Pavement Artistes is labelled ‘after E.L. Kirchner’, the German expressionist artist. I don’t know much about Kirchner’s work, but a quick search provided me with good examples and information. The poem centres on the women in Kirchner’s Berlin paintings and my googling suggests that he was most interested in painting prostitutes.
Hofmann describes them in terms of birds, but not common, domestic creatures. They “wear veils to cage the savagery/ of their features.” They are simultaneously alluring and frightening.
But Hofmann doesn’t stop there. He shifts the poem in the final couple of stanzas to an entirely unpredictable place by seeing the women through the eyes of the men in the paintings. The men categorise the women as either “policeman” or “clown”. Both types are “bowler-hatted” and afraid of shadows and test the heat of the pavement with a “long foot.” The poem captures the wilful distortion in the paintings, the odd angles, the weird facial expressions.
Kirchner’s paintings were condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate” in 1933 and many were destroyed in 1938. The trauma led to his suicide a year later. Hofmann doesn’t refer to these events, but his poem is a fitting tribute to and affirmation of the chaotic beauty of the painter’s vision.
My favourite bit refers to the women. It’s dynamic, imaginative, and perfectly describes how Kirchner places human characters against a background urban landscape. In three lines, Hofmann paints a dramatic picture using only words:
Their control of outlying stairways and arches
is ensured by their human architecture.
The gothic swoop of shoulder, waist and hip.