Monday, June 16, 2008

15. Freebird - Michael Hofmann

Freebird mixes up registers and juxtaposes details to build up a picture of a hot summer’s day in a squalid part of town. It begins with a quote from DH Lawrence – “One forms not the faintest inward attachment, especially here in America” – which leads me to believe that the poem must centre around the detached, observer-narrator.

The poem begins with girls tanning themselves around a swimming pool, as if we’re in a holiday resort, but it soon becomes clear that the pool is a curious anomaly and the tanning is happening in “Stranglers’ weather”. The birds flying overhead are “mockingbirds” (no accident surely). The place smells. People mentioned include a tattooed con man and an anguished pest control man dealing with cockroaches.

Two phrases struck me. The first is “I was cuntstruck and fat.” That’s obviously meant to be noticed! It comes out of the blue. In this poem, the narrator looks at the tanning girls, hears a young couple making love in a flat above and the loud blast of Lynyrd Skynyrd from somewhere (presumably the song of the poem’s title with a “seven-minute instrumental coda” thrown in). But he seems pretty lethargic about it all.

The second phrase is the final line, describing the love-making girl – “Her little screams petered out, inachevée.” Now, why the French word here? It means “unfinished” and could suggest the girl's dissatisfaction at a premature end. The literal sense is that she’s drowned out when the Lynyrd Skynyrd is turned up. Freebird recalls those mocking birds from S2, flashing green as they pass over - surely a view of the narrator’s state of mind. Indeed, the whole poem is like a loose metaphor for inner turmoil. The narrator might feel detached from his surroundings, but they have inserted their hooks into him.


Tony Williams said...

I take the line about the girl's screams petering out to indicate that she doesn't achieve orgasm. I've also been puzzled by the use of the French word here. I'm writing a paper on Hofmann's use of foreign fragments - usually there is some contribution of sound or cultural connotation being made, but I can't see what it is here. My knowledge of French is pretty poor, so maybe a French-speaker would know. As far as cultural reference goes, Helene Cixous uses inachevée in the title of her book L'Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge. I suppose you could argue that Hofmann is inviting a feminist revision of the brutal male scene and voice. But the connection is pretty flimsy.
In any case, it's a fine poem, and somehow an apt analogue of the song.

Anonymous said...

I take 'Stranglers' weather' to be a reference to the lyrics of the song Peaches ..?

Couple of things about 'inachevée': first, it's a nice one-word summary of something which takes longer to say in English ("without reaching orgasm") and also not quite the same meaning as 'unfulfilled' .. so I take it to be a matter of the best choice of word to summarise the situation, one that leaves room for subtle readings rather than denying them.

If there's another element, maybe it's the effect of a French word (whose nation's love-making has a rather more subtle cinematic history, more perceived 'depth' or savoir faire I guess you'd say) following on the heels of the unlovely American frat boy going at it 'steamhammer-style'.

An ironic cultural pointer, linking back to the epigram's suggestion of meaningless. The girl is *almost* a character in a masterpiece, rather than a poorly executed and unenlightening act.

Perhaps this culture gap is also highlighted in the tattoos of Greek letters on the con-artist's arm .. the opposite of learning, to use a phrase.

And I loathe the song Freebird with a passion. The bloody thing was always on repeat-play on the student union jukeboxes back in 1983. Hideous whiney turgid turd of a song.


Tony Williams said...

"Perhaps this culture gap is also highlighted in the tattoos of Greek letters on the con-artist's arm .. the opposite of learning, to use a phrase."

yes - like the Ford Orion 'now up in television heaven' in (is it?) 'Impotence' - Hofmann does a nice line in this sort of mock-heroic coupling.

Agreed about the concision of 'inachevee' - maybe just the best available word in any language.

Rob said...

I wonder if inachevée is supposed to connect with the narrator's own lack of achievement or sense of under-achieving: that inner state of the narrator, as well as the literal external reality.

"Strangler's weather" - I hadn't thought of 'Peaches', although maybe! I reckoned this was one of those phrases that pop into a writer's mind, as if from nowhere at 5am, and demand use even if the writer doesn't really know what they mean.

Or perhaps MH had read something about how an unnatural number of deaths by strangulation occur during heatwaves?

The possibilities are endless, but it works. In many ways, that's the beauty of poetry. Great phrase!

Rob said...

"Strangler's weather" - it occurs to me: is this the kind of phrase a lesser poet would jettison during revision?

Anonymous said...

I reckon it'll be the band, being capitalised, and the lyrics:

"Well I got the notion girl that you got some suntan lotion in that bottle of yours.."

tie in with:

Six girls round the pool in Stranglers' weather,

And that whole 'looking at the peaches' thing. And the end of that song is darkly meaningless as well, come to think of it!