Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003 is a provocative collection of reflective poems. Arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the book precludes easy tracing of the poet’s growth; instead it allows the full force of the poet’s preoccupations and image clusters to affect the reader. “Thought tends to collect in pools,” Wallace Stevens said in his “Adagia,” and each of the sections in Beyond Silence is indeed a kind of thought-pool in which related ideas and images play off of one another beneath the surface, allowing glimmers of insight to rise up.
This volume appeared for Hoffman’s eightieth birthday. He has published eight books of poems and two book-length poems as well as eight books of nonfiction. He has worked innovatively throughout the latter part of his career with the form of the long poem, but this collection limits itself to “shorter poems,” even though the works it includes are not all short. Its contents are taken from his collections of shorter poems; he does not prove excerpts from his book-length poems, Brotherly Love, about William Penn’s treaty with the Indians, and Middens of the Tribe, a novel in verse.
Despite the urban background of the poet, these poems are not exclusively, or even predominantly, of the city. Many are poems of mythic landscape which express a modernist vision of both urban and rural catastrophe. Others are poems of history, also with a mythic dimension. The thought-pools, or sections, of the book include resonant love poems, descriptions of rural characters, interchanges with literary figures, poems about historical events, and other thematic groups. The groups share the motif of the journey, which changes its nature and destiny as the themes change. The themes are not identified by the poet, and their definitions will vary with different readers, according to how the readers’ preoccupations and desires mesh with the poet’s. Some of the eight numbered sections are easier to identify thematically than others, but each of the sections has an intuitive unity and indeed has the feel of a short collection when read by itself.
What is evident from the book as a whole is the poet’s range—Hoffman has written controlled formalist poems, flexible or open-form poems, and free verse. His work may be narrative, lyric, descriptive, epigrammatic, or any combination of these. One of his trademarks is the embedded epigram, which strikes the reader as a gem of wisdom suddenly come upon within a narrative or descriptive passage. The poems may be romantically expansive or tersely ironic, sweet or bitter. They may represent a realistic landscape in an identified location or a romantic landscape of the spirit. It is part of the appeal of the collection that the poet’s work remains elusive—it never becomes predictable or classifiable.
The first section provides a mysterious but compelling introduction. These poems are quirkily political poems of twentieth century history, containing mostly war memories and events but including some vivid glimpses of childhood. The most memorable poem among these may be “The City of Satisfactions,” which describes a thwarted quest for the ideal life as it was pursued during the twentieth century. The speaker is “traveling toward the city of satisfactions” on a train, which seems to be the fast train to corporate success or suburban heaven, when an unexpected stop causes him to descend from the train and launch himself on a complicated allegorical journey toward an unattainable goal. The strange open allegory pulls the reader into an existential adventure, narrated in flexible blank verse. Other poems in this and other early sections are to be dominated by this modernist malaise, which affects even the animals, such as “The...