Second Empire by Richie Hofmann
an inter-/re-view by J.P. Grasser
Alice James Books
The Past, A Foreign Country
There’s a certain feeling that comes with penetrating—apprehending, even—the territories of the past. It’s that discrete stillness, perhaps, which one finds amongst the stacks, enshrouded by generations of dust. Or else, in, about, and around historical sites: a castle’s crenellations weathered to nibs, light’s adumbral reckonings on limestone in some subterranean tomb. Stand for a length of time before a painstakingly restored fresco and you may feel that kenotic ebb of ego, the viscous trickle of humility. How small one is before the sheer breadth of it all.
If the ever-elusive sublime is to be understood as that which must be consumed piecemeal—the thing so expansive as to shatter the field of vision—what, then, compares with the estrangement of all time, passing and passed? Likewise, it would seem the contemporary moment treats terms like aestheticized and ornamented with a singular breed of puritanical contempt—as though aestheticization stands at odds with empiricism, with the thing spontaneously emoted, recollected or otherwise?
JPG: You told me once that one’s role as an artist is to “arrange experience”—what does that mean?
RH: I believe that art is curiously situated between our sense of reality and this other, made, entirely artificial thing. What an artist does is curate the experience of beholding an object. That’s a limited definition, to be sure. But it’s one of the things I consider when I’m making art—I’m not just making an object. I want to curate the experience of encountering the object. Most art is created to be beheld. And I do think an artist is an “arranger” in that way. I do ask myself, in the creation of a book of poems, how do I curate the experience for a reader? How will they be elevated by it? Repulsed by it? Aroused by it?
It’s a place of between-ness—there’s a liminality to it—and it’s situated between form as a process and form as a product. That’s at the heart of the aesthetic question. Every arrangement is both process and product.
Or, you could also talk about an arrangement—as in a contract or agreement. And it strikes me as something else the artist does. Craft, and hopefully honor, a contract with the reader.
What Richie Hofmann has accomplished in Second Empire—his debut collection from Alice James Books—is the recreation, if not restoration, of that quiet humility old art inspires in a viewer. It’s a feat in and of itself to pair such a maximalization of artistic and historical allusion with such a minimal tone—restraint, one might call it—but, more than merely adept word-work, the poet’s underlying worldview shines through clearly. Admittedly, this reviewer once felt quite in the dark about the critical tenets of Hofmann’s work—how could such highly wrought poems possibly reflect nature, speak to true experience? What could such an exhaustive (compulsive, even?) interrogation of the past possibly reveal about the present?
The seemingly apparent dichotomy—ornamentation v. organic experience—is reconciled by Hofmann’s speaker’s blurring of historical spans. The then and now surge in confluence. The collection’s opening poem, “Sea Interlude: Dawn,” provides a hint toward this critical stance:
The ocean gurgles a dead language.
Standing at the water’s edge, I watch myself
loosen into a brief, exquisite blur,
like Antinoüs, nearly naked in the cold,
in the morning gone adrift, turning away from love
toward what he knows, even then, is loss.
Here, past and present are conflated, and in turn recontextualize one another. The ocean presently reanimates the dead tongue. The speaker enacts what might be termed meta-apostrophe: he turns away from his present, if brief, moment of reflection and returns to the foregone conclusion of Antinoüs, who likewise has turned away from love toward loss—toward that which has been lost, toward the past. And yet, such instances of mimetic sleight of hand shed light on the utter sameness of past and present. We are not so different, the speaker seems to suggest, them and us—which is, perhaps, a small comfort in the face of time’s great expanse.
JPG: You also told me once—and not to be overly reductive, but to interrogate it in an Essentialist way—that there are really only two verbs in the English language: “To Have” and “To Be.” I’m interested in that, and how a “beholder” might be said to be both at the same time.
RH: Now this is probably true of all art forms, but I’ll keep it to poetry. I think the problematics of having and being are central to what one strives to express in poems. Not only questions of identity: Where do I come from? Where am I going? What are my beliefs? How do they shape me? But also questions of having: What do I have? When do I have authority to speak? Who belongs to me? And what am I when they’re gone?
JPG: And I’ve long held the notion that Time is actually both as well. That is, by definition, it’s a type of both having and not-having, being and not-being, simultaneously.
RH: And I think that’s true. And poems exist in time, because they’re experienced in time. And yet we also understand them spatially. Which is why I think I’m drawn to shorter poems, or at least shorter stanzaic forms. A short poem can be both momentous and momentary.
In “Allegory,” Hofmann writes “The trees are like a fresco, / I thought, insofar as they are gold and tell a story.” Once again, the collection shows its hand (in a pleasantly accessible way); just as the peoples of the past and present are not so different after all, Hofmann seems to suggest, the division between the organic and representation is mere construction.
JPG: So what does ornamentation or opulence have to do with arrangement? Or with having and being? Or, performing, even?
RH: Ornamentation is probably the most dramatic form of artifice we have. Everything, in some sense, involves artifice—even something very minimal. This kind of decorative, baroque splendor, that I’m interested in, as both subject matter, and, at times, form. One might define decoration or ornamentation as the most intense demonstration of having and being. They animate, most dramatically, one’s having been here. My interest in ornamentation is that there seems to be a real moral aversion to such aesthetic excess.
We all feel this as American contemporary poets—we favor directness. We’re paranoid about things which are complex or baroque. I mean, this isn’t a new phenomenon—they were in 17th century England as well, as they were smashing church architecture. I see artifice as one way of engaging with time through extremity. Of saying I was here.
It is, perhaps, the speaker’s reconciliation with himself that most informs the collection’s narrative trajectory (and, what this reviewer found most affecting). How does one subsume the breadth of history and art into one’s own life, without turning away? Without “flich[ing] or “scamper[ing],” as Hofmann writes in “Keys to the City.” How to stand before the fresco humbled, without a complete erasure of the self? Hofmann’s small movements and gentle torque ultimately complete the arc. The speaker’s worldview comes into clear focus—a perspective in which the field of vision is ultimately reunified, via sublime understatement. In spite of, or because of loss, love is that much more necessary—to have and be simultaneously, to obliterate the divisions of past and present, self and other. Reading Hofmann’s debut collection is like standing before a great masterpiece—at once humbling and enthralling.
And so, best to let Hofmann have the final word—the collection’s final poem, below, in full:
From the outset I hated the city of my ancestors.
I was fearful I’d be put in the dungeon below
the cathedral. The best example of the Romanesque
a guide was saying in German in English in French
where are buried eight German kings four queens
twenty-three bishops four Holy Roman Emperors
all of whom used this bishopric on the river as the seat
of the kingdom. On the old gate at one end a clock
told an ancient form of time. I sulked along behind
my parents as the guide gave facts about the war
with the Saracens about the place where the Jews bathed
about the child like me whose father the Peaceful
having already produced an heir by his first marriage
could marry for love.