Poetry to Take With Us Into the Night

Daniel Hoffman’s latest collection is both accomplished and moving.

By Leonard Gontarek

By Daniel Hoffman, Faculty.
Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. 
64 pp., $22.95. Order this book

By Ruth Domino. Translated by Daniel Hoffman.
Stony Brook, NY: Gravida Publications, 2002. 
57 pp., $13.00.

“We feed each other flesh with the sweet tang / Of the sea, and the fire, and salt, as the tide breathes,” Daniel Hoffman says in “Night Fishing” from New and Selected Poems 1948-1988, which originally appeared in Hang-Gliding from Helicon, one of 10 books of poems published in a distinguished career. “Night Fishing” is a sexy poem about fishing, or is about sex and fishing, or, in the end, may be about sex alone. Hoffman is looking for something in the night waters. We are happy to put ourselves in his considerably gifted and accomplished hands—which is to say, few poets writing today possess the range and technical skill of Hoffman.

Where is he now, at this stage of his career, this poet who in 1990, in the masterful “Who We Are,” guided us through contemporary life, by way of the Raven myth and Achilles, to conclude we “know nothing”? What has he discovered, the suicidal subject of “The Center of Attention” (one of the great American poems of the 1970s), who neither leaps nor hang-glides from the bridge, but simply climbs down and takes his place among the crowd? 

In his newest collection, Darkening Water, Hoffman places us, and brilliantly, in his space and time immediately in the opening poem, “Summer”:

Far at sea, searching for a lover,
For bestowal, bringing its caresses, 
Bringing words etched on this page, 
A white prow I launch now 
To cleave the darkening water.

He’s pushing 80-years old (born 1923, New York City). The images are clear, but night is falling in these lovely, simple lines. I think we secretly root for our artists and writers to become masters as they age. Our culture demands it. Examples abound. Robert Rauschenberg and Willem De Kooning, arguably, achieved greatness as they grew older. John Hall Wheelock and Wallace Stevens wrote their best work in their later years. As we cheer our poets on, perhaps what we want for ourselves here is something as conventional as wisdom.

Hoffman’s forte has never been wisdom. Knowledge, yes, being knowledgeable. He is content to chisel and polish his lines, to let the natural light shine. The poems in the present volume are twilit, the subject of age suffuses them—when not being dealt with directly, as in poems like “Revisiting the Country of His Youth,” “Scott Nearing’s Ninety-Eighth Year,” “A Time Piece,” (among the less successful in the volume), or “Going”: 

So, goodbye, day. See, 
the shadows join each other 
as the air turns shadow 
and the light fails …

Not the impeccable poetry we expect of Hoffman, but simply moving.

Where Hoffman has always been brilliant is when he takes a subject he knows well and tackles it headlong—the above-mentioned “Who We Are” and “Summer,” “The Celtic Twilight, 1965,” and “Fables”:

The beggar who fills the boy’s noggin with the need to bring 
A drop of water from the Well at the World’s End home 
(Just so as to find what good might come of it), 
With no man to point the road to the end of the world 
But only Earth, and Sea, and the Skyto send him 
Forth to thwart the Crone, the Giant, the Sea-Troll …

This is his assured voice, his authoritative voice, where he is most at home. 

Throughout the body of his life’s work, Hoffman has looked at the evidence of the natural world for revelation. “Wading waist-deep through hardhack, daisies, yarrow, / In a fringe of ferns at the foot of the upper meadow / I found a mound of round or nearly round / Rocks a glacier or the tides had ground,” Hoffman tells us in “A Pile of Rocks.” The writing is accomplished, eminently so. But, you go looking and sometimes you just find a pile of rocks. I’m convinced rather that he is a good poet and not of any truth found there. The material is interestingly observed, but his strength remains as a scholarly and urban poet.

Daniel Hoffman, a poet of the streets? Of all things. In the poem, “A Sidewalk Scene,” with its familiar street-person subject, and “Mean Street,” where a fist fight breaks out over an insult (“and a thud, a thud—If y’ever call / me that again—a thud—I’LL KILL ya”), and its coda “Violence,” with its requisite armchair-quarterbacking from a bystander, Hoffman places himself squarely in the Baudelaire tradition and distinguishes himself. A character, slurping noises, clucking and gnashing consonants, stumbles onto a bus in Speech, sitting beside a woman, too close, a little too much reality even for one from the city. Street smart? Hoffman is smart enough to know it is about language and finding meaning and poetry in … in the beautiful illogic of city life. Smart enough to let down his guard and loosen his own lines to record accurately what he sees.

This relaxing of his metrical powers serves him well in “Called Back,” placed near the end of the book, which returns to the natural setting, but with more openness and intimacy with his subject. The showering Perseids become:

Time made visible as space, contained 
in my stunned gaze that holds at once 
the end and the beginning and the black 
blankness of the unlit nothing that precedes 
the first, the earliest, the oldest light.

In the end, Hoffman learns, and teaches, through his magnificent theme variations, and from distinguished book to distinguished book, gives us poetry to take with us into the night. 

