Kind of blue

Approximately Nowhere

Michael Hofmann <em>Faber & Faber, 77pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0571195245

There were moments, reading Michael Hofmann's new book of poems, when I felt I'd strayed into a private conversation, as if I were eavesdropping on reminiscences between a couple of old friends. As with Robert Lowell, whose influence is a constant stream running through Hofmann's work, the intensely personal topographies that are invoked here can disorient the reader.

At first glance, much of Hofmann's poetry, like Lowell's, runs close to the verges of prose, but the texture of the language holds it together. His skill isn't in tight rhythms so much as in the playful harmonics he sets up - the sly puns and subterranean alliterations, cross- fertilised with occasional borrowings from German, his other mother tongue. The register is casual, cool in the jazz sense, with a hint of blue, like John Coltrane or Miles Davis. The surface is smooth and unruffled, but there's a lot of sweat going on down in the engine room.

The group of poems about his father, the German writer and academic Gert Hofmann, constitutes the real meat of this book. It forms a companion piece to the section in Hofmann's last book but one, Acrimony (1986), which so brutally anatomised Gert's bullying formality, his distant self-absorption, his infidelity: "Your salami breath tyrannised the bedroom/where you slept on the left, my mother, tidily,/on the right. I could cut the atmosphere with a knife." The picture he built there was of idolisation turned sour, of rage and resentment, calling to mind Kafka's ogreish patriarch. Here, after Gert's death, the tone is more complex: by turns droll and regretful, even elegiac.

As ever with Hofmann, the observation is acute, fastidiously precise. If nothing much happens, that's simply because it doesn't need to. Sometimes poems are little more than lists. For instance, in the poem "For Gert Hofmann, died 1 July 1993", Hofmann pere is invoked through an inventory of absence, through the small, keenly described details of his study.

It's iniquitous to pick out one of this marvellous series of poems, but "Epithanaton", in which the poet confronts his father in his coffin, is perhaps the most remarkable, for its control, dark humour and frankness: "I hardly dared touch you,/your empty open hands on the awful mendacious coverlet,/the ochre bodystocking pancake colour of you,/and then fearfully the base of my thumb grazed your hand,/you cold who all my life had been a volcano." The bedchamber atmosphere of Acrimony is mordantly echoed here in the dicke Luft that chokes the crematorium chimney.

Elsewhere he perhaps pushes the coolness too far; some of the personal references (he has a slightly annoying habit of putting the most inscrutable ones in parentheses) can be hard to get a grip on; and there are one or two Americanisms that strike a discordant note. But when Hofmann is at his best, as he is for much of this book, it's hard to think of a finer poet now writing in Britain.