Sightseer by Cynthia Marie Hoffman

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Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s excellent debut poetry collection, Sightseer, is part travelogue, part epistle, and part reclamation of the very idea of tourism. The winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, Sightseer briskly circles the globe, from Provincetown to Russia to Ireland to Poland, in poems that address the various onion-domed cathedrals, seventh-century castles, and oyster-laden beaches that the speaker encounters along the way.

Hoffman serves as an appealing tour guide as the book bounces from place to place, but she also slyly constructs an argument about sightseeing itself throughout the course of the collection. In the opening poem, “Dear Florescent Pink Jumbo Finger Starfish,” Hoffman complicates the notion of tourism in the age of late capital with an address to the souvenir starfish of the poem’s title:

You are the most horrendous thing I have ever seen.
You alone are the one magnificent and irrefutable
symbol of capitalism, of everything that is wrong with tourism.
But what am I saying already? I love you. Just look at
those warts!

Sure, the starfish is a symbol, but Hoffman isn’t willing to linger on the symbolism for too long. There are better questions to ask, such as: “Your gonads are in your / arms, for Christ’s sake. Who wouldn’t want to take you home?” The starfish may be a commodity shipped in from the Philippines and sold to unsuspecting tourists, but it’s also a muscled miracle of evolution. Just because it doesn’t belong in Provincetown doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in a poem.

The starfish also stands in nicely for Hoffman, a perpetual traveler who doesn’t shy away her tourist status. Sightseer turns out to be a particularly apt title, not only because of the book’s meditations on travel, but its visionary overtones. The “seer” of “sightseer” becomes impossible to forget after just a few pages. In “Good Jesus, Good Dog,” Hoffman confesses to the stray dog following her as she works through the Stations of the Cross at the Portuguese cathedral Bom Jesus do Monte: “You are not surprised / by my pockets empty of flowers, my camera a prayer bead // I raise to my face.”

That “heavy camera / beating at [her] hip” reappears from poem to poem, working like the prayer bead she compares it to: as a method of remembering that the speaker doesn’t quite belong and that her primary gift is observation. Hoffman doesn’t espouse any specific religion (she visits churches, synagogues, castles), but, being a tourist, she is a kind of secular pilgrim, as she points out in “Rain at the Dresdner Frauenkirche”:

I buy a dark braided roll by pointing at it through the glass.
I leap over the puddles. Am I not a pilgrim?
Is it because of my waterproof jacket? I am not saying I am not

Many of the poems in the collection are epistolary, addressing both the animate and inanimate, from synagogues to saints. In “Dear Alexander Nevsky,” Hoffman meditates on the Russian boulevard Nevsky Prospekt by speaking to its namesake saint:

Do you know what things they’ve said
about you since you died at Gorodets?
They say as you lay in the open
casket, your fist uncurled like a morning glory.

The poem quickly moves from Nevsky to the poet Anna Akhmatova and her “sullen profile on the palace wall, / nose like a broken wing.”

I believe in the poet
who sits in a chair worn through to the springs,
who stands at Kresty prison with an armful of bread,
who always packs her nitroglycerin tablets in her purse
and dies anyway.

If Hoffman is a pilgrim, she’s a disciple of art.

The epistolary poems are often the collection’s best; Hoffman’s speakers are lithe and engaging when they have someone to bounce ideas off of, wrestle with, and argue against. A poem like “Dear Pigeons, Poland,” or “Dear Bed, Apartment C.,” has the feel of a meandering conversation in a café with an eloquent friend.

Considering how many poems feature a speaker with a camera, it’s no surprise that Hoffman fills Sightseer with striking, cinematic imagery. She describes altars “frothing with goldleaf,” a mound of fresh flowers on a grave “like a dozen girls / fainted in their ruffled party skirts,” and a woman eating a plate of tripe at her kitchen table while a “calf’s hoof rests in the ladle.” Every poem is astutely observed and rendered.

Of the array of tools in her poetic toolbox, Hoffman has a particular gift for the simile. In one poem, a squirrel “overturns a nut, spins it with his slender toes / as a god spins a planet.” In another, a stray cat’s “ribs rub [her] calf like a xylophone’s keys.” Shells glare “like china plates slick in the tide.”

Hoffman is at home with both the global and the local, literally and figuratively. She can create taut, well-composed images and graceful meditations. She can write about her homeland and her travels with equal flair. Sightseer is a powerful collection of poems that makes a subtle and profound argument about the nature of travel, dislocation, and belonging.

Ryan Teitman is the author the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), selected by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, The Southern Review, and other journals. He was formerly a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. More from this author →