Remembering the Alchemists is an intense, passionate, and moving collection of personal essays that never loses sight of the moral issues it raises. At times thoughtful and wise and at other times a cri de cœur, it is held together by the experienced voice of an essayist at the top of his game. Richard Hoffman speaks softly, even reverently, in the presence of art and the natural world, but addressing militarism, war, and violence against children, he speaks with urgency and earnest questioning. Several of these essays ask how it is that we seem to have given up on ourselves, and what it might take to turn the cascading traumas of history into compassion for one another and lessons for the future. In this award-winning poet’s fourth book of prose, sentences can open into reverie or stop you in your tracks. Whether he is writing about a painting, the work of another writer, a tree that grew in front of his boyhood home, atrocities visited upon children, the superstructure of exploitation and oppression, or the responsibility to be a “good ancestor,” Hoffman pleads with us to move beyond familiar tropes and assumptions and relinquish a learned despondency that ensures a future of more wars, ongoing injustice, and stifled potential. He transforms personal experience not into “the universal,” that categorical abstraction, but into the public, the civic, the ethically useful. These seventeen essays aspire to do more than diagnose our current malaise; they attempt to lift us from it, to clarify our situation, to encourage and inspire. Although Hoffman’s candor can at times be shocking, the beauty, intelligence, and bracing clarity of his vision challenges readers to meet the demands of our historical moment with confidence. Insisting that no conclusions are foregone, Remembering the Alchemists is ultimately a book about what it means to hope, to have faith, to see clearly and still insist on joy.

“Hoffman peels away lies, vanities and convenient half-truths in a struggle to attain that rarest and seemingly least-valued of contemporary virtues, humility.”

Phillip Lopate, author of Getting Personal, Selected Writings

Praise for People Once Real

Remembering the Alchemists is a powerful and bracing collection of essays, a work of self-scrutiny and compassion, a work that seeks the linkage between public and private spheres in our culture of endless violence. Hoffman speaks for memoir—and other forms of art–as antidote to the “fictional distortion” about our history that clouds our sense of belonging. Memoirs may be our ongoing “truth and reconciliation hearings,” he writes. As his previous memoirs recount, his childhood was marked with the trauma of abuse and loss of two brothers who died “before we could be adults together.” And he understands that “killing people is the basis of the American economy.” Yet he is no catastrophist—and for this we can be grateful. His writing is a revelatory study in paying attention to the present and reframing the past so that the possibility of living a life of meaning and connection can be renewed.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of A Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress

Points of pain, points of pleasure, and intelligence everywhere. It’s both exhilarating and harrowing to read someone stripping away rationalizations and long-held illusions to get to what lies beneath. Hoffman is personal, but—as with the best writers—immediately relevant. Remembering the Alchemists and Other Essays has the authority of lived life and brims with wisdoms long distilled.

Sven Birkerts, author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
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