the attention he gives becomes palpable.
Capriccio is composed entirely of three sentences. One sentence over the course of six lines precedes the section quoted above so that the poem’s lyricism gives way to a brief interlude, a simple sentence spent listening to the beloved, before returning to the more lyric, solitary attention. Rather than showing this more muted interlude to be quieter in contrast to the poem’s more ebullient observational lines, this gesture places the interlude on equal footing with the rest of the poem. The moment of listening to the beloved carries with it the same relentless, transformative power in a more concentrated fashion, as when the poet himself sees the world clearly, speaks it, and knows it to be different than before. It is an instant in which alone and together begin to merge, echoing the merging of the inherited and created worlds. The poem has no need to speak beautifully of listening to the beloved but rather argues that such beauty is innate and obvious. Hofmann’s sentences are careful in the truest sense of the word—they are inhabited by care.
Hofmann uses this sense of care to examine history itself as one would gaze into the face of a lover. His poems move toward the beloved as one would stagger toward one’s own ancestry. To know oneself and one’s past more clearly is to blindly feel one’s way along the walls that lead forward. Hofmann writes in Sea Interlude: Passacaglia, the second of the series:
down at the fish, struggling to see them
like a memory in which only part
of a moment returns, the rest somehow unlit,
blank like a swath of tiles missing
from a Byzantine mosaic—a scar
that will not reflect another century’s light.
This poet, in addition to undertaking the suturing of one world to another, remains aware of his limitations in such an exercise. Hofmann is keenly cognizant while applying language to the openings in his life that the stitches might burst, and the wound show again. The effect is an alternately frail and unmerciful relationship to language, extending the lineage of poets such as Henri Cole and James Merrill, who expertly synchronized the formal and emotional machines of their poems, with an equally conflicted vision of love coursing through his words. This passage from Description turns to language, the very medium by which the poet’s faith is often tested and sometimes fails: “Once a poet told me, Your eyes are whores. / Once description was all I thought I needed / to bridge things.” Both Cole and Merrill steadily put more and more of themselves on the page, moving further into their lives by virtue of the poems they were writing. Thankfully for us, Hofmann has done as much from the very beginning of his career and has still kept an entire world outside of the self in complete focus as well.
Opposite this hard-earned journey into life, that greater being by whom we are constantly defeated, is the sea, which steps forward throughout the book like the mirage of a life unchallenged. The sea, in which there has only been one empire, offers itself as an alternative to all of this: the self, the lover, love itself, as well as to the discomfort inherent to all of them. Hofmann, though, wields the intimacy he has earned over the course of these pages powerfully, as in Idyll:
I have nothing
to confess. I don’t yet know that I possess
a body built for love. When the wind grazes
its way toward something colder,
you too will be changed.
To give oneself, to be vulnerable to the world, carries with it the pain of being devastated, or at least the potential for such pain. Hofmann gives himself again and again, coldness be damned. You too will be changed. You too will live. Turning back to life, the one world clarifying and shot through with tenderness, we know ourselves suddenly to possess, in Hofmann’s words, “bod[ies] built for love.” We have earned this intimacy with him. We see finally the map on the book’s cover to be a torso, then the cords of someone’s neck, and then a mouth opening.