Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review by Martin Abramson


By Barbara Hoffman

$10.00, 29pp, Paper


Our Barbara Hoffman has been a vital member of the Long Island poetry community for many years and is admired as much for her poetry as for her beauty and warm personhood. Her ability to glimpse sunshine and even humor in a life full of dark times, is reflected in this vivid garland of flowers whose glistening dewdrops often turn into tears.


Ms. Hoffman begins at the beginning where she describes the strict control her mother had over her and her breaking free in the poem, “Braids”. The twined hair, pulled taut, rein her in “like the bit on a horse”. But she springs herself and lets her hair “curl every which way”.

The author’s traumatic yet adoring relationship with her mother is powerfully suggested in the pantoum, “Elements” in which she tries to prevent Mom from making a terrible misstep (presumably marrying the wrong man) that threatens to drag mother and daughter to the brink where the “ledge crumbles”.

The mother-daughter nexus appears once again in “The Amish Mother” who relives her close physical ties to her child as she washes the body for burial:


        to remember her in your belly

        the transfer of blood and bone

         …how you talked to her

         before she was born


And again in “Una Furtiva Lachryma” where there is:


         only the gnarled roots

         of a stand of mangrove trees


          reaching out under water

          to cradle grief in outstretched limbs


This love is never extinguished even when visiting her mother in “Midnight in the Nursing Home”.  “You were happy to see me even if/ you had to ask my name”…”I put a chocolate mint/ on your tongue”.



The poet’s closeness with her sister,  is told after her death in “Persistence” as she repeatedly spots the sibling’s long blonde hair in crowds and realizes that no death is final. There’s “always a blurred remnant of memory, / a fragment that jars time.”


Ms. Hoffman, never shy about overt sexuality, drops erotic hints all through the poem “Jazz” whose very title derives from the slang for semen.


         as though he’d slide

         his thighs against mine

         push my legs open

         snake his music into me


In “Heat of Burnt Stubble” Ms. Hoffman excoriates Catholicism with the fire of forbidden sex, feeling “the heat of his tongue/in the pink folds/…fold upon fold/layering heat”.  In “Name Dropping” she recalls how, as a young girl, three Italian Lotharios feted and romanced her until “I started to crack/ like Venetian glass”. And she remembers the sudden heat and “fusing” between her and the priest who hears her confession of these acts. In “Drake’s Lemon Pies” she is excited by “a big blonde guy in a tee shirt” who “drops his gaze to the top/ of my legs/ below the short shorts”. When she bites into the pie, “tart creamy lemon oozes/ out of the side of my mouth”. (Short break while this reviewer regains his composure.) ”.  In “Traveling Through Childhood”, the poet recalls being molested at the age of eight. She knew it was wrong, “but how my body flushed/ all pink”.



“The Games Dogs Play” is a parable of the torments of mature love told as though by a dog whose adoration of its master is warped by the terror of being replaced by a younger bitch. So although charmed by “a diamond studded collar” she decides to play it cool so he won’t take her for granted. And just as we’re forming an image of abject servility, the last line suddenly turns us volte face revealing that at the end of the day, she holds the whip hand and can dictate terms:


               You know, he has to earn his keep.


Among Ms. Hoffman’s hardest times include the breakup of her marriage with the loss of her children as related in “All the Birds Cried” and “Chinese Checkers”. The latter recounts the writer’s choice, forced on her by harsh divorce laws, to keep her lover at the cost of losing her children. The poem describes her love for them felt on an afternoon picnic: “I bury my face in their necks/ drink in their fragrance”.

A radical mastectomy, about which she was misled by her doctor and for which she was completely unprepared, is related in “On the Dotted Line”.  He says:


                                  don’t worry it’s nothing…


                    …excision and frozen pathology…

                    two centimeters in circumference


Ms. Hoffman’s rebellion comes at 35. Freed from child-raising responsibilities, she let her hair get curly, “showed my teeth when I smiled. / Showed my legs when I danced.” She aces a university course and “The handsome parish priest left a bottle/ of Cold Duck on my doorstep”. It’s not far to her distinguished career as a Long Island poet.


