Poetry

Richard Hoffman: A Selection of Poems

Author’s note: The following poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies over the past 40 years. Like everything else on this page they are copyrighted in my name. Please email me if you would like to reprint anything.

LINING-OFF THE FIELD

My father handed me the flags and paid
out string from where he stood
at home, waving me deeper, waving me right
or left, “More left. A little less. Yes.
Good.” Then with the string held high,
a wind-rolled arc
between us, I ran hard across
the outfield and we set the Left-field flag.

Suppose the string were one thread of a sail;
the way it would belly, filling
with assurance. Say that where he stood on it
it entered the ground
so if I pulled I’d pull forever, all of it —
the whole ball — one unbroken strand.
Or say I doubled back
to a snag in crabgrass or a patch of dandelion
too late and saw my father
chasing the end that got away from him.

Suppose the lines go on beyond the flags,
embracing houses, trees,
so many men and women, strangers
turning into friends or enemies, so many lovers,
towns, forests, lakes, rivers, stories
told and heard, forgotten or remembered,
understood or not. Suppose the lines go on
because they do; imaginary, real.

HISTORY

The pebble my son
spraypainted gold

rests in my palm, a gift,
and asks in his clear, high,

temporary voice:
who taught me life is lead

and needs great pain
to turn itself to gold?

And who taught them?
And for what, and whose, reasons?

VILLANELLE

“You think you can walk right out?”
my father said. I did. I went
as far as I could from that house,

far from that town. I doubt
I could have traveled farther had I meant
to change my name, to walk right out

of the life I was born to, to applause
the world insists will make us confident
but never does. I trusted from that house

to this one, bridges burnt, the roads out,
even demons wouldn’t dare, but hell-bent
quests are circles: storm right out

a son hurt and rebellious
and in half a lifetime, in bewilderment,
you come home to your own house

and your sullen son without
the evidence to prove you’re innocent.
Some days I want to walk right out,
but can’t, won’t, must not leave this house.

STORIES

for Robert James Hoffman, 1950-1972

I was lying on my belly
using my head
to shade the bright pages of an old book

next to me a tree
had broken over at its trunk the whole crown
deep in the water…

I was lying on my back
which didn’t work
because the book weighed more than ever

and the tree said
Now that they nest in my branches I know fish
sing morning and evening

I am lying through my teeth
the story isn’t true
He wasn’t a tree there is no tree

and death says nothing
Now that it nests in my branches I know lies
alone have wings

I tell these stories
cup them beating in my hands
and fling them into the air above the river…

1.

He shook the green package.

Why the gift was taken back
before he opened it was not his question.

He remembered the sound, the feel.

Was it something broken?
Or something to be assembled?

2.

we are told
that even after we have closed the eyes
we may be heard
so we are careful what we say

you never know

maybe it is best to say nothing
to be quiet and listen

what if you were the one
with this last chance

and you found them
forsaken and angry
full of self-pity

you would have to forgive them

3.

In the fire, an envelope
furls, darkening,

behind the man
who, reading, slowly moves away

4.

The people
in the interval when all grew dark and quiet
all lay down.
You would see their bodies lying on the plain for miles.

Always an echo of singing woke them.
Always there were some who did not rise.

These the people would place in the ground
and cover them over,
these who were called in the night
to join their fathers in the song.

5.

We go on believing
something like the heart
having tried all tempos
finds the melody

or the hand in the dark
the door or past the time
for memory a vision comes,
despite the lacerating

cries, the moaning, fists
that clench, teeth grit
to breaking, eyes
that do not know us.

We go on believing,
clutching the bedrails,
sending out for coffee,
candy, doughnuts, anything,

that we don’t know,
that there are many metaphors,
that we are ignorant
and simple and we are.

ELEGY

for Michael Steven Hoffman, 1957-1970

Being in us in his new life
is as strange for him
as it is for us to be here

at his grave today
with no one else’s footprints in the snow
and only the trees that guided us so

let it not be winter there.

SWEAT

A man is mowing between the rows of headstones
on a little toy-like tractor. It’s hot;
he wipes his face and underneath his cap.
The sun glares off the polished stones.

He hates it – the job, the heat, the flies;
he wanted to be something else.
The sweat on the back of his dark green shirt
could be a black, triangular insignia.

And with his shears, on his hands and knees,
trimming around the crosses, angels, urns,
crawling from stone to stone, he could be
grieving inconsolably for everyone.

THE NEW LIFE

A new love is a new life. I arrive
and just inside your door (my melting coat
you take and throw somewhere)
put down my suitcase (full of holes
so that the monkey off my back I
stuffed inside can breathe) pull off my shoes
and standing in the ice-cold puddle
take you in my arms and give you goosebumps.

It’s decided: we will find a garden
apartment, furnish it with odds and ends
(the odds are steep as the rent, our ends
are loose and sometimes meet) and slowly
summon, as we need it, patience
out of passion. You will meet my monkey
(love me love my nephew) with his repertoire
of funky smells, a screech per memory, and pranks.

