Saturday, December 6, 2014



BY THE HOURS: Selected Poems Early & Uncollected by Eric Hoffman
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2013)
The American Eye by Eric Hoffman
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2011)

Eric Hoffman’s BY THE HOURS surprised me.  I opened the book to begin reading and at the end of having read it all (unexpectedly) in one sitting, felt like I was waking up with a start as I returned to my life.  The book surprised me by, as it turned out, having presented a singular world I visited—and cherished—until the last page.  And it accomplished this effect through Hoffman’s wonderfully calm voice. The voice is so strong that there was a clear contrast between its calmness and the tumult of my everyday world.

There’s a calmness in tone throughout the book which is described by its subtitle as “Selected Poems Early & Uncollected.” Synchronistically, the first line of the opening poem which is offered as an “Early Poem” is “Not to despise even.”  If one took that as a poetic position, that would explain what I am fumblingly-calling “calm” in tone—for these poems offer the poet observing much of history and yet there is no sense of a belabored judgment on the past.  There is simply an offering of the facts and letting, as they say, the facts speak for themselves.  The event described in “Public Sale” (after an Andrew Wyeth painting), for example, could have been (and has been by others) described with much more fraughtness.  Instead, the facts do speak for themselves but, in this manner, become much more resonant in their effect:

Public Sale (1943)

The coroner’s gamble paid off,
yet left the road in ruts, dried

in heaps of dirt and dust.
Still they came, neighbors, strangers,

speaking in quiet tones, standing
with downcast eyes, under a dull sky

thick with rain that refused to fall.
One trucker arrived late, driving

over grass to avoid the broken road.
He leaned against the hood and lit

his pipe, listening to the auctioneer
begin his call. Whatever happened

to the farm, no one speaks of it now,
as if mentioning the event

would raise a curse or cause the rain
to fall. They ate women and men,

sudden storms, houses grown old
as branches, bare as lives become

The lack of a period to end the poem (which occurs in other poems) is telling—it bespeaks how one can tell a story and yet never totally capture the tale (and thus is implied the tale continues) … even as the story is told in a manner that can move the receptive reader.

Hoffman’s voice is so strong I am tempted—though know better (if only from the extensive Notes to the poems) than—to personalize the voice. The approach taken here involves a lot of writing through others’ creations.  It is a testament to Hoffman’s eye and writing that the first time I read “Winter 1946” I believed it to be an autobiographical work:

Winter 1946 (1946)

Just over this hill, my father was killed
when a train hit his car at a crossing—

There, many years later,
one could still find a sign—
rusted, beaten, broken—

instructing one to stop, look and listen—

As a boy, I used to run tumbling
down this hill, across a strong winter light,
my hands flung wide, bits of snow and

Black shadows racing behind me—

I felt severed from the world
and still do now, my hands

in air, reaching for something
that is almost there
behind me

But the poem, after another Wyeth painting, is (per the Notes) “from Wyeth’s perspective; his father, the painter N.C. Wyeth, was killed by an oncoming train at a train crossing near his home at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.”  Yet I read the poem’s ending as also a type of ars poetica for Hoffman: “…my hands // in air, reaching for something / that is almost there / behind me.”

The past is thick, as I once observed in a conversation with poet Tom Beckett.  What Hoffman balances as a poet is to use a mode of “almost there”-ness, otherwise known as poetic articulations, with making some sort of sense from the past.  That he maintains such calmness amidst this huge sea that is the messiness of human affairs is quite a feat.  And shows why Eric Hoffman’s poems desrve to be better and more widely-known.

I’ve only touched on a small part of the many attributes of Hoffman’s poems in this book.  Let me end with this excerpt … that wondrously speaks for itself, No. 17 from “Early Poems”:

Bird wing:



My very satisfying experience with BY THE HOURS moved me to read an earlier book by Hoffman, The American Eye.  This volume is comprised of two poems.  From the publisher's description: "the first [poem], "Emerson in Europe" [is} a verse translation of the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, just prior to his Harvard speech, lamenting the death of his wife and having given up the cloth, tours Europe, meeting with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle. The second poem, 'The Vast Practical Engine' [is] a lyric collage of the philosophy of pragmatism, [and] utilizes the cadences of Emerson's godson William James. Together, these poems comprise a concise meditation on the immense transformation in human thought contributed by these two radical thinkers."

What The American Eye reveals through Hoffman's "verse translation" is how the good writer must also be a good reader.  Not only are the results convincing poetry but also as thought-provoking as the sources mined by the poet.  I'm not sure exactly on what "verse translation" means--in this sample below, for example, I don't know whether the phrases in quotes are what's lifted from the journal and the phrases not in quote are Hoffman's paraphrases and/or inspired statements:

A thought, a design: 
A lecture on God's architecture, 
A sketch of a winter's day 
As a  microcosm of the cosmos 

Or to go south again 
To the West Indies 
For the climate 

Instead, on the spur 
Of a moment, sailed east 
for Southern Europe  

Sold the house & all my furniture 
At auction, "that domestic 
Crack of doom 
& type of all forlornness"

But it doesn't really matter that I, as reader, can't figure out the How of Hoffman's translations.  What's evident, as by the above sample, is that his poetic sculpturing of the words, say (the quoted)
..."that domestic 
Crack of doom 
& type of all forlornness"
receive the emphasis allowed by verse (including verse's line-breaks) to highlight the potential despair in remaining still, versus the possibility of approaching "God" or not remaining mere "microcosm of the cosmos" through the search, physical as well as intellectual.

In both books, Hoffman displays the keen eye and intellect that surfaces a poet strong enough to maintain equanimity in delving through history.


Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry.  Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp.  Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form.  More information at 

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