Her Human Costume by Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Review #10

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien


Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Her Human Costume feels a bit like watching a game of chess in which all previous and future moves are visible and look so solid that you’re not sure at which point in the game you are, but you still get a sense of the direction of the game.

That’s a pretty terrible analogy. Ignore it.

What I meant to say, is that Her Human Costume has 26 interlocked prose poems, where you think a mother and her new baby girl is the leading narrative, but maybe it’s actually her sister’s operation, or her mother, or her grandmother dying of dementia, or maybe all of these women’s lives at once. As the title implies, the poems explore being and not being as if it were a costume to be shed. The hole in which the grandmother’s ashes are buried is covered ‘with a slab of green carpet that was neither grass nor earth.’ Everything is made strange in this world, the new baby is perceived ‘as if it were an island and I were the bird who never rests’, a beautiful way to express the confusion of early motherhood. In the poem ‘[In this death, a house]’ people’s identities shapeshift in front of you:

In this death, a house my grandmother never lived in. Someone at her bedside who isn’t anyone. Someone weeping who is either my grandmother or someone she doesn’t know.

You start to feel a sort of sea-sick nausea at this unraveling world, where pathos and mortality hunt you down at every turn. Even a new birth brings it up, reminding the mother that ‘now that the child is here, the mother will surely someday die.’ This sounds like bleak reading, but Hoffman’s way with words is breathtaking enough that it just feels dizzyingly sad.

I want to share her line about a scan of her grandmother’s brain:

A frozen lake breaking apart at the end of winter, a garden pillaged of its bulbs.

If that doesn’t bring out all sorts of shivers down your body, then I can’t help you.

I have to say something about the poem titles, which enclose the first few words of each prose poem in square brackets. The brackets invariably cut off in unexpected places, forcing you to stop before you’ve even begun reading the poem. They’re mini-poems within themselves, and I almost expected the table of content to read as a self-contained poem. Here are a few examples:

[While I was inside with the baby, the valley]

[When I was a child, I was not]

[I lie on my back on the operating table. My sister]

I’ve never quite understood why some poets find the prose poem form controversial – if you know of anyone who needs persuading, share Her Human Costume with them as a fine example of what it can achieve. Share it as an example of what poetry and the pamphlet form in general can achieve.

This December, I have given myself the task of reviewing one pamphlet a day to raise money for next year’s Saboteur Awards. You can help by donating, or sharing the link using the hashtag #pamphletparty. I am not sure how this month is going to go, some pamphlets will be easier than others. I have given myself the aim of writing at least 300 words for each, a lower word-count than the usual reviews on Sabotage, in the hopes of making it more manageable! Here’s a link to the previously published reviews in this project!