Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review of Gold Star Road -- Richard Hoffman

Gold Star Road
Richard Hoffman
Barrow Street Press

The poems in Richard Hoffman’s poetry collection, Gold Star Road, run the a gauntlet of emotions: there’s everything from tender to angry to those poems that seem to question and mourn what has been lost or what could be lost. Hoffman’s politics are pinned to his poems like medallions but unlike many political poets who jab the point until it’s bloody and hard to see, Hoffman’s work is full of rantings and politicking but the human experiences affected by it all. Winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, the book’s title refers to streets found throughout the world, streets with the greatest amount of combat fatalities The poems in this book are not only a space to talk about such tragedies but to honor the people ticked off as numbers, those who aren’t’ always named.


Hoffman is no bleeding heart liberal. Instead, he approaches the end of civilizations with an honesty that sometimes seems rare in poetry. The matter-of-fact voice of these poems examines a world where people lack not only water and other necessities but also love and compassion.

One of the more moving poems in the collection hits on the media’s presentation of war, the romanticization of violence. In “Broadcast,” a “one-legged man in the caftan said, / in his own tongue, that after the war, / the armies left their landmines in the fields. / The translator told the camera that the / enemy, retreating, had mined the roads.”

The people with the most wisdom are not those lecturing or those parading down avenues with their newspapers tucked under their arms. Instead, the everyday person is celebrated as the wisest. These poems are a tribute to the blue collar worker. For example, in “Summer Job,” Hoffman writes:

“The trouble with intellectuals,” Manny, my boss
once told me, “ is that they don’t know nothing
till they can explain it to themselves. A guy like that,”
he said, “ he gets to middle age;--and by the way,
he gets there late; he’s trying to be a boy until
he’s forty, forty-five, and then give him five
more years till that craziness peters out, and now
he’s almost fifty—a guy like that at last explains
to himself that life is made of time, that time
is what’s all about. Aha! he says. And then
he either blows his brains out, gets religion,
or settles down to some major-league depression.
Make yourself useful. Hand me that three –eights
torque wrench—no, you moron, the other one.”

Here, both the summer job’s boss and the poet tackle navel gazing – the biggest complaint of intellectuals and politicians – and gets to work schooling the “you” in the poem. Life is boiled down to a list of choices and to the effects of those choices. Hoffman isn’t naïve enough to believe the choices are clear-cut, but he’s a brilliant enough poet to know that life’s truest lessons are often tucked where you least expect them. 

When dealing with politics, it’s normal to have a few missteps. After all, the points are often blunt and bloody and to the informed reader, they can seem too loud for the moments they circle. For example, in, “Bosnia Aftermath,” Hoffman writes that “…a man or woman / only knows the story / hope tells, or fear, and often chooses wrong.” The statement seems to blunt for a poet of this caliber, too obvious. 

The poem’s most accomplished moments are those that are sly, where the politics are written in the margins of a particularly beautiful book. In the title poem, Hoffman’s line breaks layer the poem the politics and tragedies that drive the book. For example, near the end of the poem, he talks about how “The sun is up and the newspaper lies / folded on the table….” This break says more than what the most blatant of narratives could say: that what we know as fact could just as well be fiction.

The end of the title poems call for hope. Hoffman writes: “chicken wire. Some begged: Please / give us something to say we believe / so we can go about our business.” The reader will find they yearn as much as the poet for truth, for the golden light at the end of the tunnel. The poems are moving, especially those that zero in on some of the most unlikely of heroes: the first objector of the Iraq war – a man who would be later convicted of desertion – and the doorman who opens door after door for the rich. Hoffman gives us hope that we can “mend our selfish lives” while traveling these gold stars of roads. 

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