‘What happens if you touch the hind?’: Transformation and Touch in Richie Hofmann’s “Blue Anther”
I have a particular obsession with Renaissance poetry, as you know. 
I do know. Richie Hofmann and I were classmates at Emory University, where we took seminars in seventeenth-century poetry, read Shakespeare’s Sonnets outside of class, and traded poems of our own. Knowing Hofmann as I do, and sharing in his obsession with early modern lyric, I hear resonances of Shakespeare, Herrick, Ralegh, Wyatt, Spenser, and Crashaw all over A Hundred Lovers (Knopf, 2022). When we begin our conversation about his poetry and the early modern, though, Hofmann swerves to the classroom: “Usually I feel I’m most engaged with these texts as a teacher of poetry.” As Jones Lecturer in Poetry at Stanford University, Hofmann teaches mostly creative writing classes. “I am not supposed to be teaching this stuff,” he laughs. The poet Jericho Brown describes A Hundred Lovers as “a book of love poems that consciously and subversively hearkens back to Shakespeare’s sonnets.” That back-of-the-book blurb might serve as well for Hofmann’s pedagogy:
I see my whole poetics as being a response to the poems I’ve loved and read. That’s central to my sense of what it means to be a poet: to be in conversation. Certainly, that’s how I teach. I want students to see that these poets are working in particular idiom, a particular form, over time, and every gesture they’re making is an homage to a predecessor—or a challenge. I want students to see poetry as a huge phantasmagoria of response on top of response on top of response.
A little fantasia on Petrarch 
When The Believer published “Blue Anther” in March 2021, Hofmann shared the link on Twitter and described the poem as “A little fantasia on Petrarch.” Hofmann tells me that he began working on the sonnet in the summer of 2018, just after we’d graduated from Emory, while he was in residence at Kenyon College. “I think I must have started with that line about Caesar,” Hofmann remembers, “‘I guess it has pleased his Caesar to make / him free.’ I believe that was the initiating impulse.” Hofmann’s poem reorients line 11 of Petrarch’s Rvf 190—“libera farmi al mio Cesara parve,” or “It has pleased my Caesar to make me free”—from first-person to third, from declaration to supposition, from feminine hind to masculine hookup.  “Blue Anther” translates Petrarch’s vision from verdant, sun-drenched pastoral to the playing field that is Grindr.
“My recent work is interested in complicating what we think of as amorous poetry,” Hoffman said in a conversation with Garth Greenwell and Carl Philips, “so the sonnet seemed a perfect form.”  Hofmann has often claimed that A Hundred Lovers is “just a diary,” by which he means to contrast it with his more “architectural” and self-conscious first book, Second Empire (Alice James Books, 2015): “In the first book, I was obsessed with questions of permanence and participating in the history of art,” Hofmann explains, “but for this book, I wanted it to feel scribbled, scrawled.”  Students of early modern poetry will recognize the feeling Hofmann describes as a product of sprezzatura, the studied carelessness that conceals artistry and care. And Hofmann is still interested in form and permanence, even as he’s playing with it. The sonnet is at the heart of Hofmann’s project in A Hundred Lovers. Depending on how one counts and what one allows, at least twenty-seven of the forty-two poems in the book could be classified as sonnets. “Sonnets are supposed to last forever,” he said to Greenwell and Phillips, “[but] the pages of my erotic diary are meant to be ripped out as soon as they’re written on….The sonnet, with its desire for order and perfection, and my interest in the wilder, uncontainable, anarchic forces of lust—together, they dramatize the process of turning messy feelings into elegant art. Of putting inconsequential love affairs into a shape that aspires to permanence.”  To me, he says, “I wanted to put the dashed-off quality and the formulated sonnet in tension. ‘Poem as monument’ versus ‘poem as moment.’ How do we negotiate that?”
What a weird thing we do, making these little vessels. And what have I wanted to contain? Who can say?
