Monday, June 30, 2008

26. Night Train / Litany - Michael Hofmann

Quite a few poems on the theme of remembering towards the end of the Approximately Nowhere section of MH’s Selected. The final poem, Litany, is a list of people, places, and scenes from “months of transition/ in a room on the Harrow Road,” a merging together of disparate beauty and chaos, set out like an address to a divinity, although the “Dear god” at the beginning could also be a expression of world-weariness. It’s a terrific poem, full of inventive language and images.

The penultimate one, Night Train, is entirely different. Like Malvern Road, it’s a memory of a memory. The narrator is on a train thinking about another train journey made years earlier. He’s “in the half-compartment/ set aside for the handicapped,” which indicates, I think, more a state of mind than any physical disability. He remembers this old journey in which he suggests to a woman that they might elope, or at least:

I put it to you, not joking,
though you weren’t to know that then

The casual ease of these lines half-disguises their terrible sadness. There’s already a sense of melancholy, an inevitable rejection - in fact, more than a rejection, not even realising there was anything to reject. The train goes on from this place in the middle of nowhere towards London and a bar where the woman works. The poem unexpectedly turns to the way the woman dresses and wears her hair as suggesting someone not knowing whether she wanted to be the goddess Venus or Joan of Arc.

The poem riffs on hopelessness – the handicapped carriage, the narrator feeling “parched and let down,” his plan (not taken seriously) to elope and walk into the wild away from a conventional existence, and a woman unsure of her own identity (or, at least, that’s how the narrator portrays her).

2 comments:

Roddy said...

When this book came out, Michael Hulse wrote an interesting review in PR, asking whether a reviewer who knew the circumstances (poet leaves his partner and mother of his children for another poet), as most poetry people did, should review the book with that knowledge in mind or not - still an interesting question.

I think the idea of the Lowellian has been overplayed with MH - there is more subject matter than style in common.

I see Night Train as being at least as celebratory and humorous as it is regretful and doomed.

Rob said...

Yes, knowing all that certainly puts a different slant on the phrase I quoted - the "not joking..." There's no way of getting the full story from the poem though, although I did feel when reading it that I was missing a key to the door of the poem.

Hofmann's melancholy is nearly always accompanied by humour - it's a feature of his work. His ability to balance negative and positive emotions, celebratory and bleak humour, is what often makes his work so powerful.