Review by Martin Abramson
THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF…
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.