As “Blue Anther” makes clear, part of that negotiation comes back to response and homage. While poets, musicians, places, and artworks fill the pages of A Hundred Lovers, “Blue Anther” is the only poem text that explicitly cites another poem.  In citing Petrarch, Hofmann also cites the tradition of Petrarchan verse in English and the translators through which we are most likely to know Petrarch himself. To put it another way, Hofmann’s citation is promiscuous. With it, he joins a long line of loose translators, making intercourse a lively metaphor once again.  “I’m often teaching those multiple translations in my class at the same time,” Hofmann explains. When we read one version of Rvf 190, we’re reading all of them.  Here is Hofmann’s:
The forest is full of weapons like ours.
A white hind—
I guess it has pleased his Caesar to make
him free. It starts to rain. The laurel droops.
Lately, something has taken hold
of me—not hunger, not shame. It is like a flower
blooming in the injury.
Our sneakers in the doorway, our black cellphones
in our jackets on the floor.
We sleep among skins, I bleed
in your mouth. The flesh
anymore. Now it can lie down.
Now it can sleep.
From Petrarch, the untouchable and unattainable love object, and poetic consolation—not Laura, but laurels—Hofmann’s sonnet turns to touch itself: “Lately, something has taken hold / of me” (lines 4-5). This is Wyatt’s influence. Though Petrarch’s eyes grow tired of looking—“gli occhi miei stanchi di mirar”—his poem remains dutifully in the realm of the visual. In “Whoso list to hunt,” Wyatt’s “wearied mind” finds a partner in his body—“I may no more. / The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, / I am of them that farthest cometh behind” (lines 2-4)—and he uses the verb hold twice. As we talk about Wyatt’s poem, Hofmann asks, “What happens if you touch the hind?” Like Wyatt, Hofmann says he “was interested in the consequences of touch being both violent and dangerous—you might say high risk behavior, to put it in modern parlance.” He captures the poem’s risky physicality, its “environment of sex,”  in a nested series of prepositional phrases: “Our sneakers in the doorway, our black cell phones / in our jackets on the floor. / We sleep among skins, I bleed / in your mouth” (lines 8-11, emphasis added). The objects of these prepositions are material, as Petrarch’s and Wyatt’s collars are material, but the message is no longer noli me tangere, and the love-object is no longer unattainable. He is undressed and open-mouthed, the sneakers and cellphone on the floor making him even more naked by contrast.  Each preposition opens a pocket, a container for something else. The lovers’ bodies are part of this logic. As the prepositional phrases stack, the relationships within them mimic the movements that brought the men together. Rather than reaching the floor and fading out, as a movie camera might, Hofmann shows “skins” in a plural that registers hard—“I thought that was vulgar,” Hofmann says, “it shouldn’t be plural”—and multiplies like the iterations of Petrarch’s poem. They are human skins, animal flesh, sheets and blankets, perhaps a rug or a sheepskin condom, parts of the lovers, dust, and the bodies of other lovers.
This image-level multiplication is also part of the negotiation between “moment” and “monument” in Hofmann’s work. “Sonnets,” he says, “are all about making order out of really unruly love, constantly moving back and forth between something that’s chaste and theoretical and [something that’s] hot and sensually embodied.” Though I am not sure he meant it, the plural sonnets, like skins, registers hard for me. Crucial to A Hundred Lovers is the logic of the sonnet sequence; individual poems build upon and blend into one another, stacking lyric and image into a semblance of narrative that allows the poems to unfold and reverberate across pages and drives the book forward even as the reader circles back to read again, working to make order.
