Short Conversations with Poets: Richie Hofmann

“All technique, no passion, a critic said” of Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, “but,” writes Richie Hofmann, “that was what I liked.” It’s as if what moves the poet is not the feeling directly, but the way that feeling emanates from the completeness of its subordination to the craft. The sharpness, the coldness, become signs—remainders, really—marking the vastness of emotion. A fastidious style always conveys a lurking chaos.

The technique in Hofmann’s new book of poems, his second, departs from his earlier work in a number of ways, but what stands out is the poet’s attempt to avoid leaning too often on similes—and his refusal generally of elaborate poetic devices of almost any kind—in favor of a descriptive style harnessed to a leaping, paratactical imagination. Most of the poems in A Hundred Lovers hover around the idea of a sonnet, many are fourteen lines, many are thirteen—and all of them are about love or lust or the collision of the two. So you get the brilliance of precise renderings in language, as when the poet describes “the windows sucking in the curtains”—amazing—or the vividness of “fingerprints on the unjacketed books.”

The voice that voices these poems is bookish but stylish, a reader, a consummate traveler, some cross between flaneur and existentialist, inspired by French autofiction and by James Merrill, a student of Eavan Boland—Hofmann was a Stegner Fellow, and teaches creative writing at Stanford—and above all, self-absorbed in that driven Rilkean way, only in Hofmann’s case the angels are angels of pleasure—“I don’t know how / to explain my love of pleasure / without sounding like a creep.” To which the unnamed lover in that particular poem replies, looking upon the splendor of the naked speaker: “You look like a grown-up Cupid.” Part of what’s at stake, in fact, is a marriage, which is to say monogamy. There is a gorgeous wedding poem, in which two men nap before their nuptials, “the breeze from the lake / on our backs and butts and legs.” And in a larger sense, the poet is out to expose—and perhaps expel—shame, for he believes that “Eros enters, where shame had lived.” Here are some endings to poems in this book: “My odor was like a fern’s.” “My pocket smells of masculine lavender.” “Every night I told him / you should take a shower before you come over.” “I remember that first year / pulling your briefs from the hamper.” “In my favorite recordings / you can hear the pianist breathing.” In one poem, called “Pernod,” the speaker “dreamed light BDSM dreams.” Like many of the works in the book, “Pernod” is a straightforward litany of declarative sentences, one after another, picking up momentum even as the leaps get more violent, line to line, image to image, building in that movement a frisson, a sensuality, a catalog of observations that cohere into a texture somehow both sharply realistic and vaguely dreamlike:

To give oneself to a hundred lovers: hard.
To give oneself to one man: also hard.
I watched an older man and a younger man tanning themselves
by the freezing pool.
I stayed up all night.
I cleaned my genitals in the sink.

– – –

JESSE NATHAN: Sex is very hard to write about, I think. Or at least difficult to write about well. How do you approach it? What are we talking about when we talk about sex?

RICHIE HOFMANN: I feel like I’m never writing about sex. Usually I feel like I’m writing about intimacy and attention. I feel these most potently in the desire for sex, and in the moments that precede and follow sex. I want my poems to feel charged with erotic potential, but often the most erotic moment from my memory that I want to recreate in a poem won’t be an instance of sex, but some other detail from the room, the day, the experience. The smell of mint shampoo or paper money being put into a wallet. The critic Stephen Guy-Bray once described to me this effect in my poems as “an environment of sex,” and I loved that: heightened attention to detail, to language, to sensory knowledge. In my poem “Street of Dyers” I end with, “I was not in love, there was nothing to experience.” The lovers in these poems give the speaker his body back.

More and more, I want my poems to be catalogs of sensuous details. I want to feel like I’m inside a room, experiencing the shape of its objects, smelling its fragrances, being warmed by its light. I want images to feel physical and specific in their invention and articulation. In A Hundred Lovers, I was interested in creating something like Cavafy in the present tense. I love in his work the sense that, even in the moment of encounter, it is all being stored away, preserved, its fragments filled in as by a conservator. The sensuousness must be saved against the fear of loss, of vanishing entirely, the erotic always intermingling with elegy. Later in that century, Louise Glück’s poem asked and answered: “Why love what you will lose? / There is nothing else to love.”

For many people, but for homosexuals especially, sex can be a site of difference, loss, alienation. One feels forced into one’s body in ways that make life more painful but also richer. It seems always to have been this way, at least since Sappho. One of my favorite fragments, here translated by Anne Carson: “you came and I was crazy for you / and you cooled my mind that burned with longing.” In such a little poem, there is an “I” and a “you,” an interiority made vivid, made visceral with words of concrete, physical sensation; a broader narrative is implied, if not fully stated, and I feel immediately, urgently implicated in it.

I feel, in poems like these, a strong connection—if not with a living, breathing lover—then with the love story of someone else. I am not the “you” addressed in the poem; I am not the “I” from whom the verses flow forth. And yet, in the act of reading, I become the “you,” I become the “I” while remaining, always, at some safe distance from the consuming passion. I am the presence this erotic poem seeks. And you are mine, when you read mine.

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