“A Servant to Order and Erotic Love”: On Richie Hofmann’s “A Hundred Lovers”

By Will BrewbakerMarch 2, 2022

“A Servant to Order and Erotic Love”: On Richie Hofmann’s “A Hundred Lovers”

A Hundred Lovers by Richie Hofmann

IN THE SECOND section of her prose poem entitled “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics,” Elizabeth Bishop inhabits the perspective of the “strayed crab” that serves as the section’s narrator. “This is not my home,” declares the crab, “How did I get so far from water?” In the lines that follow, Bishop offers — still in the voice of the lost crab — a quasi-meditation on her own aesthetic tenets: “I am dapper and elegant; I move with great precision, cleverly managing all my smaller yellow claws. I believe in the oblique, the indirect approach, and I keep my feelings to myself.” Later, at the section’s end, the crab continues: “I admire compression, lightness, and agility, all rare in this loose world.”

Though it might seem odd, at first glance, to open a consideration of Richie Hofmann’s A Hundred Lovers — which, from the sheer voluminosity of its title alone, seems to revel not in keeping its feelings to itself but rather in quite the opposite — with Bishop, a close inspection of Hofmann’s second book finds that the similarities between her method and his own actually invite such a comparison. Indeed, while A Hundred Lovers has been billed by its publisher as “an erotic journal in poems,” this framing — though not wrong exactly — belies the formal “compression” and “indirect approach” that inform nearly every line of this excellent collection.

Nowhere is this clarity of expression clearer than in “One Another,” an early lyric of only eight lines:

We are knotted in the white bedding.
I don’t want sleep to separate us. We breathe
with the darkness, like an enormous animal.
Our bodies manufacture their odors. I taste earth
on his skin. Eros enters, where shame had lived.
Pale sun, then morning. How easily the earth closes
its cavities. I leave the apartment
wearing his black anorak.

Though we are, in these lines, quite a far distance from the “closets, closets, and more closets” for which Bishop was famous, this short lyric — which hovers between pure declaration (“Eros enters, where shame had lived”) and restrained narration (“I taste earth / on his skin”) — transposes Bishop’s “oblique” impulse into a different, though still recognizable, key.

In the opening line, the poem’s two subjects find themselves “knotted” not only by the sheets but also by that single pronoun — “We” — which dissolves almost immediately into an “I” that fears being made, by sleep’s division, exactly what it already is: a solitary subject. But no sooner does this “I” appear than it finds itself resorbed, again, into the “we” of the second line’s latter half.

The poem continues like this — navigating between the “I” and the “we” — until the final line. When, finally, the speaker “leave[s] the apartment / wearing his black anorak,” he presents the distance that has opened up between himself and his lover in terms that are entirely grammatical — the singular “our” has broken apart into two distinct entities: “I” and “his.” Though direct, this poem’s ending tantalizes, even confounds, precisely because this final tension — this final distance between the two subjects — is intelligible only if one has paid careful attention to the preceding matrix of pronominal associations. Even so, the poem declines to comment on whether this “black anorak” — the sheer fact of its presence — is capable of keeping together what the poem itself has separated.

In this expertly wrought lyric, Hofmann offers us a taste of his poetic method. Throughout A Hundred Lovers, Hofmann often appears, at a poem’s outset, to offer us a comprehensive account of a sexual encounter — only to leave us, at the poem’s end, back in the beguiling dark that both precedes it and proceeds from it.

But this mode — in which Hofmann takes back, with the same motion, exactly what he’s just given — does not mean that these poems revel in being opaque for their own sake; rather, they seem to know, intuitively, exactly when to disclose and, just as importantly, when to withhold. In the delightfully titled “At the Rustic Hamlet Built in 1783 for Marie Antoinette, Last Queen of France,” Hofmann balances this tension with perfect delicacy. Early in the poem, he offers a clear declaration that serves, too, as a kind of thesis statement for A Hundred Lovers as a whole: “I am a servant / to order and erotic love.”

That “order” precedes “erotic love” in this declaration is hardly an accident — as Hofmann proves in the poem’s final lines:

            We throw out
pieces of an unwanted

            your gloved hand
feeding the pond —
            the regal, monogamous

            swan, the hungry,
whiskered fish
            you drop the bread on.

In these stanzas — linked together by the slant rhymes of “unwanted,” “pond,” “swan,” and “on” — Hofmann opts for precision over confession, for “order” over “erotic love.” Though the slyly enjambed “monogamous / swan” does invite an air of romance (even as it readies us for the following poem, the tender “Spring Wedding”), these lines decline full-throated emotion and opt, instead, for restraint.

Still, these images are far from simple: for as they build — as the “you” tosses bread into the pond — the historical associations build, as well. Both the “unwanted / bâtard” and the enjambed fragment, “the hungry,” call to mind the riots over bread prices that prompted, at least in part, the famous storming of Versailles in 1789 — a storming that, as both the poem and the poet knows, the eponymous “Last Queen of France” was fortunate to escape alive.

This poetic impulse — to invite the past into the present — permeates much of A Hundred Lovers. In an early poem, Hofmann describes a “canal rushing / from a different century.” Similarly, two different poems (“History of Pleasure” and “Male Beauty”) find the speaker noting, in passing, the presence of “ruins” — which, like the lyric itself (or, better, like Hofmann’s preferred form of the sonnet) exist in the present even as they evoke the past.

