Friday, December 23, 2011
By Richard Hoffman
Barrow Street Press
New York City
Reviewed by Dennis Daly
In his new book, Emblem, Richard Hoffman etches poetic visuals of timeless wisdom and dolorous beauty. His lucid metaphors are burned into each page. The introductory poem, as well as twelve additional poems at the heart of the book, is an emblem inspired by the medieval author Andrae Alciati.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emblems became a wildly popular genre of art and literature; they are made up of three components: a picture, a motto, and a prose or verse epigram. Often the picture came first (ekphrasis [from the Greek—ek meaning out and phrasis meaning to speak] or the attaching of a name to, in this case, a piece of art), sometimes the epigram. Alciati wrote his epigrams first and Hoffman follows that lead.
Hoffman updates Alciati’s Emblem 8, Where the God Directs There One must Go, with the stark image of one of life’s crossroads. He advises the traveler that
the pilgrim’s way is found by wandering:
Every single thing and every relation,
whether plainly seen or only grasped
upon reflection, becomes a metaphor,
and nothing on the path may be disturbed.
This appears not only to be good traveling advice, but also shows the poet’s approach to his raw material.
Emblem 37, On Security, continues to counsel in this vein with a delightful image of a rather unique motley coat,
dress in the furs of the mice from your barn,
from your own small cache of good days.
This poem is actually very close to Alciati, almost a direct adaptation minus some fluff. The poet makes the point through the image and the title alone that wealth, however meager, is best when not flaunted.
The approach used by Hoffman in Emblem 86, Against Misers, is quite the opposite. It is entirely Hoffman’s epigram. He sets up his miser as a caricature of a classic accountant, except that he worries about computer hackers and traces his credits and debits across a spreadsheet,
His dividends down, his assets
losing value, he counts again,
long crooked fingers tracing lines
across and down his spreadsheet.
The poem concludes with a marvelous image, which give the emblem greater depth. The picture is of a talented artist in the form of a rabbit, who does not have the courage to risk everything in the furtherance of his art:
his heart beats like a rabbit
at the edge of an open field
he will never cross, and time
passes, an uncounted loss.
One of the most interesting of the emblem poems is called Against Those Wealthy via Public Mischief. The basic image is adapted from Alciati and Hoffman does this well, but he also deepens the imagery and gives it specific history with his emblematic form. He describes eel fishermen or those on the outside of society, who in order to make their fortune
..must find some way
to roil the placid water and churn the bottom
to be successful. (To stir the muck, religion
makes a good long stick or bogus history
wed to rhetoric.) They know just how.
They have fished for eels a thousand years.
The poet sees his function in this emblem as one of identification. He draws the demagogue. For now that is enough.
Other poems included in this impressive collection show Hoffman’s flexibility of form. In Aphrodisia, one of two villanelles offered, Hoffman introduces a lovely musical piece, which comes together in the end as only the best poems of this type do,
…Speak up! Proclaim you want to say.
It’s easy to imagine you’ve misheard,
hard to admit one sharp as you is stirred.
You need to back off, cool down, act blaze.
Love’s language is hyperbole, but whispered.
It’s easy to imagine you’ve misheard.
On the other end of the form spectrum is a prose poem titled Phototaxis. In one beautifully drawn out metaphor Hoffman juxtaposes unbearable sorrow with the joy of art. The narrator’s wife has died and he has given up the joy of guitar playing for the solitude of silence. Magic happens here:
… He had not gone into the room since she had died, his
solitude already deeper than he could bear. One day , looking
for an old pair of shoes he had somehow mislaid, he entered
the room and switched on the overhead light. As he scanned
the floor for his lost shoes, the guitar, all by itself it seemed,
began to play, soft chords that made the old musician cry out,
Fruit in Season is another poem that deals with thoughtful sorrow and its ghostly burdens. Speaking to his dead brother the narrator says,
.. so I know
how lucky I am and how grateful
I ought to be: Sick for long years,
my brother begrudged me nothing.
I could go on. Get this book for some of the most innovative poetry written today.