I’m living serious — there is a difference: love
knocked neither of us down. Epithalamions
this tongue-in-cheek (my tongue in yours
and yours in mine) are frowned on, suspect.
This, however, is for you, aware a new love
lives on clarity and laughter and a new life
is impossible. Let’s put the table over by the window.

DO TELL

I tell
you what:
you tell
me what
you want,
I tell
you what
I have.
I tell
you what
I want,
you tell
me what
you have.
We have
the time
we want
to tell
each other
what we
want but
this time
we have
to tell
the truth.

TABLE FOR TWO

You raise an eyebrow and nod.
I’m going on and on about how next time
but you’re elsewhere, as if hearing,

on an old tape, old music, voices,
young ones, ours; the screech of a chair
and your old footsteps coming closer, louder…

You look at me as if you’ve just awakened;
as if the people we used to be won’t have us
listening in like that. Can they be blamed?

Okay. Then turn the damn thing off.

 

PARTING IN WINTER

1.

The hulk lurches, bucks, booms
forward gathering speed and I
glimpse her, on the platform,
waiting to go in the other direction;

poles flick over her faster then faster then
the black wall roars beside me
and I stare at myself thinking:
Me. My fault. My anger. Mine.

2.

The new apartment is empty, a box
painted white: the taste of chalk
in my mouth, the dry taste of fear:
a walk in deep snow, forks,
hooks, the cutter, scythes
rusting underneath.

Pieces of the ceiling lie around on the floor

where I sprawl nights, trying hard
to fill myself with what chairs,
lamps, tables, pictures will go where,

while outside, in the street, a woman sings,

and I go to the window, muscle it,
bang it, hang on it, it
won’t close. Her song is cold.

3.

Thanksgiving: the feast an excuse
to gorge ourselves: the wishbone

between us, (the shape of a harness:
how did we come to be so small?)

each of us holding an end,
each of us with our wasted wish

for the bigger piece.
How did we come to be so small?

4.

Do you remember the most large
priestess of the state, specs winged
and rhinestoned, licensed us to practice?
Raise your right hand. What?

What if she’d let fall her glasses fastened
from the earparts round her neck by beads,
leaned over the desk, squashing her enormous
and had taken gently our hands and said,

“Who’s whose shadow’s what it
all comes down to, doesn’t it?
The same damn thing happens
every blessed time. A bit
of practical advice, my children:
Look at each other. Look!”

Would we have understood?
We would have said, “Fat cynic! How
would you know?”
Though, of course, she didn’t;
she just smiled and stamped the papers,
lucked us good
and held the door for us to go.

5.

Failing, I could at least
tell you how under the
slow stroking

of your marks and signs,
under our potion
of bellyfroth, I used

every glide to hover,
all that was left of my powers,
every eyelash trick

to hold in the cove
the deafness won from
the flume’s roar;

clutch, keep. The boat rocks,
even moaning, even
calling me. Calling.

And I wanted to say
what I believed I had
learned and how
but my tongue must have
been dreaming, waking
now, in its own bed

far away. And far away and
totem to you now I am
trying to untangle

this distance from around
my legs so you can come
here, where I wait

and remember, fear
and forget, willing myself
willing. Anxious.

 

ANGLER

After all this time it’s still a toss-up:
the fish down deep in the dark some days
won’t even nibble. I don’t know why.

My line light test, the best, the most
expensive kind, I rest my rod on a forked stick:
laughing or crying I am always

standing on a soggy bank at night,
the sky full of asterisks, always
referring me back down here.

The planets’ orbits, the moon’s phases,
suicide, murder, the times I can’t care,
the times I cannot not, set, superintended

by just how long it took me to learn
to tie my shoestrings. Limits, not
vistas. Some days the fish bite

savagely. I don’t know why.

 

GOOD THING

The explanations and peptalks are facile.
Deaths and the death of love have left me weakened.
It’s a damn good thing the heart’s a muscle.

Because it’s later and worse than it was, I’ll
try again. After each loss, myths beckoned:
excuses, wishes, peptalks much too facile,

fancy-dancing, dreaming, backing from the easel,
from the portrait I sketched till I sickened.
It’s a damn good thing the heart’s a muscle,

not gray jelly like what wobbles in the skull
and looks for words; or bone that aches and
hardens, brittle as dogma, to a child’s facile

stick-man. In the heart the will is gristle.
I or anyone I love could die at any second.
It’s a damn good thing the heart’s a muscle

that has no choice, that has to wrestle
with itself continually to live, a paradox and
proud of it, an old creed anything but facile,
a damn good dumb involuntary muscle.

