Cold Comforts

Michael Hofmann
Michael Hofmann; drawing by Tom Bachtell

The first poem in Michael Hofmann’s new book, One Lark, One Horse, is a missing-person report spoken in the voice of the missing person:

Nothing required an account of me
And still I didn’t give one.

I might have been a virtual casualty,
A late victim of the Millennium Bug.

No spontaneity, no insubordination,
Not even any spare capacity.

“The Years” alludes to a period of silence in Hofmann’s poetic career that lasted for nearly two decades. Between 1983 and 1999, Hofmann published four volumes of poetry in Britain distinguished by his abrasiveness toward the world and his stormy relationship with his father, the German academic and novelist Gert Hofmann. And then he stopped writing poems. “I’ve forgotten what a poem is—or worse, can only remember,” Hofmann admitted in 2005. He momentarily broke his silence in 2008, when “The Years” appeared in Poetry, and the next year with a Selected Poems that included seven new poems, but he then remained quiet until last year, when the publication of One Lark, One Horse in Britain brought his period of poetic silence to a close.

Mixing self-mockery and disenchantment, and speaking about silence through a clenched grin, “The Years” doesn’t so much explain the silence as break it with a quintessential Hofmann gesture. Yet the poem is more than an expression of the anguish and antagonism that have characterized his work since his first poem, “Tea for My Father,” an icy glimpse of his father’s psychological cruelty, was published in 1979. It’s also an example of the theatricality that can make a Hofmann poem comic or unsparing, or ensnare it in single-mindedness. “Nothing required an account of me/And still I didn’t give one”—with the emphasis of the second line falling on that defiant, prideful, pedestrian “still.”

Michael Hofmann was born in 1957 in Freiberg, West Germany. His father and mother were from Saxony, “newly arrived Ossis, long before such a word existed,” he has recalled, and “both of them had starved during the war.” Gert earned a Ph.D. at the University of Freiberg, writing a thesis on Thomas Mann and Henry James, and in 1961, through the German Academic Exchange, he was hired to teach German literature at the University of Bristol. Life for the Hofmanns became transient. The two years in Bristol were followed by two years in Edinburgh, two years in the United States, and another sojourn in Edinburgh. As the family cycled through different variants of English, they continued to speak German at home, which had some comic reverberations. As Hofmann writes in “The Machine That Cried,” from Acrimony (1986), his second book:

My first-ever British accent wavered
between Pakistani and Welsh. I called
Bruce’s record shop
just for someone to talk to. He said, “Certainly, Madam.”
Weeks later, it was “Yes sir,…

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