“Standing at the water’s edge, I watch myself / loosen into a brief, exquisite blur.” Though we begin our journey through Richie Hofmann’s stunning debut poetry collection Second Empire with the freedom to move and self-express, it is a destination of sorts for Hofmann himself. The collection functions as a deeply personal glimpse into the immediate and long-term effects of the tension Hofmann experienced growing up as a queer man in Western society: tension between security and connection, beauty and fragility, tradition and identity. The collection as a whole is far from sole introspection, however. From the first poem, Hofmann is interested chiefly in answering the larger question, What do you do when you don’t fit tradition? On the surface, this may sound like a simple question, perhaps even a self-explanatory one—but for Hofmann, and consequently for the reader, it is anything but.
Perhaps the most compelling element of Second Empire is the repeated mention of “the city” from whence the narrator originates. From the narrator’s perspective, the city encompasses a portrait of tradition and ancestry that is equally inflexible and inauthentic. In “Fresco,” for example, the city is referred to as “perfumed," “decorated," and “ornamented." Equally compelling is Hofmann’s initial portrayal of the human body in relation to tradition. In such poems as “Egyptian Bowl with Figs,” where Hofmann links the traditional process of embalmment with the notion of “paint[ing] [history] in gold,” and “Idyll,” in which Hofmann refers to the body as being “built," the human body seems tailored to fit the city, rather than the other way around.
This focus on shame and the manufactured quality of tradition illuminates a profound sense of vulnerability in Hofmann’s narrator, caused by the ever-changing world clashing with his unchanging body and unchanging tradition. Throughout the collection, emotional undercurrents of insecurity and restraint govern the overall tone and direction many of the early poems adopt. In “Idyll,” for example, Hofmann doesn’t “know that I possess / a body built for love.” In “Sea Interlude: Storm,” he “clung / like a feeding gull to the sureness of flesh." In the third movement of “Night Ferry,” he recalls the sense of relative freedom he derived from wearing the Venetian mask that “kept me from my life.”
As the collection progresses, however, Hofmann narrows his focus to unpacking the complicated relationship he has with the expectations for him outlined by tradition. This culminates in the epiphanic image of the “whole city … reflected below / the city” in the fourth movement of Hofmann’s poem “Night Ferry.” No longer must Hofmann’s narrator live in the shame-inspiring wake of his ancestors; now, it is he (through reflection) who holds the keys to the city that has restrained him for so long, he who is the “hierophant / to the past," he who may interpret the tradition of his ancestors to create a revised version of tradition for himself. Hofmann references this exact realization at the beginning of his poem “Erotic Archive”:
We sleep in his bed
among his silent books.
Though I never knew him,
I’ve spent my entire life thinking it’s his ghost
I belong to.
Here, as in much of the collection’s later half, we witness striking growth in the narrator. Whereas he initially “pray[ed] I might shake off this skin and be raised / from the ground again” (“Idyll”), he now recognizes the principal roles that he, his queerness, and his lover play in the shaping of tradition—both in the present, as well as for the future. Gone, it seems, are the days of “desire or grief lacquering us” (“Three Cranes”), the days of “liv[ing]...from small relief to small relief, like a boy pulling a thorn / from his foot” (“After”)—they’ve been replaced by days of liberation, of self-ownership, of “nothing between the body...and the body” (“Egyptian Cotton”). Elsewhere, Hofmann is even more overt in his delivery. In “Bright Walls,” he simply states, “To bend, to kneel before some greater force— / that was no longer what I wished.”
As to the original question—What do you do when you don’t fit tradition?—Hofmann might respond, If the body doesn’t fit the city, the city should be chiseled to fit the body. He might say, It’s time to give tradition a facelift. But regardless of what he would say, Richie Hofmann’s beautiful, startling, arresting Second Empire speaks for itself. There is, indeed, a new empire, and Hofmann is—gratefully, boldly, thankfully—at the helm.
by Richie Hofmann
Alice James Books, 2015
$15.95 paperback; ISBN: 9781938584169
Peter LaBerge is the author of the chapbook Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). His recent work appears in Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, Sixth Finch, Hayden's Ferry Review, Best New Poets 2014, and Indiana Review, among others. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the Bucknell University Stadler Center for Poetry and the founder and editor-in-chief of the Adroit Journal. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Find him online at www.peterlaberge.com.