Paper Doll Fetus by Cynthia Marie Hoffman

Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope

Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus is a necessary book. If life and death are inextricably wound together (and they are) it is impossible to write about one without at least touching on the other. In this powerful, scintillating collection, Hoffman tackles both subjects head on, describing the various outcomes of pregnancy and, occasionally, birth. Hoffman’s poetry is dense, luscious and strongly narrative: telling stories about virgin nuns who long for impossible consummation, baroque abortions, humanoid tumours, and dying infants speaking from their hostile wombs. It has been a very long time since I’ve read a book so brutal, or so beautiful.

The trend is set by the very first poem. ‘The Phantom Pregnancy Speaks from the Belly of the Nun’ is unusual, both in subject matter and in its strength. A great many collections begin with a poem that is either the best in the book (setting up false expectations) or something so weak as to do the text a disservice. This poem is perfectly balanced. In terms of quality it is absolutely average for this collection. In such company, ‘average’ is very good indeed. In this poem, Hoffman inhabits the consciousness of an imaginary child, a wish-fulfilment fantasy the body grants a would-be mother in the only way it can; impartially:

Beyond the monastery walls there is a row of apple trees.
Was it the communion bread that woke me? In her mind
it was the seed of Christ. Beneath her robe a shirt woven from
horse hair scours her belly raw. Her want for a child was so great
it was the wolf ’s howl at the orchard’s edge. Like a spirit
in a haunted room, I whirled inside her until the ceiling raised
and the woman loosed her belt. And then the days were quiet.

Other poems treat the fates of real children, or at least their potential clusters of cells. ‘The Paper Doll Fetus Speaks to the Viable Twin in Utero’ explores the phenomenon of the vanishing twin, or fetus papyraceus. This condition occurs when one twin dies in the womb and, rather than being expelled (a miscarriage that will lead to the death of its sibling) or being absorbed into the body of its brother like the memory of Abel marking the brain of Cain, it is pressed up against the wall of the uterus and flattened until it resembles a map of a baby, a papery, humanoid smudge. This poem speaks in the voice of the dead, and does so with visceral detail, compassion, and a syringe-worth of love:

Days, a week, or two weeks passed before I discerned I was dying
and the things which were to be my eyes shriveled up like pricked balloons.
It is always night in here. I cannot know if it is you, though something
is wringing out my heart (what was to be my heart) my tongue my skin
is being ground to a pulp. There was not enough time to rehearse a graceful pose
before I was wedged against the wall.

Some children are imaginary, some are born dead, others lie somewhere between the two extremes. ‘The Homunculus Speaks from the Bed of the Ovarian Dermoid Cyst’ speaks in the voice of a tumour who (Pinocchio-like) longs to be a child. On one level, it reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s short story ‘Hair Ball’ (which covers similar ground) but while that story focusses on the author of the malady, on her spirit, on her life, this poem focuses on the soft, benign sadness of something that cannot be dead because it was never really alive:

You can call me your little man if it helps when you think of me
I don’t mind it. Few things I understand such as this
spherical mass which must be my head and I have attempted
an arm though my skeleton is only a crispy shell and I do not
know what it is reaching for there is nothing else here
but the moist bed I am curled upon. My tooth says
I might not look like much of a tooth but I was made
for chewing. My hair says brush me I am tangling
in the greasy spillage of the tissue I lie on

This poetry is multi-layered, dense and nearly perfect. It must be returned to again and again, until all the beauty, all the terror, is drawn out and digested, until it filters into your blood and becomes a part of you, until you love it as your very own.