          This chapbook, with its handsome cover and clear format, truthfully conveys the humor, passion and heartbreak of its author. Its emotional intensity will affect both sexes, perhaps for different reasons. Enthusiastically recommended.

















Review by Martin Abramson


By Rebecca Foust

Many Mountains Moving Press, Philadelphia

$15.95, 80 pp, Paper


Ms. Foust’s book is written in a minor key to say the least. Poems about tragedies, abnormal births, drowned children and hard times abound. An early experience from “Origin” foretells the macabre side of her vision. Her fifth grade experiment almost blinds another girl and she is thrust into a dark closet where she weeps but also experiences freedom as an “icicle splinter of glee”. In “Backwoods” she describes a brutally abused wife who still wishes to go back to his…”tarpaper shack./ squatting in bottles and weeds.”

Foust’s descriptive powers are most impressive when picturing man-made disasters such as the “Strip Mine” where …”two halves of ancient bivalve/ face each other…” and


At the edge,

wild chicory adds blue

 to the green and white tangle

of bindweed and Queen Anne’s lace.

A snowstorm…”dull shine of whipped/egg whites” in “Allegheny County Winter Day” reveals the emptiness of a landscape where farmettes are on sale and “Everyone’s going/ or gone”.  “Things Burn Down” seems to be cast in the general form of a Villanelle but with considerable variation of rhyme. Still it makes its point sharply; that the miserable lives her family and the townspeople led was in stark opposition to the delicate damask they produced but never themselves used.

Many poems dwell on the dead or dying: such as: “Purple Heart” which describes the sordid suicide of a war hero whose body had been wrecked in combat by shrapnel and Agent Orange; “Mineshaft Memory” that sketches the crucial importance of someone in the poet’s childhood; “Water Burial” that reviews the spiral stripping of whale down to …”a jawbone a man/ could stand up/ and walk through”; “The Bees Are Inside “which  relates the purity of a childhood friend that is the total opposite of his corrupt family, and the “purposeful, soaring fall” that frees him from his unhappy life.

In “Gray” the author mourns a girl who had been a fine athlete until the lung disease common to the factory workers extinguished her flame. The title of “Indian Pipe” refers to a filmy white plant also known as the Corpse Plant. The poem compares it with the frailty of the narrator’s mother (or foster mother) once strong enough to raise five children. In “What Was Sacred”, a woman sits in a hospital having watched all night as a man died and his body cooled; but the poem ends with the glory of sunrise. In “Father’s Day Race” a young girl who dives off a racing sailboat after a piece of rigging, without a life-preserver, is lost.

Parts II and III of ALL THAT GORGEOUS PITILESS SONG break new ground, going political in “The Innocence Project” in which a man is jailed for twenty years until DNA evidence frees him. “A Kilogram of Salt” covers much the same ground as the film, The Reader, as a former female Nazi camp guard is deported after three decades of joyful marriage to an American Jew. Two poems that depict the misery of women who get the wealth they crave only to find it has turned to ashes are “Pentimenti” and “Marrying Up.” Several poems treat the tragedies of abnormal childbirth. The ironic “Apologies to My OB/GYN” expresses regret that her premature child required so much expensive extra care. In “Too Soon” the speaker mourns the terrible effects of DES on her childbearing abilities. “His First Death” alludes to the terrifying period after birth before the infant began breathing. Other poems mourn the difficult life of an autistic son. 

There is no debating Ms. Foust’s mastery of language or sure sense of prosody. Her poems instantly grip the reader too firmly for any worries about whether the poet will slip off that frighteningly high wire on which she’s dancing. These pieces are totally involving whether the subject is the Allegheny Mountains, a cormorant, a hooked fish, or an Amish quilt whose rows of even stitches echo the furrowed fields carved by a tractor traversing outside the window. To venture a pun; reading Rebecca Foust’s poems may themselves be a harrowing experience; but they are not without the emotional catharsis that results from the appreciation of great art


Marty Abramson