 

AND A GOOD TIME WAS HAD BY ALL

One of my teeth, on the top, in the back,
is crumbling. I spit jagged little pieces of it
sometimes. Meat gets stuck in it and sweets;
it cracks, breaks up, decays. In the morning
I can’t remember my dreams,
I can’t roll over back to sleep
the taste’s so bad. I am afraid
of someone else’s hands there.

What the hell am I doing here
tongueing and poking around in the pain?

How long have I been finding hair
all matted, clogging up the drain?

I can’t remember. It’s a strange
sensation, like a papercut you squeeze
so it bleeds; you run around, absorbed
and mumbling, “I’ll be damned”, and someone tells you
how they came to see the same thing long ago:
a blade of grass while they were searching for oh
something; it seems they can’t, by now, remember.
But anyway that’s not what matters, is it?

ROLL OVER

The alarm clock buzzes but I am
dreaming of a tall field in August
Locusts

As if the field were on fire
lots of other tiny insects pop and crack
from stalk to stalk

Underground
there are people waiting for me
but I am unaware of them now

They think I am late

 

WELCOME

They speak an appropriate language here.
Listen to them sometime.

There are never gnats in the evening. No matter.
No one here knows what that means.

The people pretend to believe the man pretending
he is blind is blind and give him money.

Handbills advertise classes in breathing,
cheaper than all their competitors.

Bacon has happy pigs on the wrapper,
smiling under the red star.

And a man with toenail-yellow teeth
greets new arrivals, hands them a brochure

that’s been carefully written, carefully photographed,
lovingly put together just for them.

 

HOCKSHOP

It’s a window next to impossible
to miss unless
you’re hurrying to a particular place
or obsessed with a recent song, or carrying
a face, not just anyone’s,
with you at the time.

I confess I’ve stood there
under the sign lettered GUNS – JEWELRY – LOANS
many times, the window full of
risked, lost, or stolen things,
grieving people’s or dead people’s things,
novelties and knives.

Guilt. Indecision. Everything
is used; each of the hundreds of watches
shows a different time. Guitars,
untuned, hang carefully, gratefully
silent. Which ones, of these alarm clocks,
above the guns, above the stuffed owls,

have cut off a dream and sent a man out
to die? Some of these paintings,
stacked on the floor, have hung in the finest
banks, and, although it’s kept quiet,
there are those who’ll say the diamonds
were swept from the highway after a fatal crash

that no one remembers. Not even
the broker, the nodder, the blank-faced one
who asks no questions, who, come night,
empties the window, leaves the drawer open
and empty, leaves one light on, sighs,
locks up, drags shut the rusty gates.

 

SHALLOW WATERS

I am in shallow waters in a position
to be lured by anything shiny that wobbles.

In shallow waters you don’t worry whether
you’ve lost your way or the dam burst…

you try to stay hidden in a blotch of shade,
nose to the bottom, clouding the water around you….

If you’ll tell me I’m a genius or a saint
I’ll believe you. Honest.

Grubs are the bulk of my diet.

A VISITOR

Just then the hole in the argument
walks in, sits down, leans back and says
“I quit. No one will ever find me
in a mirror anywhere again.
Don’t look at me like that!
I hardly ever get to smile or just
make faces for the hell of it. And then
these fumbling hands come poking,
picking, slapping, pulling, scratching,
squeezing! Try to look one in the eye.
I’m hated. I’m in danger. For example
yesterday, while making renovations on a pyramid,
a man felt the scaffold sway and flushed
and saw a body fall, a body hit the ground.
But not his body. Not his body. Mine.
What do you say? Will you hide me?”

 

FROM A FRONT WINDOW

1.

There is the city of glass and money,
over there, but here it comes,
closer with every newspaper.
Unidentified lying spokesmen
interpret the same old photos:
the bloody feet of refugees,
the bloody hands of soldiers.
Here comes someone, not a neighbor,
with a clipboard and a calculator.
Where will we grow children and roses?
Where will we grow older?

2.

Because mothers still tell children
making ugly faces to be careful
or they will harden into one of them,
I am a little less afraid.

When fathers wipe their children’s dirty faces
with handkerchiefs that smell of sweat,
their children do not forget them
easily. I am a gladdened father
learning that, and a calmer son.

3.

And lovers’ bodies make a clumsy knot
just good enough to mend the net.

 

YET

Sounds East European, doesn’t it?
Yet.
A town in the Urals, the western
border of Asia, where everyone hurries
calmly through the narrowest of streets
to rocky fields, hard, patched by snow so dry
it hurts. Yet
every single day they make their way there;
every night come back.

Yet.
The ring of an ancient Egyptian god.
An animal, probably like a musk-ox,
slowly dragging tomorrow from over the mountains;
(can a word be a god? can anything but
a word be a god? for us, I mean)
always and never arriving.

Umbilicus: Vision: Promise: Deadlock:
(the deciding vote has not been cast
yet) I, pharoah by default, acknowledge you
most powerful of all. O lord of heads sometimes,
tails sometimes, lord of the other hand,
there is no escape from you
yet.