Michael Hofmann, One Lark, One Horse – review

One Lark, One Horse by Michael Hofmann. £14.99 (hardback). Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571342297

Immediate attractions of One Lark, One Horse are the poet’s sharp intelligence, spectacularly fine lexical sense and mordant wit, as in the opening of “Cricket”:

Another one of those Pyrrhic experiences. Call it
an expyrrhience. A day at Lords, mostly rain,
one of those long-drawn-out draws so perplexing to Americans.

Creating the illusion of headlong, spontaneous speech, Hofmann’s assured control of rhythm and syntax makes puns, images and ideas seem to ignite almost incidentally. The tone keeps changing, and different perspectives play into and out of each other, but it’s all held together by the sense of a single mind running through a swerving arc of thought as it responds to the weirdness of the English attachment to cricket. At one extreme it speaks of the English as if from the viewpoint of a foreign anthropologist, drily exaggerating established stereotypes –

Did I say it was raining, and the forecast was for more rain?

Riveting. A way, at best, for the English
to read their newspapers out of doors and get vaguely shirty
or hot under the collar about something. The paper, maybe, or the rain.

However, things turn at the midpoint of the poem – “And yet there was some residual sense of good fortune to be there” – after which the speaker clearly identifies himself as one of the tiny English crowd , sharing their reactions even as he views them with quizzical detachment. That’s a return to the perspective of the beginning, where he speaks of Americans from an English point of view (the pun on “expyrrhience” assumes an English voice imitating an American accent). What makes the mind of the poem so interesting, in other words, is not just its speed and intelligence but its ability to see both other things and itself from rapidly changing angles.

This ability is connected to the facts of Hofmann’s life, which have made him almost but not quite at home in different cultures. Born in Germany, the son of a famous German novelist, he moved to England at four and was educated here through school and university but – I think I read somewhere – continued to speak German at home. He has spent his adult life as a prolific translator from German, and much of it teaching in American universities. And there’s something deeper too. In a Paris Review interview in 2014 he said,

If Kafka hadn’t said it, then I would say it—“literature, from which, or out of which I am composed.” Perhaps I’ll say it anyway, echoing Kafka. When my father’s first book appeared, I was twenty-one or so. I called it his firstborn, in a poem written not long after. We defer to print, where I’m from. Quite soon, I’ll be like that Archimboldo painting, all book.

He straddles cultures, in other words, not only in space but also in time. We all do to some extent, but someone so profoundly bookish does so to an unusual degree.

Being an almost insider who’s also an almost outsider gives a peculiar double penetrativeness and also dividedness to Hofmann’s cultural gaze. In “Cricket” and many other poems the result is a combination of forcefulness and uncertainty which I find deeply attractive. My favourite poems in the book are those in which Hofmann seems bewildered not only by something outside himself but also by his own responses to it.

Not everyone will feel the same. Some greatly admire satirical poems such as “Portrait d’une Femme”, which is about the shallowness of celebrity media culture. This makes a splendid display of Hofmann’s rhetorical weaponry. To my mind, though, it views its subject too purely from outside, pitting pop culture against the high culture of Ezra Pound. The title copies that of Pound’s portrait of a society hostess who has no self beyond bits and pieces she’s picked up from others – “Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,” as Pound puts it. Hofmann’s epigraph is a quotation from Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” – “The age demanded an image / of its accelerated grimace”. As in Pound’s “Portrait”, Hofmann’s title is ironic: his target has no imaginary presence beyond the media forces she channels. That’s the point, you might say, but as in Pound’s poem I think it limits our engagement. The writer’s gifts are vividly displayed in a flood of biting characterisations and clacking, clattering or hissing syllables, but in the end it’s all too single-minded not to become boring before the foam has finished running up the beach.

What a contrast with “Valais”, about the canton in Switzerland where Rilke finished the Duino Elegies. Where satirical poems like “Portrait” or “Venice Beach” seem to speak from a position  of scornful superiority “Valais” speaks out of and draws the reader into a volatile contemplation of blending, disruption and change. Instead of pushing one line of thought through, as the satirical poems do, it creates a fluid mosaic of statements in which each releases ripples of suggestion and all enter into multiple relationships with each other. It sets you thinking and imagining for yourself, rather than just receiving the poet’s attitude. Take the stanza

Smells of hay and dung, the murmurs of subtle conversation.
Next door are tax-efficient sheep.
The underground chicken palace like CERN
Or a discreet gun emplacement.
The lights come on when we appear and go off after we’re gone.

The satirical potential of the second and third of those lines is obvious, and in a lesser poem might have been systematically developed. Here, their acerbity is just one element in a swirl of responses and reflections. For one thing, irony is offset by the pastoral peace of the first line. For another, across the second line there flashes the delightfully absurd idea of the sheep as neighbours in the human sense, good at compiling their own tax returns. For another, the peacefulness of the first three lines contrasts with what’s earlier been said about the violent history of a crossing point that was once the site of threatening castles and the route of Hannibal’s and Napoleon’s armies . Better unromantic calculations of tax advantages than armies in transit or predatory feudal lords keeping an eye on trade routes, even if the fourth line does hint that preparedness for war still underlies our peace. I’m not sure what the chicken palace is – I picture a glittering, nightmarish battery farm in which chickens become not much more than biomachines tended by white gowned workers – but its associative collision with CERN sets off trains of thought about the positive and negative aspects of the scientific approach to life… The hadron collider itself is a dramatically extreme symbol of the processes of interaction and change previously suggested by the image of the Rhone as a conduit of trade, by the line about “the island exporting itself to its neighbours one barge at a time” and by the beautifully paradoxical description of the valley as “a place of through” (my italics). Such processes, in other words, relate to fundamentals of existence.

I could go on. In this poem of endlessly changing shimmers of suggestion you can’t start disentangling threads without feeling the absurdity of stopping at any particular point. There are many other suggestions in the stanza I’ve just discussed, let alone in the poem as a whole. As far as the rest of the poem is concerned, I’ll just make two more observations.

First, Hofmann’s wordplay is present in a more subdued manner than in “Cricket”, but no less effectively for that. “Poplars were planted en passant by Napoleon’s Grande Armée” is magical in the way one phrase both contains and dissolves the earth-shaking literal passage of the army: as they passed through they incidentally planted the poplars. In a sense Hofmann could have effected the same play on words by writing “in passing” or “by the way”, but because in English “en passant” refers to a chess move or is an elegant way of saying “incidentally”, suggesting a fleeting change of direction in what someone says, it transforms violence into peace far more radically.

Second, this poem shares concerns of the volume that I haven’t focused on: poems that seem to reflect, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, on Hofmann’s own life and aging, and to take stock of his achievements. Some are extremely brief, but there’s a special poignancy to this group. “Valais” is both light and subtly poised in the way it touches on the theme. All its images seem fraught with implicit symbolism or to carry an indefinite weight of synecdoche. So “The lights come on when we appear, and go off after we’re gone” is both another reference to the very modern, technological nature of this pastoral and a reflection on mortality, connecting with the closing lines, which allude to Rilke’s desire to die at Muzot castle in the Valais:

Who wouldn’t want to die in a thirteenth-century tower
With light sensors and cold running water
Off the hills and a chill in the sunny air of the contemporary archaic.

Altogether, this is a book I strongly recommend for the pleasures of fine-honed craft and the way its distinctive voice takes the language in new directions.

 

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to post this review here. You can link to the review section of the Spring 2019 issue of The High Window here and find other people’s reviews of other books.

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