Poetry Review: Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods

Reviewed: Yoel Hoffmann's Moods
translated by Peter Cole
Published by New Directions

When I finished Peter Cole’s translation of Yoel Hoffmann’s book Moods I immediately went back to the beginning and started again. I’ll go ahead and say that this is a characteristic of a great book: it demands to be read again. Sure. But also, Moods is a book that can be begun and ended anywhere; it is not a linear narrative. In fact, it is not really a narrative at all, but rather a constellation, or several constellations, of memories, impressions, musings, and, (here comes the obligatory title tie-in like in a movie trailer for an Oscar-nominated movie), moods.

Moods is also, and maybe foremost, a book about itself, about its own making. It is self-conscious, an exploration of how a book is written (or not written), a peeling back (or tearing) of the veil to reveal the artifice of art. Hoffmann is writing the book as we are reading it.

Ever since I finished my last book, I’ve been thinking of how to begin this next one.

Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of the tree, the work as a whole.

And so, what I see is the figure of a man descending (from the sidewalk?) five or six steps to a basement apartment, and he’s halfway there.

I know it’s a love story. And maybe there’s a woman in the basement apartment. It’s probably November.

But we don’t hear much about this man descending the staircase (whose name, Hoffmann noncommittally reveals, is probably Nehemiah “Not because it’s true, but because of that combination of sounds.”), and not until the end of the book do we get the love story, but not really. It is, or seems to be, a raw text. Not a polished product, but rather a process preserved on the page. Okay, enough alliteration.

The book is written in the first person plural. The royal We, as it were. From chapter[1] fourteen onward, Hoffmann includes us in his authorship. He makes us participants in his writing; he writes himself and us with him; we are thinking, remembering, and writing with him: “There’s no longer any limit to the things that I (from here on in I’ll say ‘we’, out of embarrassment) are able to say,” and indeed, there is no corner of memory or imagination that Hoffmann is not willing to touch upon. He also includes us out of embarrassment, embarrassment of his own individuality and choices. “We can say a single thing an infinite number of times,” Hoffmann indeed often returns to the same characters, themes, images, and motifs throughout the book: his father, stepmother, Tel Aviv, sex, gravity, the universe, and writing itself:

It’s hard to believe that all this is taking place within a book. The people must be very small. Or maybe the power of imagination is employing signs (from among some twenty-plus) and turning them, by means of a kind of sorcery, into all these different things?

Moods is somewhat reminiscent of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet in its raw expressionism, its self-exploration, self-consciousness, its meanderings, contemplations, speculations, albeit not as bleak and sullen.

Pessoa: “If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. What I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant. I make landscapes out of what I feel. I make holidays of my sensations.” It is the confession that matters; the meaning is not in the end, but in the means. “We may know that the work we continue to put off doing will be bad,” says Pessoa elsewhere, “Worse, however, is the work we never do. A work that’s finished is at least finished, it may be poor, but it exists…What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me.” Back to Hoffmann: “We don’t know if this book will make it into print, but all of a sudden we’ve understood that authors breathe.” Writing, then, is a form of respiration; there is the inhale of inspiration, and the exhale of the work. But the work is always a shadow of the inspiration. Remember that part towards the end of Percy Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry” when he says: “Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet”? The work is the expiration.

The language of Moods is always tentative, blurred, never of a one-to-one correspondence but always ephemeral, as if the entire book might suddenly dissolve into nothingness. The void seems always present underneath everything, but not in a despairing way. It is almost a playful nihilism that meanders throughout the constellational narrative, a mystical nothingness in which the self and circumstance are dissolved: “This moment between two worlds is imaginary. After all, someone is writing us as well. Someone is reading us. And someone is having critical thoughts. And someone is filing us away.”

Peter Cole is possibly one of the best, or at least most well-known, contemporary translators of Hebrew literature. His most recent translation is The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (Yale University Press, 2014). He is also a poet in his own right, and his latest book of poetry, The Invention of Influence, I (and Harold Bloom and Daniel Bosch) highly recommend.

[1] Chapter may not be the best word for the units of division of the book. They are brief, meandering, meditative vignettes. Each is relatively short, hardly longer than a page. There are no actual page numbers.


Michael Julian Arnett's work has appeared everywhere, even in your dreams. If this
writing thing doesn't work out he would like to be either a Zen Master or an
international art thief. He lives in a state of constant existential dread but is
originally from Northern California. He is single.


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