Alliterative poems dually titled with different years provide each of the book’s two parts with bones to an otherwise fleshless narrative. Placed upon the page like fossils for an extinct skeleton, the poems succeed in bearing their own significant weight.
There is nothing about myself that is political. A week before my last writing workshop commenced, I arrived early and sat outside. Minutes later, what I thought to be an empty parked car turned out to be occupied by a colleague. He was listening to NPR discussing the World’s current events. He started to elaborate only because I asked, and quite suddenly ended his explanation noting my slackening jaw, and glazed expression. He might have even said something interesting. I stopped paying attention the moment I knew it was current. It may come off as naïve to be a human being living today without even a slight grasp on today’s political stances. The accompaniment, however, to being informed seems to be frustration and ultimately, rebellion. Join in on the debate, and a coalition of bohemian radicals might just take you under their wing. I’m particularly bad with commitment in social settings.
The title of Jeff Hoffman’s debut collection is off-putting for someone like me. Journal of American Foreign Policy’s cover presents an altered skyline of the city this reader is only too familiar with; a viewfinder poised behind a fence, suspended without a foundation, the Empire State Building an unmistakable needle in the distance. Opening onto the first page, that same viewfinder becomes the main object, as if to beckon the reader to look beyond the surface of the page. Titles like, ‘Netanyahu,’ ‘Hitler’s Garden,’ and ‘Alexander Hamilton’ fill the page with an ominous silk screen. While they begin hinting at a political context, relatable subjects go on to tell the tale of a man growing into adulthood in a formidable city. His titles continue to provide a historical landscape for an otherwise average lifetime. But average is exactly what will have readers devouring this collection. Alliterative poems dually titled with different years provide each of the book’s two parts with bones to an otherwise fleshless narrative. Placed upon the page like fossils for an extinct skeleton, the poems succeed in bearing their own significant weight.
In ‘Handshake Histories: Christmas 1979,’ Hoffman presents himself as a child looking out onto a negotiation between his father and a stranger who’s duck boots, and flannel shirt fade away as quickly as they appeared, his father, ‘a scrape of warmth on the skin of my skull.’ A poem titled with a quote from a letter from John to Abigail Adams, hints at Hoffman’s own adult angst, his ‘red mind, Dearest, leaves me fat with hate.”
What begins as formidable continues on a path of remembrance, a title floating above the prose like memory triggers for the stories each poem tells. That his collection moved this reader is more a surprise than anything given the assumed subject matter. Until the distinct scent of nostalgia becomes impossible to ignore. Politics may not be a favorite topic of interest, but peaking into the past life of a stranger remains an ongoing fascination.
Hoffman shows us a soldier tormented by war in the years that follow his service in, “The
Skin Bodies.” The stains of torment clot his dreams with recollections of the streets of
how the women, their faces covered,
Would shriek and flail their arms
as he moved through them
Without once breaking stride.
He groups succinct and powerful accounts of Milosevic by school teachers, soldiers, and retailers:
the cashier looked at me blankly and unamused
When I asked if Wright-Patt had received yet
its fresh monster.
The assuring bit is the gradual realization that being familiar with the subjects Hoffman chooses is entirely unnecessary. His poems are as much about politics as they are about the environment which surrounded the pivotal moments in his past.
We, as readers are asked to abandon speculation or first impressions in order to dive into the thread of consciousness his prose embodies. This doesn’t mean every piece is an immediate jewel. There are moments in the collection where metaphors take flight, and deciphering their meaning seems to only dig a deeper hole of confusion. He titles a poem, ‘The Lump’ while referring to the erotic of bombs, and not a dozen reads can undo the layers of symbolism. Yet, the imperfections only seem to compliment the humanity that resonates throughout this brave first collection.
Hoffman’s ability to make a fool of structure brings us into his life’s experience before the landscape of many character shaping events. As the last poem, “The Observation Deck,” leads us to the answer to the book cover’s visual riddle, we are granted our own viewfinder into his own grave loss.
Jeff Hoffman’s collection is no more politically based than I am informed. However, that he calls it a journal seems quite accurate. The raw honesty of his nostalgia weighs each poem with a peak into the man he is, then the boy he was, to the poet he will always be.
I point the ovoid mouth
Toward the cloudless sky beyond;
I fish through my pockets
for the memory of a coin.
This reader just developed an interest, albeit mild, in politics.
Read “Double” a Rumpus Original Poem by Jeff Hoffman.