Jul 10, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Cynthia Marie Hoffman's Her Human Costume

Her Human Costume
Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Gold Line Press, 2014

ISBN: 9781938900105

A Filament of Smoke, Wandering

The twenty-six interweaving prose poems in Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s chapbook Her Human Costume glide like a skater pirouetting on black ice. The poems are written with an understated elegance: hushed, precise, and passionate. Hoffmann explores what it means to be a bundle of bones and sinews, memory and forgetting, draped in this, our human costume. From the vantage point of a new mother, the poems honor four generations of women and seek to unravel (and recouple) the countless silken ties of affection that connect sisters, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers. A mother singing the alphabet to her newborn questions how the needlework of language ushers us into the world and undoes us. A grandmother with dementia searches her walls for the levers that will initiate night. A sister recovering from surgery becomes a “weary animal…limping from the brambles,” who might disappear as “delicate wildlife…into the thick forest.” Hoffman invokes the fragility of such threshold moments, and summons the bravery that allows one to endure.

For Hoffman, the present is a place freighted with vanishings. The final poem in the collection, “There is no ghost in this house,” reads:
There is no ghost in this house. It is still a new house. No one has died here. People rarely die in their houses anymore, or are born in them. Yet the hall that leads to the stairway has its shimmerings, the stair its spontaneous crack. Three times in darkness I pass through to sit in the chair with the baby. She is the most alive thing in the house, her spirit most freshly settled in its body. The sound of the highway brushes against the window, and her heart is a plum springing on its stem. A warm sweet scent. If the ghost waits for me to cross from door to door, it surely touches me. If it breathes, it breathes in deep.
What haunts here is the precarious dance of the plum on its stem, the inevitability that the daughter will enter into the world outside this new house, where big winds blow, hearts break, and people age and die. However, “a warm sweet scent” suffuses this sorrow. Love buoys this mother and child, moors them to each other in this instant of shimmering. As the poet notes of her own mother in an earlier poem, a “mother’s imperfect selfless bones are made of helping.” All memory, Hoffman’s chapbook suggests, coheres around such imperfect selfless bones. The poem “I would say it is an ordinary day,” ends: “This is a memory of today. A filament of smoke wandering. A delicate, unraveling pink thread.” Bone provides the scaffold that holds up skin. Memory, the marrow that fleshes these poems.

Her Human Costume does what all good prose poetry should: it apprehends the ordinary in all of its unraveling strangeness. The poet Liz Rosenberg has noted:

It is an odd but true fact that a horizontal window lets in more light than a vertical window of the same square footage. Given this, it is even odder that we humans insist upon living such vertical lives, in vertical buildings, with vertical windows and views. 
Most verse—especially contemporary free verse—is also constructed along vertical lines. I mean this not only in the literal way, but also in the metaphorical sense of higher meanings. It is as if we are always looking up to something instead of at it.

Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s prose poetry avoids thinking vertically and favors horizontal truths; it privileges the glow of a streetlight let into a nursery from a bay window, rather than the luminary quality of the moon shining through a skylight. Hoffman transforms the fears, frailties, and loneliness that are the accoutrements of our human costumes. She makes of these motley scraps a humble outfit, stitched as artfully as the finest regalia. Hoffman says, “until we speak, we are merely creatures,” but when we enter into language we become a filament of smoke wandering.

Dante Di Stefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently, or are forthcoming, in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He currently serves as a poetry editor for Harpur Palate and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.