I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.
Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, By Michael Hofmann, Faber and Faber, 304 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0571323661 Poet, translator, critic – for Michael Hofmann these different job specifications are all aspects of the same enterprise, projections of the same sensibility. The poetry came first, the reputation established with Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983). That collection and those that followed – Acrimony; Corona, Corona; Approximately Nowhere – introduced a voice that was highly distinctive and very much unlike the general run of British poetry of the time. Sceptical, disenchanted, in some respects almost an anti-poetry, full of brooding absences and short term occupations of empty spaces described with great disruptive brio: Six floors up, I found myself like a suicide ‑ one night, the last thing in a bare room … I was afraid I might frighten my neighbours, two old ladies dying of terror, thinking every man was the gasman, every gasman a killer … (“A Brief Occupation”) Poems that built up layers of detail and then abandoned them, disdaining conventional closure or grand gestures, as if the world of the poems was a crowded but deeply alien place. Robert Lowell is certainly in the background; the pressures of the personal, the fidelity to the details of a life, and that determination to convert life into literature – one of the things he praises Lowell for in Where have You Been? – are all evident in the poems about his father, the writer Gert Hofmann, in his remarkable second volume, Acrimony, but is a constant thread throughout the work: Then a family event if ever there was one: my mother reads my translations of my father, who hasn’t read aloud since his ‘event’. Darkness falls outside. Inside too. (“Cheltenham”) There’s a freewheeling reportorial ferocity to the poems too, the poet casting a baleful eye at the world he’s landed in. The Britain that emerges from those early books seemed to offer a prospect so dismal that one (American) review called it “not so much disheartening but past heartening”. Yet it probably wouldn’t have mattered what the country was since displacement and disenchantment, being “approximately nowhere”, are precisely the point – not being at home is the poet’s duty, and the sense of not quite belonging, of being poised on the edge, between cultures and languages, between admired forefathers and a depleted modernity, lies behind many of the essays here, as it did in the earlier collection Behind the Lines (2002)….
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