Published simultaneously with Darkening Water, Hoffman’s translations of Ruth Domino’s poems, A Play of Mirrors, is a handsome edition of 500 copies. Translation remains one of the oddest ways poems make it to the page. Hoffman explains his translations are revisions of literal versions provided by the late Jerre Mangione. Italian was not the native language of Ruth Domino ( a German), but rather that of her husband. In her own words, all writing is translation and putting it into 
another language is a triple act of translation. Having said that, hers is a rich poetry in a stripped-down style. Everything about these 20 poems is small detail, moments, as she calls them: children, windows, beds, words, underlining the loss behind the work. And terror, in “Street of Shells”: “Every step / a shell / a small fear / a gem furrowed by howling / when the werewolf / hunted among a thousand dreams.”

Ruth Domino (1908-1994), a refugee during World War II, came to the U.S. and lived and worked near Philadelphia. Once poems like hers were a document of witness; in our present time, they help us understand a world we know. And, perhaps, offer salvation. In many ways, Ruth Domino’s poems shadow Hoffman’s own. They begin in summer when: “every tree was the tree of life. A raven flies here, too: from the crematories, drunk / on the smoke and writing.” The night eats up everything in “Night Song”:

eats the young man 
under the moon, 
the eyes 
little lakes 
in craters of bone. 
It will gulp down the lingering song 
because Eurydice awaits him 
on the edge of shade. 
The night devours 
everything, even the moon.

Ruth Domino is a true discovery. We are grateful to Hoffman for these poems.

Leonard Gontarek, author of three books of poems, is a contributing editor to The American Poetry Review.

Paradise Lost

The rise and fall of a multiracial, multifarious culture.

By Beth Kephart

THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
By Maria Rosa Menocal CW’73 G’75 Gr’79.
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002. 
336 pages; $26.95. Order this book

In 1985, newly married to a Latin man, I traveled to Spain for the first time. If it was my husband who spoke Spanish for the both of us, who negotiated every bus trip, every meal, it was me who fell irreversibly in love with the exotic allure of southern Spain. 

Since then we have returned to southern Spain again and again, to the cities of Cordoba and Seville, Granada and Ronda, to the bulls and the sunflowers and the rustic cortijos, to the groves of olive trees and the smoky basement bars where men and women perform flamenco and seek the elusive duende. Southern Spain is all seduction, and that seduction springs, in large part, from its roots, springs from the enchanting mix of religious and cultural influences that defined al-Andalus most spectacularly under the leadership of Abd al-Rahman, a Umayyad, and his political descendants. 

Maria Rosa Menocal’s eminently readable The Ornament of the World follows the rise of this multiracial, multifarious culture from the mid-eighth century, when Abd al-Rahman traveled from Damascus (where his ruling family had been slaughtered) to the Iberian peninsula, through 1492, when Spain became “Christian Spain” and the Jews and the Moors were systematically expelled. Menocal’s stated purpose is to explore the chapter of European history when Christians, Jews, and Muslims “despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance.”

It was there, in Andalusia, Menocal suggests, “that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style—from the intellectual style of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques—not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith … saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.”

To tell her story, Menocal must guide her readers through an often mystifying maze of names and bloodlines, factions and tribes. She must introduce an at-times overwhelming cast of characters that includes, among many others, kings and caliphs and the real El Cid; a warrior who revitalized Hebrew poetry; a Christian abbot who oversaw the translation of the Koran; and a scholar—a converted Jew with a Christian name—who infiltrated hearts and minds with a refreshing new form of storytelling. She must describe the architecture of buildings that were remade and rededicated over and again. She must sift through the ever-changing allegiances and alliances that not only cast their shadows over those times but also contributed, in their way, to the rise of extraordinary scholarship, secular poetry, new technologies, exquisite libraries, even love songs. 

It is all a rather astonishing—and original—undertaking, and Menocal miraculously manages to move her story forward, to bring vanished cities back to life, to place her readers inside the pulse and power of those times, to yield a sense for what is lost when cultural tolerance is replaced by stultifying “purity.” Menocal is most engaging when writing about poetry, language, libraries, when she introduces the poets themselves and their work. She is most persuasive when she takes the time to build meaningful bridges among her ensemble of vignettes. 

Completed just before September 11, 2001, Ornament makes a powerful case for the horrors implicit in “uncompromising religious tolerance” and the potentiality implied by the opposite. In a moving postscript to the book, Menocal ties together the many threads of her story with this rigorous and eloquent statement of fact:

“The complex problem at the heart of the cultural history of medieval Europe was first and foremost how the great monotheistic religions of the Children of Abraham—faiths that all have powerful strains of ferocity within them—struggled to define what they were and why they might become. When they managed to find it within themselves to be truly first-rate, admirable achievements followed, and men like Samuel the Nagid rode the land and churches like San Roman were built and philosophers like Ibd Rushd were honored. But when, instead, the centers of such tolerance did not hold, irreparable destruction often followed, from the eleventh-century sacking of Madinat al-Zahra by fundamentalist Berber troops to the fifteenth-century tearing down of the old Almohad mosque that had served for so long as the cathedral of the Castilian monarchs in Seville.”

