HER HUMAN COSTUME by Cynthia Marie Hoffman
Gold Line Press, 2014; pp 26
Reviewed by Vladislav Frederick


Her Human Costume is a compact yet cogent compilation of narrative poems that consider death, family, and childbirth. As personal as a memoir yet open, this chapbook creates a space for all ranges of emotional response to hardship: poems in which both warm empathy and cold detachment crash together in a meeting so strong, the pages themselves seem to crackle.

Throughout the chapbook, Hoffman uses memories of the different women in her life and their struggles (both as children and adults) in order to come to terms with death, dying, and grief, and to come to terms with the new life she is now responsible for. The poems spiral continuously between the experiences of the narrator’s sister, mother, and grandmother, and the narrator’s own experiences as mother of a child that is presumably hers--though her language carefully avoids direct acknowledgment of this, always denoting the baby with a definite article, “the,” rather than the expected personal determiner, “my.” Hoffman’s deliberate choice to obscure the narrator’s understanding of her child is at sharp odds with the constant application of “my” to the sister, mother, and grandmother of the narrator. This constant juxtaposition of attachment/detachment between the narrator and her subjects contributes strongly to the emotional tension of the collection.

And, though the subject matter of the collection is heavily realist, Hoffman frequently expands this reality with metaphor that scoops deeply into the earth, melding child with nature in lines such as, “the baby inside the bin was an orange fish \ floating in clear waters,” and, “her skinny legs were hinged like featherless wings, all bird bone spread across my mother’s chest.” Hoffman uses language such as this to amplify fragility and smallness, to both subvert and expand human presence and experience into that of the animal.

Comprised of scenes rich with both familial and maternal struggles, Hoffman’s poetry will insist itself upon readers, leaving vivid scenes as haunting memories: ghosts that will demand empathy, and inspire introspection.