A Hundred Lovers
By Richie Hofmann
80 pages. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
Richie Hofmann’s second book, A Hundred Lovers, makes a quarter-turn from the conscious elegance of its (admittedly elegant) predecessor. If Second Empire aspired to the French novel, A Hundred Lovers feels grittier, tactically episodic, more Berlin Alexanderplatz than Bel-Ami. For comparison, here’s Alfred Döblin, in another Hofmann’s – Michael’s – version:
They sat peaceably on the sofa for a while, side-by-side, talking. Then he left, alone. She saw him to the door. “Don’t come back, Franz,” she cried and pressed her head against his shoulder . . . Then she let go, and quickly and quietly pushed the door shut. He ordered a couple of large veal escalopes to be sent up.
The same species of retreat lives in Richie Hofmann’s “One Another”:
Our bodies manufacture their odors. I taste earth
on his skin. Eros enters, where shame had lived.
Pale sun, then morning. How easily the earth closes
its cavities. I leave the apartment
wearing his black anorak.
This gourmet attention to words – “escalopes,” “anorak” – indicates plausibility; of all possible words, this one suits especially. When the speaker leaves an apartment wearing a black anorak, the poet bargains more than lexical exactitude, he risks a kind of indeterminacy, since vocabulary is, eventually, curatorial; why not parka? cagoule? mackintosh? K-Way? All this cannily resolved by a swift rhyme, those inflexible, leathery consonants closing both black and anorak: sound can substitute for sense, if in a fix.
These poems are shabbier, more creaky than their speaker would let on. Of course, this book surrounds the struggle to get things right, to get moments in the right order, to assume the correct emphasis, to go word for word, feeling for feeling, with memory. Hofmann tactfully welcomes a new, dynamic inelegance, a kind of sideways rhetorical turn toward authenticity, makes the nouns somehow inexact, offhanded, or even lax, if I didn’t know better. Clarity, which Hofmann otherwise requires, owns an almost bathetic specificity; what’s the function of a North Face jacket or a Camel cigarette, for that matter? Indeed, there’s something functionally – fictionally – scheduled about this collection’s memories, which has something to do with Hofmann’s sometimes strained, more often exquisite nouns. The need to peg our memories to certain words, and corral those words within our memories – hounds autobiography, and these are autobiographical poems; it’s dishonest, and probably impossible, to read them otherwise. Hofmann proffers this ragged, weirdly austere thesis in “The Toilet of Venus”:
I don’t know how
to explain my love of pleasure
without sounding like a creep.
These lines and their so-definite gerund, sounding, strike a participial curve, posture their nouns both toward and around one another. “Pleasure” and “creep,” which close their respective lines, outline the poem’s moral perimeter, that pleasure lives in embarrassment. In having “pleasure” articulate, “sounded,” in “creep,” Hofmann brings the nouns down to their bare mobile potential: they’re a traverse, or a thicket, for naming.
Hofmann’s selective, spare-to-decadent vocabulary sometimes threatens to get the better of him. And the poems are better for it, better when they explode into excess, as when an “affluent night” comes over “Things that are Rare”:
Fingerprints on the unjacketed books.
Inside the collars
of the shirts in the open closet—
An affluent night.
You’ve touched everything in my small room.
“Unjacketed” cycles from the same air as “anorak.” Ditto “affluent night” which anticipates an “artificial night” some poems later. Yet one gets the sense that all these choices are occasional, nonce, whether anorak, artificial, absolutist, affluent (and those are just the A’s). And while Hofmann’s vocabulary ranges from the minor “small room” to the fragrant “expensive lettuce,” these words always mean something, even if the speaker cannot say exactly what or how.
Hofmann enjoys clearness and perplexity equally, and muddles daringly between. I feel refreshingly uncoerced by these poems. They aren’t breathy or contrived, do little to imitate, or worse, enact their speaker’s psychology. Instead, they present, in terms both certain and unsure, the development of one’s own sociability, as in “Beneath One’s Skin”:
While he held me,
I woke to an obscene message from someone else.
I hardly slept, I yawned through breakfast.
Again, certain words prevail. “Obscene” generates, sonically, “someone,” with their front-loaded sibilants, sliding silent e’s, shared open-throat vowels picked up by “yawned” below. All to generate a new, sublimated phrase: someone obscene yawned. Redirections abound, as in “Bottom’s Dream”:
Fuck. I shouldn’t say that:
I’m from New Jersey, my dad was an executive, my fantasies of violence are trite.
These “fantasies” resolve with a jismy, astounding flourish at the poem’s close, with “lindens shedding globby tears.” Hofmann shares a strange yet decipherable attraction to certain airless rooms with someone like Weldon Kees (“Not without violence, and he kicks under the grand piano,” from “Robinson,” 1) This dominated, apposite, queasy-yet-intelligible logic prevails equally in “Rilke Poem”:
His studio like a Bohemian’s but astringent,
a poem by Rilke framed beside his bed
in the kitchen, which he read to me
the night it rained hotly, in a language I used to know,
and summer curled the crisp edges.
When – better, how – is a studio astringent? It hardly matters, since this puzzle gives way to richer, if more obvious, ones: that hot rain that “curls crisp edges” like dry ink in the margins of an overread book.
I’m reminded everywhere in this collection of Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, “the fertile verge”: Hofmann’s poems threaten, and bring one to the edge of, excess. Here, for instance, is “Mosquitos”:
The summer the elderly died
in their walk-up apartments,
I projected my homosexuality onto everyone.
The sea frilled
like expensive lettuce. The beach became
crowded with working-class people.
They sat in the dark sand, their dogs too free.
A zapper killed mosquitoes baroquely.
My teeth were yellow from coffee and wine.
Every desire I had I wanted enacted—
on the beaches, in bathrooms, in train stations.
Faded buildings with no air-conditioning, the windows open,
you couldn’t drown out the noise.
When the power was cut, it was like a new artificial night on my eyes.
There’s a barren immediacy in this poem; the nouns and adjectives, if not the verbs read in the present tense: zapper, baroquely, artificial night (like the affluent night above), and uncannily “frilled like expensive lettuce,” as though getting it right shares the imperative of a certain defensible lie, a lie to save oneself from scrutiny. But of course these poems – extreme, personal, often deliciously overhanded – invite scrutiny: “I like to paint landscapes, // though I always see you looking.” Consciously audacious, wonderfully deliberate. I’m glad to know that someone’s staring back.
Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems, essays, and reviews appear with the Sewanee Review, Raritan, Michigan Quarterly Review, the New Criterion, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. Hupp was most recently named a semifinalist in the 92Y Discovery Contest. He currently serves as an MFA candidate and graduate instructor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.