Second Empire is an astounding symphonic arrangement. Richie Hofmann’s Beatrice Hawley Award winning debut is arranged in four movements, each section led by a “Sea Interlude.” The interludes (drawn from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes) establish the tempo and tone from the delicacy of Dawn, to Passacaglia’s wit and quickness, Storm’s emotional reckonings, and concluding with Moonlight’s glittering, tender denouement. Despite the orchestral trappings, I fondly think of Second Empire as gorgeous chamber music, poems whose bracing intimacy belies a vivacity and subtle, structural integrity. These are impressive formal poems. Hofmann honors those stateliest of forms, the rhyming couplet and sonnet, with a freer music that reminds me of Henri Cole’s experiments with free verse sonnets in collections like Middle Earth and Touch.
These formal devices are necessary to order the elemental forces the poems engage: history, time, love, and loss. Against the recurring motifs of visual art and the sea, the speaker transports us to realms classical and baroque. This figure is young enough that, as he says in “Egyptian Bowl with Figs”: “No one I’ve loved / has died.” Still, he possesses an Old World eye, like a character out of Henry James, raised in our era. Second Empire reminds me of works from other genres and forms that couple a historical and contemporary sensibility: Daniel Arsand’s novel Lovers, Luca Guadagnino’s film I Am Love, and, of course, Derek Jarman’s oeuvre, particularly Edward II and Caravaggio (Hofmann writes an ekphrastic poem after the latter film). These tensions are superbly rendered by three lines in the opening poem, “Sea Interlude: Dawn”: “Above, the familiar gulls / shriek the news of the world. / The ocean gurgles a dead language.” All that we live through now is mirrored by the depths of an unknowable past.
It reminds me of the bittersweet ending of “The Victor Dog” by James Merrill (a guiding spirit in this book) whose lyrical hound becomes a poignant metaphor for the artist’s life: “No honey for the vanquished? Art is art. / The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.” Immersion in the forms and figures of the past can be an instructive means of reckoning with the present, but it can be a lonely business wandering among the gold and glory of history’s dead.
It’s fascinating to see the speaker so often alone, not in a sense of possessing loneliness, though perhaps that is there, but in the sense of being a traveler through the world, through time. The book moves “into shallower water” in the second section, shallower in one sense hinting at surface pleasures or the decorative, like a mosaic, but the power of shallowness here is that things are exposed and laid bare. Here the surface pleasures of antique books, mirrors, and trips to the opera (as in the delicious, Merchant-Ivory film made poem “At the Palais Garnier”) give way to revelations of the interior. The speaker has a profound sensitivity to art in such a way as to aestheticize the world, see every day things as objets d’art like the ceramic pots “caparisoned with snow” in “Antique Book.” “They enchant // me, these things. I always knew / they’d make the veil I’d glimpse things through,” Hofmann writes in “Night Ferry.” The speaker understands himself in relation to these time-haunted objects and locales. It’s a moving gesture to not simply see the beauty in, to see the art of, the world, but to recognize how endurance through time is itself a kind of beauty.
However, this same impulse can be a weakness when it pushes “lived time” to the margins. The poem “October 29, 2012,” ostensibly set during the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, is the one moment in the book when Hofmann’s gorgeous spell breaks. The scales seemed off. In a collection deeply concerned with history, in the only explicitly dated poem, I was perplexed by the foregrounding of a devastating storm with a meditation on the collaborative and salving power of music. Still, this aesthetic mode of perception led me to one of the most fascinating and excellently handled themes in the book: erotic ambivalence.
Hofmann’s language is lush in its accuracy and sensuous in its silences. Eros hums through the poems. Yet, the relationship to the central “you” in the book—another you, another lover, appears briefly—is tender, fraught, and evoked most powerfully through the unspoken. “Three Cranes” introduces us to the beloved. Through this triptych where “there is a freedom / in submitting to another” the lovers end like this:
Then, your lips on my neck
(“I think the sea has thrown itself upon me
and been answered”) before I closed the book
and turned my body under yours.
But what’s most striking about the poem is a line in the second section: “What will become of us? I almost said.” This almost-saying, thoughts unexpressed, negations, that-which-is-withdrawn—these are the moves Hofmann uses to powerful effect. Such intimate moments between the two recedes, replaced by travel through churches and museums, until “Bright Walls” in the book’s third section. The poem opens:
It was not penitence I sought, standing outside
the bedroom in the old apartment
where you had spent the night alone.
To bend, to kneel before some greater force—
that was no longer what I wished.
What, then, is wished? Why was the lover alone? The physical and spiritual estrangements continue to the poem’s conclusion while the speaker watches his beloved asleep and sees:
a wet strand
of hair tucked behind your ear, the husk
of your body—and lingered there for a minute,
before walking upstairs to shut the windows.
An eternity in a minute. The tantalizing lock on the body’s shell—emptied of what? Love? Desire? Fidelity? The temptations of the flesh weighed against the longing for something more. It’s almost as if the allure of Eros isn’t just in the giving bodies, but in the sharing of experience, of feeling and sensibility.
The title poem declares:
The soul is an aristocrat.
It disdains the body,
staring through the water
at the suggestion of our human forms.
Even though the soul bedecked in ermine and a powdered wig disdains the body, the body still remains perceivable much like the book’s music after it concludes. The poems of Second Empire wait for us by this new yet familiar shore.
Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, Spring 2016), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A. Poulin Jr. Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, he earned his MFA from the University of Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Callaloo, Nimrod, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. He is the Social Media Coordinator for The Offing.