PN Review: “The truth, however it may manifest itself, is what Richard Hoffman is after in his prose and poetry…”
From PN Review 238, Volume 44 #2, November – December 2017.
Living in the World
Richard Hoffman, Noon until Night (Barrow Street Press) $16.95;
Richard Hoffman, Love & Fury (Beacon Press) $16.00
Twenty years ago, Richard Hoffman was the author of a singular memoir, Half the House, and no other book publications. In that score of years, he has managed to publish four books of poetry, a short story collection, and another memoir. The noughties and the new century have been good to him, and rightly so. He was a well-kept secret that only a handful of east-coast writers knew about. Now his work is known across America and abroad.
He is especially liked in Europe because his sensibility fits well with the literary world on the continent. Hoffman is an engaged writer, one with a sublime sense of traditions and justice, myths and social conscience.
as our apathy sees them,
they might have sheltered in a cowrie shell
or under a tern’s wing;
And the poem concludes:
were they all, those
as swift as our
they would be
(‘Tsunami’, Noon until Night)
Hoffman is a product of the Rust Belt of Allentown, Pennsylvania, something he chronicles in his two memoirs, Half the House and, its continuation, Love & Fury. The former book ostensibly dealt with his family of origin, two of his brothers dying of muscular disorders in childhood. But the book is mostly known for Hoffman’s unflinching account of being molested by an athletic coach, who later was convicted of his serial crimes against children partly on the basis of Hoffman’s harrowing account.
Love & Fury is more recent, the author returning to the Rust Belt from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Hoffman now lived. The journeys back to his youth were the result of his father’s illness at the end of a long life. One could say that both memoirs are about his working-class father. But there is always so much more going on in Richard Hoffman’s prose than a one-dimensional narrative. There are reflections on race after his daughter has a child with a Jamaican boyfriend, who then receives a long prison sentence for a gun violation; on mortality, his own and his father’s; interpersonal relationships, with his wife and children and now his biracial grandson; and the social and political worlds of Boston, including its literary one. If Boston’s nineteenth-century Emerson was its moral compass, Richard Hoffman fills that bill in the twenty-first century.
I came to read Hoffman through his first memoir back in the mid-1990s. But I also began to admire the poetry that he was writing and publishing, here and there, in literary journals around the start of the century. His poems don’t align with any particular school or poetry camp; they are lean and unadorned, but with a great impact at the end.
What I have given to sorrow,
though I have poured out
all I am again and again,
does not amount to much.
One winter’s snows.
Two loves I could not welcome.
A year of mostly silence.
Another man I might have been.
(‘Inventory,’ p.69, Noon until Night)
Both the new memoir and this latest book of poems return to the Rust Belt and that family of origin, time and time again. The first poem in the collection reflects this concern of Hoffman’s.
He writes that in every age, two people are charged with holding up the sky. People who know them know that there is something different about them, and that the law of averages requires that ‘they collide, transforming both. Those two were your parents.’ But you knew that, didn’t you?’ (‘Whoever You Are,’ page 5, Noon until Night) But the poem that best illustrates Hoffman’s social and moral commitments to justice is a thinly lined poem entitled ‘Monument,’ and it captures something I have felt for a long time but never quite articulated it the way this poet has. It is a poem about building a memorial to those who resisted. He says that the memorial should not be in a square, nor a park, nor a busy plaza:
Should there be
a memorial, build it
deep in a forest,
high on a mountain,
requiring one to be
a pilgrim, perhaps
on a rock in the harbor;
no, in the heart,
yes, in the heart,
a stone in the heart.
(‘Monument’, Noon until Night)
Midway through his memoir, Love & Fury, Richard Hoffman notes that he has been teaching writers for nearly twenty years, with a special focus on memoir and the personal essay. He says that he doesn’t think it an accident that the memoir, ‘a genre earlier mainly the province of the well born and those with heroic or salacious tales to tell, became one of the chief ways to talk back to the world view in which the post-war boomer generation was indoctrinated.’ (L&F, p. 109) He goes on to observe that you need money to make a film. ‘A memoirist, an essayist, needs only his or her skill as a writer and commitment to pursue the truth.’ The truth, however it may manifest itself, is what Richard Hoffman is after in his prose and poetry.
We need more writers like Richard Hoffman who still consider poetry a force for change and the greater good, and a balm to human suffering. His poems do not dazzle, are not overly self-conscious and don’t seek incandescent effects. A poet of the Rust Belt, Hoffman is, like his own steelworker father, a worker among workers, full of common sense, with a fine sense of the workable and the doable. His poems are as practical as a lunch bucket or a steel helmet. What impresses are his psychological insights, both in prose and poetry, and his philosophical musings, which come from living in the world. It is that obsession for the truth that surfaces, time again, in his poetry and prose.