But Hofmann’s poetry is hardly that of a glossy-eyed Romantic who daydreams about the blissful days of yesteryear. On the contrary, his poems recognize that, though beautiful, these ruins — like the history they call to mind — carry with them a legacy of destruction, erosion, and, oftentimes, violence. In “City of Violent Wind,” Hofmann’s speaker recalls an evening spent in a room — likely in Avignon — which he describes as “aristocratic / but faded, / two antique twin beds pushed together.”

This quiet image — of the “two antique twin beds pushed together” — is memorable, even profound, for the way that it holds together, quite literally, the past and the present. Like the two beds — which, though “pushed together,” cannot unmake the slight gap that remains between them — Hofmann’s poetry attempts to bring together resonant history and what that history has sought to keep apart: namely, the male lovers who populate his every poem. As he remarks, simply, in a poem entitled “Opulence”: “The history of this place / abounds with wounds.”

To read A Hundred Lovers, then, is to read not just an account of a body in the various stages of love (or, as in one poem: “the stages of life”) but also of a body as it revels in the world around it. As they traverse specific streets in Germany and France, Hofmann’s poems come to resemble, collectively, a kind of travelogue. In this constant whirr of places and interactions — as city names and their histories fly by the reader like trees hurtling past a speeding train — the collection’s only stable point becomes, again and again, the self, that solitary lyric-“I,” which records everything assiduously and as matter-of-factly as possible.

Despite this dedication to a Bishopian “compression,” there do appear moments, though few and far between, when Hofmann allows a crack to appear, as it were, in his orderly facade. In “Bottom’s Dream,” for instance, as the speaker recalls a sexual experience, he says:

… I think of those paintings kept behind a curtain
in a perverted bishop’s collection.
Don’t I know then: my death will be a thin fabric
he kisses me through. Fuck. I shouldn’t say that:
I’m from New Jersey, my dad was an executive, my fantasies of violence are trite.
Still, I thought it; everything humid
for a minute, the lindens shedding globby tears.

In these confessional lines, Hofmann upsets, as if by accident, the careful tightrope that he has been walking, for more than 30 poems, between candor and privacy. Having been led by a historical anecdote to contemplate the eventuality of his own death, the speaker appears shocked by his own admission. Then, in a rare moment of transparent autobiography, he offers a metanoic redaction: “I shouldn’t say that: / I’m from New Jersey, my dad was an executive, my fantasies of violence are trite.”

Here, the mask has been set aside completely; the images have fled and the meter is out of sync as the poet places himself, truly naked, before our judgmental gaze. “Still,” the poem carries on bravely, “I thought it; everything humid / for a minute, the lindens shedding globby tears.” In these lines, Hofmann wrests control (both metrical and otherwise) back from the poem: though everything was “humid / for a minute,” he remains, even after this moment of self-exposure, a “servant to order.”

With this tension between disclosure and restraint in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the book’s final poem, “Feast Days,” is made up entirely of rhyming couplets. For how better to rein in wanton emotion than to literally constrain it? Charting a single day in Pamiers, the poem proceeds by way of seven different sections, each constituted by five couplets. The poem begins:

On our drive down from Toulouse,
I practice silence. I am reading about men who strove to lose

affections. I bring a secondhand Lives of the Saints,
two kinds of bread, a blanket, and some paints.

In these lines, Hofmann’s rhymes recall, in their ingenious pairings and cosmopolitan playfulness, those of Lowell — or, better, Merrill, about whom the poet has written for this very site. In its blend of formal accuracy and emotional heft, this poem stands out as the best in the collection. As evidence, one need only listen to the final couplets from the third section:

                        … Music out of silence
In a window, Christ rends

a piece of bread in two. When a woman lights a candle, a shadow flutters
on the wall. Something echoes in the rafters —

a human voice, not yours. It isn’t mine.
I move along and see the altar and the dark sealed shrine.

In these couplets — at first imperfectly rhymed and then, finally, perfectly — the scene takes on an aura of unreality: a stained-glass window comes alive; a shadow fills a wall; an unidentifiable noise — “not yours” — remains unidentified. But these disparate, even paratactic, sensory experiences are bound together and given meaning by the poet’s formal discipline. Nothing is discovered, finally, when the speaker approaches “the altar” — nothing, that is, except a presence, a “something,” which one cannot help but feel lurks, alive, deep within “the dark sealed shrine.”

It is this sense of mystery — of something real but inarticulable that can only be gestured toward — that makes “Feast Days” such a remarkable success. As it considers a simple subject — a day in southern France — it moves fluidly between such subjects as love and faith and art, as if suggesting, subtly, that the lines between them might not be as sharp or as necessary as we have been led to believe.

In the fourth section, the speaker describes a scene in which he is painting leaves. “My sleeves / are rolled up. The palette knife is warm,” he tells us, then continues:

                                                            … When the sun
moves, the shadows change. The one

I am holding is no longer right. I search the box of pigments
next to you. The paint stiffens

quickly. I want to remember.
I mix green and gold and umber.

Like Eliot’s month of April — which “mix[es] / Memory and desire” — these lines, too, “mix” together disparate elements in memory’s service. That the sun will move again — that the shadows will, once again, “change” — is almost beside the point; or maybe it is the point. Maybe the point, for Hofmann, is not the final color per se but rather the act of mixing the colors — of poetic making, of poesis — which, like time or history or memory itself, is never really finished.


Will Brewbaker studies theology at Duke Divinity School. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Narrative, TriQuarterly Review, and Image, among others.

LARB Contributor

Will Brewbaker studies theology at Duke Divinity School. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Narrative, TriQuarterly Review, and Image, among others.


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