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This article is taken from PN Review 143, Volume 28 Number 3, January - February 2002.

'Nothing Dreamier than Barracks!' - on Michael Hofmann Julian Stannard

The novelist Aldo Busi once declared that any selfrespecting writer needs to jettison la tenerezza. It seems that Michael Hofmann had hacked away at easy emotion by the time Nights in the Iron Hotel came out in 1983. It was a good beginning. The prescribed splinter of ice makes its inward journey as effectively as the 'kleine aster' stitched into the corpse by a medical student in Gottfried Benn's macabre poem. Benn's bleak aesthetic, the aesthetic of the operating table, a 'prankish rearrangements of corpses' is dealt with in a brilliant piece in Behind the Lines.

Hofmann's little 'Diablerie' turns out to be one of the more jocular pieces in Nights in the Iron Hotel. 'In Your arms/is someone else's child, a black-eyed baby girl/ dressed like His Satanic Majesty in a red romper suit; /a gleeful crustacean, executing pincer movements.' 'Diablerie' would seem to prefigure the equally concise 'Vagary' from Hofmann's latest book, Approximately Nowhere (1999): 'I can really only feign disapproval/of my youngest/dibbling his semolina'd fingers/in the satiny lining of her red coat.' In Behind the Lines Hofmann writes that the short poem, 'that daunting form', can look like 'a few bricks falling over one another.' Both these poems are tiny edifices.

Nights in the Iron Hotel is not, in fact, without its own particular brand of gleefulness - 'You move the fifty seven muscles it takes to smile' - as it leads us into never remote, dysfunctional worlds. Sex is always tense, ...


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