Tuesday, June 03, 2008

3. Family Holidays - Michael Hofmann

There are 103 poems in Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems and only 30 days in the month, so I can’t cover every poem. Usually, I’ll do one a day.

Family Holidays is like a rehearsal for later poems about the writer’s family, particularly his father, also a writer, with whom he had an uneasy relationship. The family are on holiday in the sun. The father sits inside typing, the mother staggers about “like a nude”, attempting to run things. The sisters sunbathe endlessly, the little brother plays with other small kids. The poem ends:

…Every day, I swam further out of my depth
but always, miserably, crawled back to safety.

So there’s a longing to escape, a longing to live dangerously – but feelings of dependence always win over. Not a happy existence, from Hofmann’s point of view. Each member is contained in his/her separate stanza. The plural title suggests this wasn't just one holiday, but a constant state of affairs.

The most striking image is of the mother. She is wearing clothes – a hat, high heels and swimsuit. Yet, Hofmann tells us that she “staggered about like a nude.” The staggering makes me think of drink. If she had been nude, it would have been an immediately shocking image. I’m thinking Isabella Rossellini towards the end of Blue Velvet. But “like a nude” is somehow even more of a shock – the fact that she’s clothed and still seems naked. There’s a vulgarity exposed (so to speak) in the juxtaposition of “like a nude/ in her sun hat, high heels and bathing-costume.”


Anonymous said...

MH's two main stated concerns have been to write about the personal without being artless and to maintain 'low style' without being simplistic (not sure how he squared the latter in Corona Corona which is a difficult book).

With that in mind, I hope you look at my favourite poem of his, Night Train - not his most weighty, but it works for me. Also, Marvin Gaye, an exercise in low style. And then there's Malvern Road, the poem in which those two aims come together most daringly or most appallingly, depending on how you view it.


Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to fixate on this a bit, but after the first poem's 'jungles' and the 2nd poem's 'birds of paradise', now this poem's:

Mixed with the cicadas,
you could hear the fecundity of his typing.

And in each case the uncontrollably exotic is aligned with something a little sour, something fallen or dissolute, or at the least ambiguous.

I like that 'miserably' in the last line: not just the feeling of unhappiness, but the way your archetypal 'drowned rat' can be described as miserable. Slightly comical, yet utterly defeated.


Cailleach said...

For some reason that image reminds me of John Banville's 'The Sea. There's a woman, part of a family who isn't all she seems.

I must get my book out and start posting some reactions... Tomoorow morning, I shall get it up to speed. Good job I checked in here :)

Rob said...

Thanks for all the comments on the Hofmann book so far. Plenty of illuminating stuff! I'm intrigued by your exotic/dissolute idea, Andy.

I have 30 days in June. The Selected has the poems in chronological order My plan is:

6 days on 'Nights in the Iron Hotel'(1983)
7 days on 'Acrimony' (1986)
7 days on 'Corona Corona' (1993)
7 days on 'Approximately Nowhere' (1999)
3 days on the seven new poems

I don't want to spread comments too thin, so I'll deal with one poem a day, maybe two occasionally. That means I'll have to miss out many good ones. The poems I choose won't necessarily be better than the ones I miss out.

I very much want to deal with certain poems, but I'm also happy to take requests. I'll try to oblige if anyone wants me to cover a particular poem.