Ninth Letter is delighted to feature this powerful sequence of poems from Richard Hoffman’s forthcoming new collection, Noon until Night (Barrow Street Press, 2017). These six poems encompass over a half century of living, from his childhood to his grandson’s childhood, from his early love of letters and words to his grandson reaching out with joy for a blank sheet of paper. And in between, we see the accounting one must face with a parent, the shifting winds of marriage, the pith of life in even its smallest, most telling moments. And overarching it all is this great wisdom:
I think that goodness
prior to injury is innocence, and that goodness after
injury is courage.
All that First Chapter
1949. The smoke had cleared and the radiation
went wherever it goes and people went
wherever they decided forward was and I,
first-born, took the usual year or so
to establish a self behind my eyes
to spend the next half century wanting
all of it, from the chestnut trees
to the gravel, to small shards of coal left
glittering after a delivery, slugs and salamanders
under lifted slabs of slate, anthills
and honeybees in clover asterisked
with dandelions in the tiny yard
while mother sang in the kitchen, tunes
from the radio and tin-pan alley,
and before I learned to pretend or dissemble,
I hurt myself to make her run to me.
Mondays were sailing with sheets, curtains,
the world past grief, through the wringer,
prosperity good washing weather.
I learned to read before I started school,
mother-tongue feeding me, birdlike,
a Little Golden Book from the A&P, or pasting
S&H Green Stamps into a booklet of squares
carefully, filthy fingers learning joy
could be had just sitting in a chair,
trying to get a thing right and be praised;
brachiating neurons chemically articulated
the future. The church was the past
and Europe. My parents knelt; I thought
how God had given us twenty-six letters,
and I had learned them, and could
make them all, but weren’t there more?
I thought I could see a few others
in the moving net of liquid light reflected
on the hull of an aluminum canoe,
already a sinner, as miserable with desire
as our neighbor’s dog, leashed to a tree,
barking and straining, that taut rope
the radius of his disdain. The houses
on our the street were one long structure
like an egg crate or ice-tray: behind
each door a father home from the war,
and now another, (our paperboy there,
wounded, his picture in the paper.)
I delivered the news too, folding and
tucking it just so to make an oblong
aerodynamic package that hit the door
and opened, a headline for the just awakened
I’d imagined as I packed in darkness.
I spent my earnings on books to help me
say goodbye, to want to say goodbye,
and boarded the bus, transistor in my ear.
A Face in the Ceiling
In August heat, I am remembering my father.
“Stinkin’ hot,” he would have called this day,
his tee shirt wet with sweat over his heart, wet
circles under his arms, dark patch between his
shoulderblades. I am remembering my father,
a year now since his death has scattered him,
no longer all in one place anymore, no longer
in one time. Now, piecing him back together
near the anniversary of his dissolution,
questions — not coming from me, not curiosity
but necessity (mine and his together) — form
in the discontinuous and widening vacancies
of memory, questions like sweat, beading
on my forehead. This is work, not to let him go,
not yet, and to ask if I have understood him;
hazardous work. I am remembering my father
as he was in my earliest memories, home
from “the steel” where he laid track in the yards,
sprawled on the floor of the living room, spent,
in his boxer shorts in front of an oscillating fan
that dinged at intervals at some point in its sweep
(I swear I can hear it now. I can hear it!)
I lay next to him, and he asked if I could see
the faces in the cracked and water-stained ceiling.
Yes. I saw them there. Who were they? But
by then he was asleep so I pretended I was too.
One time at least, I was. Some years later, home
from his job with the city, (“Those years,” he’d say,
“I was with the city”) a restaurant inspector,
(“protecting the public” he’d say and roll his eyes)
in the same blue uniform as a cop, without the gun,
I spied on him searching his face in the mirror.
For what? For whom? I am remembering my father
with the help of photographs and a single video
in which he says how good it feels to tell the truth.
You have to think of a man in time, even a father.
I think of him as a man on whom lies were heaped
until he could hardly breathe. I think that goodness
prior to injury is innocence, and that goodness after
injury is courage. I am remembering my father.
Back then, on that thin strip of barrier
island, at your parents’ beachfront
house, we were at war with each other
over territory: psychic premises, time,
responsibilities, attention. We plumbed
desire and fury, threatened one another
with abandonment. Sometimes the wind
would shift and blow from inland, across
the sound, not from the sea, and bring
dank pressure and a horde of insects,
tropical, hard and heavy, banging into
the screens, hanging there with barbed legs
and the faces of demons. I snapped them off
with my middle finger which annoyed you,
sitting across from me under the lamp
that had drawn them to our windows,
nursing our newborn and trying to read.
What did we know about love? Why did
we stay together, we two, grandparents
now, long married, writing books,
our dedications to each other in italics?
The wind would shift, again and again.
At least we always understood that much.
Ah, this rain. Now this is the rain
I remember. It has been a long time
since its billion bubbles rattled on
the blackened street and burbled
in the sewer grate where leaves
wadded, since it combed the grass
and washed away dirt to red clay.
I had never given up expecting it,
even when the edges of my thin
desires crinkled and turned brown,
and somehow even when the names
of my dead, midmemory, eluded me,
and I tried not to be angry at myself
for fear I would burst into flames.
Now you can hear the flood below
the streets and sidewalks, power
you feel through the soles of your feet,
and I am drenched again in gladness.
The Real Earth
Wake, sit, pivot, put
your two feet on the floor.
You can’t fly after all.
(Good thing: that wasn’t
the real earth
you were falling toward.)
The kettle whistles in the kitchen.
Your love is at the table
with the morning paper,
buttering her toast, already
sighing at the day’s
mendacity and folly.
I opened the book
and a thin slip
of paper, nothing
on it, twirled
and fluttered to the floor.
Look! said the boy,
my grandson, twisting from
my lap to retrieve it.
Can I have it?
Can I keep it? Please?
Richard Hoffman is author of seven books: the poetry collections Without Paradise, Gold Star Road, and Emblem; the memoirs Love & Fury and Half the House; the short story collection Interference and Other Stories, and his new collection of poems, Noon until Night, forthcoming in April from Barrow Street Press. He is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College, in Boston.