Paper Doll Fetus, by Cynthia Marie Hoffman. New York NY: Persea Books. 64 pages. $15.95, paper.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus is a devastating and rich collection. Several pages in, it occurs to me that this is the third book of poetry focused on pregnancy/the body of the mother I have read this year (the other two being Sarah B Boyle’s what’s pink and shiny / what’s dark and hard and Fabulous Beast: The Sow by Sarah Kain Gutowski) and this initially strikes me as a lot of books, then quickly not. For while much is written about the female body, or the body capable of pregnancy, so little comes from this point of view.
I don’t mean a mother’s point of view, specifically – Paper Doll Fetus’s poems are told to us by gurney straps, potions, homunculi, fetuses, dying fetuses, dying newborns, a doctor who keeps the heart of a ‘monstrous’ 2-headed baby “on a shelf / where I pass in the evenings”, a stone in a field, a midwife, a book page… It is an anarchic look at birth described by Good Reads as “part spellbook, part anatomical primer” and makes apparent that which is the realest body-horror.
This epiphany comes to me like a headrush. The genre of body-horror is defined as “fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body … disease, decay, parasitism, mutilation, or mutation”, yet its canon is filled with the works of men describing a male body, a cis male body, and touching upon the creation of life only in a way that others woman-as-creator. On the flip-side, our pregnancy narratives are shrouded in either a cloying sweetness or a citric sterility which bypasses the blood and the shit and the sweat and transfers all protagonism immediately to the child. The mother herself is a mere vessel, not even in the animal way of Fabulous Beast but like a literal container, a stained Tupperware. Paper Doll Fetus attempts to fix this by spilling from its folds a thousand new narratives, a thousand voices clamoring for, quite literally, air-time. And it succeeds.
Hoffman’s way with words is infallible (“beneath the earth a teenage boy sleeps in his bewildered casket”) and her imagery raw and sad and hopeful: “though something / is wringing out my heart (what was to be my heart)”, “which stirs me, I would say, if I had a bone / in my body, to my very bones.” I can’t decide which passages to quote because many gave me chills, several made me tear up, and the whole entirety of it engorged my tender chest with an ache that comes from the best kind of poetry. This next poem was my favorite, and originally appeared in the Mid-American Review:
The Stone in the Field Falls for the Goat’s Placenta
It was evening when it first arrived. When I heard it
thump to earth, I thought it was another stone, a gift
come for me, a slick lump glazed with moonlight and
raspberry red. I thought to rally my round bones and
creak across the hill. I thought to smell her. Steamy. Sweet.
Pungent. Such an aroma not but in my fantasies. I did not
pay mind to the kid that jerked to life in the grasses swinging
its sopping ears, stomping dumbly at the ground,
nor the doe’s teats. Though I saw all these things
I did not see them. No mind
the humdrum chugging forth of life, my love has come
at last! She shone as my own fleck of quartz
shines in the rain and which I call my heart. Thus
you understand my state when
the doe hoisted her drained body to her feet, the white
stubs at her forehead like a white devil’s horns, and she
touched her nose to my lovely glowing thing. And then she
withdrew her nose bejeweled—a single dazzling droplet! I began
to suspect my stone was not a stone; its shimmer rubbed off
on anything that touched it, any foul thing. And then
she licked it, my heart wrenched, it unraveled like a lumpy rope.
I watched it dangling from her mouth and then it was
gone, it was gone. The little goat followed his mother.
She licked him with her horrible tongue. He stumbled, the
crack of his hoof on my forehead, I deserved it. I have
no throat to swallow with. Dunce that I am
I will still be a stone fastened to the earth.
Throughout the length of it, Paper Doll Fetus is captivating. It demands attention. Several poems I re-read for pure pleasure, several because a second pass instills yet more clarity into its genius. In the end, “This page is a white net I cannot wriggle free from. I was lied to. / I never became anything. Dr. Haeckel, a book is not a womb.” Maybe, it’s something even more powerful.
Order Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Paper Doll Fetus (Persea Books) here.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised ghost and the author of poetry collection Salt is for Curing (Sator Press) and chapbook My Heart in Aspic (Porkbelly Press). They are an asst. editor at Fruita Pulp, where they also review poetry. Find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at @coolniceghost and sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com.Tags: Cynthia Marie Hoffman, Fruita Pulp, Paper Doll Fetus, Persea books, Poetry, Review, Sonya Vatomsky