Short Cuts: Lewis Turco on Daniel Hoffman

Reviewed: The Whole Nine Yards: Longer Poems by Daniel Hoffman. Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 96 pages.

According to the author of The Whole Nine Yards (winner of the L. E. Phillabaum Poetry Award for 2009), the book:

presents tales and suites exploring violence and transcendence, and comprises my third volume of selected poems, following Beyond Silence: Shorter Poems 1948-2003 and Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets (2005). The six narratives here were too long and disparate in subject for inclusion in my collections of shorter poems. The suites are groups of poems that cling together and are reprinted from books of mine long out of print. My hope in writing these longer poems has been to make them as different from one another as I can, and to share with readers the pleasures of exploring resources of language, theme and form not attempted elsewhere in my work.

Reading the early pages of this book the reader is likely to experience as much enjoyment as one would if he or she were to read a collection of fine short stories. I personally was strongly reminded of some of the longer poems of Robert Frost such as “The Witch of Coös” or “The Death of the Hired Man.” The second poem in Hoffman’s book, “The Love Child,” evokes the terror and mystery of the past just as “The Witch of Coös” does. It begins,

He was my bunkmate in the barracks and, like me,

Had nowhere else to go come Christmas, neither

Folks nor home. That made a brotherhood

Between us, as though orphans shared a bond

Of blood, or something close to blood. We flew

AT-6 trainers, sleek though slow.

When fitted with machine guns, half the two-bit

Armies in South America used them for fighters.

The easy, conversational iambic pentameter blank verse is both economical and colloquial. Frost showed us how to do that for the first time in American literature. The poem moves along through its story, adding detail and atmosphere on its journey to the violence of its climax and its denouement. This is a really good tale that I won’t spoil for the reader by pursuing further.

“A Barn Built in Ohio” is similar in its method but humorous rather than scary. Hoffman is master of a wide range of effects, and he has the ability to compose dialogue as it is spoken by quite a number of characters:

And nobody’d ever seen a real live Russian

In Green County, with his great tall hat

Of fur, a beard of briars, a riding coat

With five rows of buttons big as dollars

And an ebony-handled whiplash six yards long.

If you looked toward his boot-toes you would see

Twice reflected upwards from his toe-points

Your own face gaping at you, weasel-small.

The ending of this poem incorporates an ICBM missile silo into its hayseed story as easily as the earlier poem did World War II training planes.

“Shocks,” which follows, does two things. First, it segues from blank verse into prose; second, it is pure dialogue or, rather, monologue. Here is an example of both:

We knew we had a bad egg there,

and it’s for sure that if our Deputy

had had the balls to take him in,

Wendell would have ate Thanksgiving turkey

More than once behind the wall at Thomaston.

But then damned if he didn’t straighten out, work hard, save his money, buy this pickup, an old flat-bed truck, take a loan on a backhoe and pay off his Maverick.

It’s very difficult to tell the difference between Hoffman’s prose and his blank verse, but that’s the way it should be if you know what you’re doing as a narrative poet. Thomaston, by the way, is, or was, a town in Maine that housed a prison.

“Jane Doe” is one of those horrifying stories one reads about in the papers having to do with a newborn found in a trash bag in a restaurant ladies’ restroom. The difference is that here Hoffman tells the tale in rhymed, metrical quatrains. Unfortunately, this is more harangue than poem, despite the loose meters and offhand rhymes. “Samaritans” too takes off from the newspapers, but this time the story has to do with whales that commit suicide by beaching themselves. In it Hoffman returns, for the most part, to his blank verse mode, though the last two lines tail off apparently into prose but, in fact, they are just another blank verse line broken in two in the middle of the third iamb. It’s a pretty funny poem despite the serious topic.

After this poem I’m afraid I begin to lose interest in Hoffman’s collection. The narratives become lyrical, a mixture of prose introductions to songs which, despite the unmetrical form of the introductory lines are not much differentiated from the lyrics. What I guess I’m saying is that all the language becomes “poetical” rather than colloquial—here are a few lines, supposed to be dialogue, from part II of “Blessings”; someone named Myrtle says,

My gift is luck,

And when you’ve heard my charm you’ll find

Little enough to do to him.

I sing.

            My no mischance befall you,

            No curse nor sickness gall you;

            From wind’s cold lash and heart’s despair

            These words I breathe into the air

            You breathe defend you: . . .

A bit later another person named Morta says,

That’s noble, sister, but I’ll spell you down.

That mother’s-milk and love-making routine

With the ever-fashionable sacrifice

To make the last act holy is a dream.

Aren’t you the sentimentalist! This boy is

Fated to be handled by realities.

I’ve got a tune for his condition. Here’s

A lullaby—

            Lully, lullay.

            You’ll sleep, and sleep

            And wake, and weep.

            You’ll take, to seek


            The lodestar of

            Felicity, . . .

It’s all pretty sentimental and prissy. I suppose this is one of the series of verses that Hoffman in his introductory remarks calls “suites.” (Is that a misspelling or just an appropriate, if unfortunate, homonym?) The last speech is by someone named Father who adds big words to the mélange: prodigality, transubstantiates, benison, anatomies of praise, fontanelle. This last word ends the penultimate (see? I can do it too) line of the poem. I had no idea what it meant until I looked it up: “noun, a space between the bones of the skull in an infant or fetus, where ossification is not complete and the sutures not fully formed. The main one is between the frontal and parietal bones.” Clearly ossification has set into this volume. “A Year in Dijon” is a set of poems that appears to have been included more or less to fill out the volume. Like “Blessings” it could probably have been included in any collection of lyrics. The same may be said of the remainder of the items in the book.

Apparently Hoffman didn’t have enough actual story poems to put together even a chapbook-length volume of them, for there are only seventy pages here including the front matter and the “suites” which should not have been reprinted. It’s too bad that The Whole Nine Yards, clearly mistitled, ends this way because the first several narratives are very good indeed.

About Lewis Turco

Lewis Turco was founding director of both the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (1962) and the Program in Writing Arts at the State University of New York College at Oswego (1968) from which he retired as Emeritus Professor of English in 1996. He took his B. A. from the University of Connecticut in 1959 and his M. A. from the University of Iowa in 1962. In 2000 he received an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Ashland University. The author of fifty books, chapbooks, and monographs, Lewis Turco has published "The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics" (E. P. Dutton, 1968), which, over the decades, has become known as “the poet's bible”; "Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1968" (University of Missouri Press, 1968); "The New Book of Forms (University Press of New England," 1986); "Visions and Revisions of American Poetry" (University of Arkansas Press, winner of the Poetry Society of America's 1986 Melville Cane Award for literary criticism, judged by Donald Davie); "The Shifting Web: New and Selected Poems" (University of Arkansas Press, 1989), "The Public Poet: Five Lectures on the Art and Craft of Poetry" (Ashland University Poetry Press, 1991); and "Emily Dickinson: Woman of Letters, Poems and Centos from Lines in Emily Dickinson's Letters" (State University of New York Press, 1993).
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