The four poems that follow “Blue Anther” combine with it to form a series within the larger sequence of A Hundred Lovers. Like Petrarch’s/Wyatt’s/Hofmann’s poem, they are scenes of reading. On the next page, the speaker in “Weekend” “spend[s] half the day in the bathtub trying to read something, / trying to find something to latch on to” in a weary, touch-hungry effort not unlike Wyatt’s (lines 1-2). The prize-winning novel he reads is not merely translated; it is “now in English,” a phase reminiscent of the early modern Englished.  A sneaker shows up as an image from the novel, “Something finally” (line 12), and the speaker latches on and runs, pulling the thirteenth line far past its looked-for end and denying the reader a sonnet: “When the boys are on the beach, one of them puts his sunglasses inside a sneaker while he swims.” The sunglasses reflect backward to the “black cellphones” in “Blue Anther” and forward to “a Polaroid” in “The Romans,” where the speaker’s “fingernails / blue from putting [his] hands in [his] jeans” (lines 2-4)—the only instance of blue in the whole book outside of “Blue Anther.” There is touch, too, and an open mouth:
When he grabs me
by the hair and shouts into
my mouth, a pearlescent filament
is strung between his body
and mine. (“The Romans” lines 8-12)
I saw the string of saliva as a poetic line, the shout into the mouth as inspiration, even before I knew that Hofmann has called sonnets “gemlike.”  Readers who know Petrarch well will recognize the sour or untimely season of Rvf 190 (“la stagione acerba”) in Hofmann’s “Summer and Fall”: “Fall I hate the most. / Fall is the season / of the end of love” (lines 1-3). As in “Weekend,” readership is linked with touch, and the lovers spend “all summer”
reading sentences aloud from our magazines.
I know I shouldn’t become so attached.
I’m embarrassed how much I need to hear the words.
I touch the veins
in your feet. (“Summer and Fall” lines 4, 6-10)
The impulse to hear and touch comes through as scansion (“I touch the veins / in your feet”), a search for timeliness, the poem’s heartbeat (“My heart the heart / of a cheating whore” [lines 12-13]). In “Tiberius,” readership gives way to touch once again: “After a day of nothing, / pretending to read, waiting for a man to touch me” (lines 2-3).
Hofmann began working on “Tiberius” during the same summer at Kenyon College: the “Goats named after Roman emperors” live at Kenyon Farm, and “all those drafts, / drafts in which the lover is transformed / into an animal” (lines 5-7), are drafts of “Blue Anther.”  Transformed is a tactile, material word, like touch, and perhaps this is the answer to Hofmann’s question. What happens if you touch the hind? “Blood is shed,” Hofmann offers, “there’s a kind of erotic ecstasy.” The out-of-body experience at the end of “Blue Anther” (“The flesh / isn’t flesh / anymore” [lines 11-13]) is a transformation. As the images of Hofmann’s sonnets multiply, mesh, penetrate, and reverberate—in his own poems, in Wyatt’s, in Petrarch’s, in Spenser’s—they too are transformed. When we teach the sonnet, we tend to talk about its transformation. When his students call the sonnet “boring,” Hofmann says, “I’m like no, no! You have to see what’s happening with the development of the sonnet.” His go-to is Shakespeare, who “messes with the conventions in thrilling ways.”
Thrill once meant “to pierce, bore, penetrate.”  The thrill of Hofmann’s sonnets is not the chase, but the touch.
Greenwell, Garth, Richie Hofmann, and Carl Phillips. “On Art, Sex, and Syntax.” The Yale Review 110, no. 1 (Spring 2022): 119-133.
Hofmann, Richie. A Hundred Lovers. New York: Knopf, 2022.
—. “A Conversation with Richie Hofmann.” By Divya Mehrish. The Adroit Journal 42 (August 2022). https://theadroitjournal.org/issue-forty-two/a-conversation-with-richie-hofmann/.
—. “Participating in Art, History, and Our Selves: An Interview with Richie Hofmann.” Napkin Poetry Review (October 2021). https://www.napkinpoetryreview.org/interview-with-richie-hofmann.
—. “Short Conversations with Poets: Richie Hofmann.” By Jesse Nathan. McSweeney’s (11 August 2022). https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/richie-hofmann.
—. Twitter post. March 11, 2021, 12:13 p.m. https://twitter.com/richiehof/status/1370075374462320645?lang=en.
Petrarch, Francesco. “Una candida cerva sopra l’erba.” Petrarch: The Canzoniere. https://petrarch.petersadlon.com/canzoniere.html?poem=190
Wyatt, Thomas. “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.” The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45593/whoso-list-to-hunt-i-know-where-is-an-hind.
 Richie Hofmann, phone conversation with author, January 20, 2023. All otherwise unattributed quotations from Hofmann derive from this conversation.
