issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > halliday
On Daniel Hoffman's "At Evening"by Mark Halliday
Many of Daniel Hoffman's poems have found ways to bring the dignity and grandeur of traditional or pre-Modern poetry — in terms of diction, syntax,
rhythm, and structure — into relationship with contemporary experience. Sometimes this has led to surprising and stimulating juxtapositions, where a
bracing shot of the American quotidian or the vernacular or the demotic enters a texture that until then had been more formally graceful and decorous.
Among many examples, I'd like to notice the poem "At Evening" (from Striking the Stones, 1968).
In four of its five stanzas, the poem presents a world-encompassing vision of daylight surrendering to darkness. The feeling is grandly melancholy, with an Old World flavor of weltschmerz; it could almost be a beautiful translation of something by Rilke or Holderlin. Life is obliged to recognize its ephemerality and its subordination (at least according to the poem's initiating mood) to death. Here are the first four stanzas.
At evening comes a certain hour
When the teeming world remembers
It is a hostage of the dead.
Then bend in homage
The tall trees whose sprinkle of seeds
Tickled the wind. The wind is dying.
This is the hour when dust
Gleams as the tired corona leans
Its bloodied head against the rim of sky
And the dark night girds
Beyond the pulsing stars
To drop its pomps of mourning down.
Those stanzas have a deliberate quality of elevation and of austere removal from the little temporary difficulties of human striving. The writing exudes a
world-weariness, a sense that all teeming is finally trivial and that even the luckiest seeds can attempt only a momentary and negligible answer to death's
dominion. Any spiritual power in life that could be imagined as flowing from a divine sun has been defeated, the sun-god is dying at the horizon. So far,
the poetry is impressive in a traditional mode and austerely simple in its vision.
However, the fourth stanza (perhaps along with the garishly "bloodied head" of the sun) sounds a note of melodrama in its quasi-personification (night as ceremonious monarch), hinting that the purple-operatic absoluteness of the vision may be an exaggeration, rather than the whole truth. Then the closing stanza swings calmly but decisively away from the hypnotic simplicity of world-sorrow; the focus and the language jump down from the high horse of "pomps of mourning" onto the level of our own persistence in living, no matter how tenuously and briefly:
From windows of the houses come
Colloquial sounds and pungent odors,
Alien rhythms thrust against the night.
Suddenly we are reminded that people in those houses — notwithstanding the infinite strength of darkness and dissolution — are cooking dinner and chatting! They may be absurdly vulnerable in the universe and unable to secure any immortality, but they're not going to take the situation lying down — at least not till bedtime. That penultimate line invoking "Colloquial sounds and pungent odors" hails from a different order of diction, a different bag of language than the preceding stanzas, and boldly alters the effect of the whole poem, injecting a shot of human defiance. "At Evening" thus gives us an unexpected flash of encouragement, reminding me of Frost's "The Investment" with an affirmation that humanity's imagination and nerve can change the essence of our experience on earth, even if physically we are doomed. Like some other short poems by Daniel Hoffman, "At Evening" is more complicated than it might look at first glance, and built to last.