Paper Doll Fetus, by Cynthia Maria Hoffman. New York, New York: Persea Books, December 2014. 64 pages. $15.95, paper.
Paper Doll Fetus, by Cynthia Marie Hoffman, is a short collection of poems about fetuses (think a larger-scale “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens). Some poems discuss fetuses directly while others approach the subject obliquely. However, while this book is sixty-four pages of one subject, not once does it drag or feel repetitious. On the contrary, there is very little similarity between the poems besides the topic, which is simultaneously refreshing and frustrating: On one hand, you never get bored of the tone or perspective because Hoffman changes them both in surprising and interesting ways. On the other hand, because every poem touches on the same topic, I expected more communication between poems. I expected some call and response or development of images or smaller themes throughout; I expected the poems to grow and build off of each other in direct and in different ways. However, this book doesn’t do that because it doesn’t want to. Paper Doll Fetus is a collection of individual poems on one subject.
“The Calciferous Substance Speaks to the Sleeping Fetus” stood out as a great poem, one that represents the book as a whole. It is from the perspective of the substance that covers and shields a dead fetus from decaying and infecting the mother’s body if it’s not expelled from the body. The poem opens with the substance talking to the fetus, saying it will tell the fetus a bedtime story since it is going to sleep (death). It tells the fetus of its birth, of its appearance in the darkness of the body and how the organs all turned their attention to the new form and how the new form grew: “You lay in the dark and unraveled a curl of shoots—clean, hopeful.” When the fetus falls quiet and still, the substance turns itself into a blanket to keep the fetus warm in its sleep. It ends with, “No one will / ever break us apart. If we are very quiet. If we are very still.” It is touching, warm, sad and sentimental, and I mean sentimental in a positive way: those lines convey emotion, and that is always a good thing.
This substance watched the fetus grow for several months, watched it become a human-form, and then watched it die, and we as readers know it must encase the fetus to keep the host from becoming ill, but the way the substance speaks is out of love. Some other lines that stand out: “My particles rallied to lay themselves upon you // like stars snapping free from the sky,” and “And that was when you became my // white stone baby, my vaguely human figurine, // my little ballerina shy in her swan suit.” If you did not know what a lithopedion was (a calcified fetus still inside the mother) or that a dead fetus is sometimes calcified by the mother’s body for protection, the poem gives you enough clues to understand without having to use Google, which is great because we are learning while we’re feeling; we’re understanding something physical and real, something scientific and biological while also understanding or learning something new about motherhood, about the time and form of a fetus, about life and growth and the great amount of loss that exists everywhere, even when you don’t realize it, even if it’s within you.
Nearly twenty pages after “The Calciferous Substance Speaks to the Sleeping Fetus,” we get the only instance of a companion or call-back poem in the book with “The Sound of the Maul that Cracked Open the Stone Child of Sens, 1582.” My interaction with this poem was a jolt out of my normal experience with the other poems because it is the only poem in the book that connects directly to another poem, and it comes nearly at the end of the book (it’s the second-to-last poem). Suddenly I had two poems happening in my head, whereas every other poem stands independent of every other, and staunchly so. The epigraph sets the conceit: this poem is about one of the first dissections of a lithopedion in a medical book. We see the “white stone baby” from the previous poem hammered opened and marveled at. However, that is all we do: marvel. Look at this thing, calcified, unknown previously, dark and dead inside the woman for over twenty years, discovered only after the woman’s death.
The poem describes the cutting, the moment when the speaker realizes the truth of the fetus, connects the dots … then, nothing. That’s it. It is a moment in science. But there’s no next step. And this is the biggest critique of Paper Doll Fetus. Because a majority of the poems stand on their own, yet are all about the same topic, many of the poems become retellings of specific moments in history or moments of wonderment. And many of the poems end in a similar way, in a closing in, a shutting down, end with the event they’re retelling. Very few of the poems go outward or open up or transcend the moment. This is where the specificity of a single-subject focus is bound to break down.
On the other hand, my biggest critique is similar to the book’s biggest accomplishment: the range of persona, tone, voice, and style while maintaining a single subject without boredom or redundancy. Hoffman can inhabit a scientific, historical, biological or any other perspective without any trouble, which means that each poem is solid; each poem stands completely on its own and is satisfying, which is incredible.
For example, a poem near the end of the book, “A Labor of Moles,” is from the perspective of a doctor who assists a woman who gives birth to a mole, like, the mammal. The diction is confident and sets up the location (farm) and the time period (old pre–1800s) as well as the conditions (dirty and poor). Hoffman balances the surreal and old-time language to create a short scene that captures the reader. The imagery is direct and seeping in metaphor, and we watch a great, albeit creepy, scene unfold. This poem feels like history reduced to a short poem that knows how to entertain, terrify, astound and then somehow leave you walking away without throwing up. Highlights of language in this poem are vastly different from every other poem in the book—yet feel completely normal in this poem: “I chanced,” “certain happening,” “The woman / was of the country,” “inside the chambers,” “the hairy beast shot forth from her legs,” “I can attest I felt its pointed snout,” “to douse its wickedness,” and the mighty finish: “Indeed the Hand of God / thus spake. The smell of burning pelt flushed the air. / And thrice we knew the fire was requisite.” My favorite thing about the diction is that none of it, except maybe the ending, is amazing, ridiculous, or something to make you pause, despite being surreal and in an older dialect. That is Hoffman’s deft ability: you don’t notice, but you feel it there because it fits, because it’s what the poem needs; you feel antiquity and absurdity, and you believe it because none of it is brash or absurd, none of it is flaunting, and that’s what makes it work.
