Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, By Michael Hofmann, Faber and Faber, 304 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0571323661
translator, critic – for Michael Hofmann these different job
specifications are all aspects of the same enterprise, projections of
the same sensibility. The poetry came first, the reputation established
with Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983). That collection and those that followed – Acrimony; Corona, Corona; Approximately Nowhere
– introduced a voice that was highly distinctive and very much unlike
the general run of British poetry of the time. Sceptical, disenchanted,
in some respects almost an anti-poetry, full of brooding absences and
short term occupations of empty spaces described with great disruptive
Six floors up, I found myself like a suicide ‑
one night, the last thing in a bare room …
I was afraid I might frighten my neighbours,
two old ladies dying of terror, thinking
every man was the gasman, every gasman a killer ...
(“A Brief Occupation”)
Poems that built up layers of detail and
then abandoned them, disdaining conventional closure or grand gestures,
as if the world of the poems was a crowded but deeply alien place.
Robert Lowell is certainly in the background; the pressures of the
personal, the fidelity to the details of a life, and that determination
to convert life into literature – one of the things he praises Lowell
for in Where have You Been? – are all evident in the poems about his father, the writer Gert Hofmann, in his remarkable second volume, Acrimony, but is a constant thread throughout the work:
Then a family event if ever there was one:
my mother reads my translations of my father,
who hasn’t read aloud since his ‘event’.
Darkness falls outside. Inside too.
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