In these disturbing days of intolerance, fear, and hatred, when Jews and Muslims and Christians are desperate to find a way to co-exist upon the planet, The Ornament of the World makes for instructive, enlightening reading. Even as it pleases the lovers of southern Spain among us, it suggests important lessons for our own country, and our own time.

Beth Kephart C’82’s most recent book is Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoir.

Briefly Noted  

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU MAKES YOU STRONGER: Turning Bad Breaks into Blessings
By Maxine Schnall Ed’56.
Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing, 2002. 
243 pp., $24.00. Order this book

When a tragic automobile accident left her adult daughter’s ability to care for herself uncertain, Dr. Maxine Schnall was thrown head-first into the kind of personal crisis we all hope to be spared in life. Schnall came to understand the hard way that there can be benefits in misfortune, provided we meet our crises with a shift in outlook. Rich with stories of people who have experienced hardships large and small, this book provides a system of beliefs and practical exercises to help navigate the path from loss to regeneration. Schnall is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of five books and a former contributing editor with Women’s Day.

SCANDAL PROOF: Do Ethics Laws Make Government Ethical? 
By G. Calvin Mackenzie, with Michael Hafken C’97.
Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2002. 
196 pp., $39.95. Order this book

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10930, the first step in a long series of efforts to regulate the ethical behavior of executive-branch officials; after Watergate, a deluge of new laws and rules appeared with the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which has continued to expand through today. This book assesses whether efforts to scandal proof the federal government have been successful, what they have cost, and whether reforms should be considered. Calvin Mackenzie is author of Innocent until Nominated: The Breakdown of the Presidential Appointments Process. Michael Hafken is a research analyst with the Brookings Institution.

BROWN TIDE RISING: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary Public Discourse
By Otto Santa Ana Gr’91.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002. 
402 pp.; $24.95. Order this book

“Awash under a brown tide … the relentless flow of immigrants … like waves on a beach, these human flows are remaking the face of America … ” Dr. Otto Santa Ana’s new book contends that such metaphorical language has permeated mainstream media reporting on the United States’ growing Latino population since 1993. Examining an extensive set of excerpts from the media, Santa Ana reveals how contemporary metaphorical language portrays Latinos as invaders, outsiders, burdens, and parasites. In response, he creates his own set of insurgent metaphors to contest such oppressive public discourse about minority communities. Santa Ana is a founder and associate professor of the Cesar Chavez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.

DOUBLE LIVES: Crafting Your Life of Work and Passion for Untold Success
By David Heenan Gr’72.
Palo Alto, Calif.: Davies-Black Publishing, 2002. 
246 pp., $24.95. Order this book

Today, doctors and scientists are plunging into e-health and biotech start-ups. Disaffected dot-comers are looking to reboot themselves in less harried environs. David Heenan analyzes this emerging phenomena of so-called “double lives” in his new book. Heenan challenges traditional advocacy of total commitment to a single profession by telling the stories of 10 individuals—from Sony chairman Norio Ohga (also an orchestra conductor) to World Bank president Sir James Wolfensohn (former member of the Australian fencing team). David Heenan is an estate overseer who has also served as senior executive with Citicorp and Jardine Matheson, and has held faculty positions at business schools across the country.

Edited by Kenneth Heuer. 
Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 
260pp., $16.95. Order this book

A glimpse into the intellectual and emotional workshop of influential American essayist Dr. Loren Eiseley Gr’37—a Penn anthropology professor and provost—this posthumous collection is filled with insights into the writer’s life —from his days as a young man during the Depression, to his career as an astute archaeologist, to his life as an observer and writer. Also included are poems, short stories, and an array of startling reflections on the natural world. Eiseley’s works include The Night CountryThe Invisible PyramidThe Firmament of Time, and All the Strange Hours.

By Joseph E. Illick Gr’63.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 
218 pp., 49.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper). Order this book

Dr. Joseph Illick brings together a wide range of research on American Indians, European settlers, African slaves, and 19th-century working-class families to present a cross-cultural history of childhood in America. This book demonstrates how children’s experiences have varied dramatically through time, and how the idea of childhood has meant vastly different things to different groups in American society. Joseph E. Illick is professor of history at San Francisco State University and author of Colonial Pennsylvania: A History and At Liberty: The Story of a Community and a Generation.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Services and 
Programs in Higher Education

Edited by Ronni Sanlo, Sue Rankin, and Robert Schoenberg SW’68 GrS’89, Staff.
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. 
273 pp., $59.95. Order this book

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students arrive on campuses every year expecting their voices to be heard, their concerns acknowledged, and their needs met in a welcoming educational environment. The establishment of LGBT resource centers on campuses has transformed colleges and universities. This book provides guidelines for establishing and operating LGBT centers or program offices on their own campuses. Dr. Robert Schoenberg is the director of the LGBT Center at Penn.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    The Newcomer Dividend
    Persistent Demons
    Briefly Noted

    Leave a Reply