Hoffman does this throughout the book. Nearly every poem is a dramatic shift in perspective or tone or time from the previous poem, and it’s never a difficult shift for the reader because Hoffman inhabits the subject so purely. Whatever background knowledge you need for a poem to work, she puts in the poem, and it never once felt clunky or forced, it always felt natural and was always just what I needed in order to engage with the poem.
It reminds me of Robert Hayden with his multitude of persona and smooth ability to plant you in a different perspective, sometimes within the same poem. Hoffman knows how to write in a different voice, which is something that is difficult, and something that many contemporary poets don’t do, or at least not to the degree Hoffman does, because every single poem in this book is a persona. All of them. And that is hard to do. Not to mention many of the poems are science-based, using language like, and these are just pulled from titles, “Homunculus,” “Ovarian Dermoid Cyst,” “Ectopic Embryo,” the two titles from the second and third paragraphs, and “Embryological” (which is a poem from the perspective of an early sketch of what one doctor believes an embryo to look like). But don’t worry if you don’t like weird scientific words because Hoffman knows how to lead you through them so you don’t feel lost, but she doesn’t stop the poem to give you dictionary definitions. The knowledge comes to you naturally.
A shift in topic: because this book is a collection of poems on one topic, it is a concept book. Feel free to skip this part if you’re uninterested in discussing concept books. Maybe I’m imposing the idea of “concept book;” maybe these poems are not meant to be compared to each other. But it’s hard not to when they share the same topical focus and are in the same book by the same writer.
So while each poem stands on its own, when taken as a concept book, this book doesn’t land as strongly on its feet. It is a book of individual poems. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is a missed opportunity by Hoffman. These poems are all siblings, yet they speak to each other only once. However, there are some subcategories aside from fetuses that come up. There are several historical poems, several scientific poems, several disembodied poems. So in one sense, there is cross-over, communication. But, even the poems that connect because of a similar sub-topic don’t speak to each other. You do not need to read any poem in this book in order to better understand any other poem. They stand apart, and I wanted growth and development as a whole. But this book didn’t want to do that, and I admire and dislike it and like it all at the same time: why not have similar poems interact more? Because they don’t have to. They stand on their own, and that’s the type of concept book this book is: every single poem about the same thing and overlapping only once. Impressive in its own way and completely different than the other concept books of poetry I’ve read. Hoffman pushed my boundaries of what a concept book can do or how it can function.
It seems that no book can ever just be what it is. Someone always wonders what it could be, what it might be, what it could have been, and even what it actually is. Because even if someone told me this isn’t a concept book of poems, the thought is still in my head, the question of artistry. Which is better/harder/more worthwhile: a book where individual poems may not work on their own but instead build upon each other and form a larger work of art, or a book where individual poems work as small pieces of art but do not speak to each other or build toward a collective meaning? What about a book with completely unrelated poems? What is the larger issue? Art, I guess. If we’re talking about the value of a concept book, we’re talking about a writer’s ability to create a larger piece of art. The bigger it is, the higher the skill of the creator must be, because each part serves a purpose that is larger than itself, and it’s hard to write a poem that serves a smaller purpose because then you’re writing a poem that doesn’t do enough on its own, that is really worthless without its brothers and sisters.
But that’s an unfair expectation to have when reading a book. Books don’t have to be epics or magnum opuses. Paper Doll Fetus is a collection of thirty-five poems, each about some aspect of a fetus, and through this focus attempts to highlight what it means to love, to care, to share life, to express, to live, to learn, to explore, to suffer, to lose and to help. In the end, I was most disappointed at the brevity of the book: less than seventy pages.
But there’s only so far you can push something before it loses meaning, so again, my biggest disappointment is also a compliment, because Hoffman pursued a single subject to thirty-five different corners, and each has something to offer. Each poem felt like a new door opening in the same room. Just when you’ve opened all the doors you can see, Hoffman pulls down on a statuette, and another door appears behind the bookcase or in the floor. And that is a fun process in and of itself, but Hoffman doesn’t solely rely on parlor tricks or turns of surreal perspectives. She adds depth, leading you into the newly discovered room and showing you around: fetus in a jar, fetus in a dead lady, actually the lady is not dead and both her and the fetus were buried alive somehow, or over in this corner is a picture of the woman who delivered three-hundred sixty-five babies, and each object, each room, has something to say about why it exists.
While part of my expectations weren’t fulfilled, it isn’t a critique or disappointment. It is significant because this is a concept book, but the way it engages with being a concept book is by writing a variety of stand-alone poems, which is a tough task. Hoffman offers poem after poem that engages the reader page after page. Yes, some poems fall short because they are too nuanced in their persona (“The Stone in the Field Falls for the Goat’s Placenta” is a poem about exactly what the title says, and feels more like an exercise from Oulipo, more about play and fun, while the majority of the poems in the book have heart and pure emotion). But that happens when you try pushing the boundaries of a single topic in a single book, that is what happens when you try to touch on all the different manifestations of “fetus” you can think of. Paper Doll Fetus tries to be a collective of impulses of thought when one thinks about “fetus,” and the fact that it spans so many perspectives and personas from a rock to history to fables to biological discoveries to theories to a drawing to the soul and doesn’t feel artificial or forced or purely an exercise in excess is phenomenal.
Jacob Collins-Wilson writes poetry, fiction, and reviews of both. Email him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.