 Richie Hofmann, Twitter post, March 11, 2021, 12:13 p.m., https://twitter.com/richiehof/status/1370075374462320645?lang=en.
 Francesco Petrarch, “Una candida cerva sopra l’erba.” Any fault in the English paraphrases provided in-text rests with me.
 Garth Greenwell, Richie Hofmann, and Carl Phillips, “On Art, Sex, and Syntax,” in The Yale Review, Vol. 110, Issue 1 (Spring 2022): 119-133; here 124. Also published online as “Three Queer Writers on Craft and Cruising” (February 2, 2022).
 “Participating in Art, History, and Our Selves: An Interview with Richie Hofmann,” Napkin Poetry Review, October 2021. Hofmann describes Second Empire as “architectural” in an interview with Divya Mehrish: “My first book, Second Empire, is highly architectural. There are four interludes that separate the four sections, establishing a kind of mood like an overture. But in A Hundred Lovers, I wanted the feeling to be more natural, more casual, more dashed off.” Hofmann says something similar in The Yale Review: “I think my poems—especially my sonnets—want to seem uncomposed, dashed-off, diaristic” (125). See “A Conversation with Richie Hofmann,” interview by Divya Mehrish, The Adroit Journal 42 (August 2022), https://theadroitjournal.org/issue-forty-two/a-conversation-with-richie-hofmann/.
 Greenwell, Hofmann, and Phillips 125.
 Perhaps the closest analogues are “The Fables” and “Bottom’s Dream,” where Hofmann quotes Aesop and alludes to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Petrarch and Laura make an appearance in “City of Violent Wind,” Hofmann mentions Paul Celan in “Sarcophagus,” and the lover of “Rilke Poem” reads aloud “a poem by Rilke framed beside his bed / in the kitchen” (lines 2-3), but none of these poems is quotative.
 Intercourse entered English in the early 1500s with senses tied to verbal and nonverbal communication and the interchange of ideas. The Oxford English Dictionary places the sense “sexual connection”—originally a metaphor for conversation—in the early 1800s. See OED “intercourse” n.
 This reminded us both of Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop’s explanation of sexual exposure and risk: “When you have sex with someone, you are having sex with everyone they have had sex with for the last ten years, and everyone they and their partners have had sex with for the last ten years.” Sonnets have a longer effect than sex, it seems.
 It’s worth noting that Wyatt substitutes graven for Petrarch’s scritto. Both verbs connote writing that leaves marks within rather than upon a surface, but Wyatt’s goes deeper.
 Hoffman attributes this phrase to Stephen Guy-Bray: “I want my poems to feel charged with erotic potential, but often the most erotic moment from my memory that I want to recreate in a poem won’t be an instance of sex, but some other detail from the room, the day, the experience. The smell of mint shampoo or paper money being put into a wallet. The critic Stephen Guy-Bray once described to me this effect in my poems as ‘an environment of sex,’ and I loved that: heightened attention to detail, to language, to sensory knowledge.” See “Short Conversations with Poets: Richie Hofmann,” interview by Jesse Nathan, McSweeney’s (August 11, 2022), https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/richie-hofmann.
 Images like these are not typical of Hofmann’s poetry. When I asked Hofmann about them, he spoke specifically in terms of “Blue Anther”: “Jericho [Brown] published that poem in The Believer, and I was kind of asking him about it—do you think I should keep everything in it? I felt intensely about the sneakers and the cellphone, which are modern elements, but I don’t usually put those things into my poems. I’m not the type of poet that puts Coca-Cola or Super Mario references in my work, so I was anxious about that. Jericho was like, the cellphone is the hottest part of the poem, you have to keep it.”
 In an admittedly brief search, “Englished” appears in the Early English Books Online database 2,484 times, while “now in English” appears only 62 times.
 Greenwell, Hofmann, and Phillips 125: “The fourteen-line shape, I think, makes the whole poem gemlike, artificial, even when it unfolds in plain or vulgar language.”
 This was a hunch on my part, but Hofmann confirmed it in our conversation: “I didn’t know that until you mentioned it. Of course. The fern odor is from the forest.”
 See OED “thrill” v.1.