I like a good essay, one that brings you in close, tells you things you may not have known about the narrator or the world or both, then left-turns at Albuquerque, punching your gut and remaking your heart. A poet whose prose is informed and inspired by poetry, Richard Hoffman writes great essays – the classical, personal kind that meander at first, gathering nuggets of meaning as they go, picking up steam to zero in. Remembering the Alchemists is his latest collection of personal essays, tackling key moral issues, including his own boyhood sexual assault, gun violence, the mysteries of the body in the time of Covid, the loss of his two brothers, his family’s difficult dynamic, and shame. 

“Shame whispers: I shouldn’t be saying this. Defiance roars: I have the right to

say this! Moral Imagination insists: No one should have this to say.”

With passion and intensity, he writes about moral imagination, asking what it might take to inspire compassion for one another. He writes about the value of memoir, and of poetry as dissent. The book is a mix of introspective moments and urgent pleas to address societal issues. 

“Most people find poets archaic, quaint, maybe charming, like candlelight.

But think how useful candles are when the power goes out. And think about the

gathering storm, and the darkness that has begun to fall.”

Hoffman is the author of several books of poetry and prose, including “Half the House: A Memoir,” which won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. For fifty years his work, both prose and verse, has been appearing in literary journals. Full disclosure: “Wheels,” which appears in this book, is an essay that I selected to publish in Tahoma Literary Review. It was then listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2018, as selected by Robert Atwan in Best American Essays 2019. I was not surprised. “Wheels” begins with a breezy bike ride and wends through themes of racism, grief, sexual predation, and compassion. It remains one of my favorite essays in this collection. But another comes in a close second. “Neighbors” begins with a train ride on Boston’s MBTA Red Line. Over the course of the trip from Porter Square to downtown Boston, Hoffman deftly weaves topics as disparate as public art, the unraveled melodies of Thelonius Monk, homelessness, and personal boundaries. The introspection goes well beyond the rail line distance. It’s an essay that takes readers on an unexpected ride, delivering them in new territory with new focus. It’s why I read essays and why I recommend Richard Hoffman’s essays in particular. Remembering the Alchemists is by an essayist in the prime of his prose.