[Lightscatter Press; 2023]
“That’s the intimacy I’m interested in,” Kelly Hoffer told me on the phone last spring, a few months before the release of her debut poetry collection. I hadn’t seen her in over decade, but from the get-go our conversation was breezy and deep. She told me the proximity of sex and grief in her work made some of her peer readers uncomfortable. “For me,” she said, “it’s actually kind of the thing.” Hoffer’s mother died a few years before the earliest poems were written and the collection is punctuated by eight poems called “Visitation,” each a dream about a ghost. As it goes with dreams, earthly reason spirals into a stranger logic.
We lie on the bed and talk of the luxury of clean sheets. she starts stripping the mattress. I jostle to avoid the small birds of her hands. When she finishes she folds up and tucks herself into a ceramic basin smaller than a loaf of bread.
In between visitations are poems that reckon with life, ruled by seemingly contradictory forces. It’s this tension—between grief and joy, sex and death, hope and haunting—that holds the book together.
Undershore came out this past May with Lightscatter Press, a publisher that incorporates technology into text. Each poem features a tiny QR code that leads to a website explaining the project. On the website, each poem also corresponds with a piece of a cyanotype quilt, forty-nine paper squares on a blue-white spectrum sitting at the bottom of the web page. There’s a mix of geometric patterns, botanical prints, and fragments of the poems. Clicking on a square of the quilt takes you to a recording of the poem. The coldness of the QR technology and the warmth of Hoffer’s voice create a formal dialectic mirroring the book’s thematic tensions—a dialectic, at first, that I wasn’t totally buying. Did I really have to take out my phone while reading this nice analog book? Hoffer was also initially skeptical. “I was worried it was going to feel gimmicky,” she told me. But at the end of March, sprawled out on a blanket on my porch, a few days into a mild case of COVID, I was grateful that I could just listen to the poems, the sun warming me through a light sweater. Hoffer’s relationship to the tech changed, too. She liked how directly her reader could access her voice. And, by the way, the quilt is a real object—lovingly made by Hoffer, just like Undershore. The quilt lives in Hoffer’s house and has been displayed in various stops along her book tour. In a picture Hoffer emailed me of the queen-sized quilt hung up between trees on a sunny day in Virginia, sunlight plays on the fabric like water. Hoffer’s raspy and serious voice pitches to a gleeful squeal when she talks about making it. “I feel like it’s enriched my connection with this work,” she told me.
Sure, you could say Hoffer’s collection is quilt-like: precisely crafted, intimate. Each square a poem, the collection a blanket. But while these similarities are evident, Hoffer’s book is less domestic and more unsettling than a quilt. Reading a Hoffer poem is more like looking at a landscape painting, the speaker stands in a specific space in time and shows us what it’s like to see what she sees. The landscapes in her field of vision are external and internal, wild and built: lakesides, open water, Hearst Castle, an Australian merchant sailing ship, an O’Keefe painting, a bedroom, a garden, a dream. The poems in Undershore were written in the very different places Hoffer lived over the course of the almost-decade she spent writing them, as she moved around pursuing a PhD in poetry, which she finished this year. Many of the poems in Undershore have an academic, obsessional quality to them. Her poetic style can be formal, educated, a little buttoned up. Many of the poems in Undershore have an academic, obsessional quality to them; they are marked by a psychological harness—a means of organizing the chaos of life and death so that, presumably, the author can more easily confront it. Sometimes the academic quality of Hoffer’s language feels a little stuffy, like when you read too many Victorian novels and start writing your journal entries like a Bronte.
More often though, restraint is a successful tool—psychological and technical, academic and ethical—for exploring intractable subjects. In “Sidelong: Treatises,” Hoffer writes, “the thing about a cliff is the cliffside, otherwise / it would remain a carpet unfurling in front of you, forever.” It’s the thing. A cliff contains a cliffside. Hoffer draws our attention to the abundance of meaning contained in words and images, the way Borges did in that story (“Funes the Memorious”) about the guy who falls off a horse and suddenly remembers every single detail of his life. He begins to feel that words don’t do life justice—that there should be two separate words, for example, for a dog viewed from the front and a dog viewed from the side.
In “Age of Decadence // Sericulture // Summoning Spell,” the speaker watches a time lapse video of a silkworm on YouTube. The prose poem fills up the entire page, beginning and ending with an image of milk glass (pupa-like in its opacity). The speaker describes watching the video in bed on a hot day. The “circumcised heads” and “soft-fleshed bodies” of the silkworms chew on mulberry leaves and build their cocoons. The speaker admits to having imagined this process before, but incorrectly. “I imagined wrong the cocoon as a mummy and the moth-pupa the subject of my own fantasies of incremental pressure . . . the process accumulating as fat around a body.” Rather than an act of abundance, the actual process of chrysalis formation is, for the caterpillar “an exercise in constructing its own constriction.” Hoffer describes the bug, sweetly, as “claustrophilic,” and I think you could use the same word to describe Hoffer’s cloister-like poems.
When I asked Hoffer who her influences are, she mentioned Vija Celmins and Agnes Martin—two visual artists obsessed with what Hoffer described in our conversation as “subtle variation to the point of madness.” Celmins’s graphite drawings of the ocean are unbelievably precise; solitude and repetition mark her work. Then there’s Agnes Martin. It’s easy to associate her with openness and space, big canvases that evoke the big landscapes (internal and external) that her abstract work is titled after: “Night Sea,” “Desert Rain,” “Aspiration.” But Martin was also an ascetic; during a years-long self-imposed sabbatical from painting, she built herself an adobe house and exclusively ate tomatoes.
During her life, Hoffer’s mother was a gardener. Hoffer herself took up gardening when she started writing these poems. “I felt the botanical world was a really powerful illustration of the ways that things died and regenerated,” Hoffer told me, “Or went dormant and regenerated.” The pages of Undershore are spilling over with hyacinths, geraniums, wax flowers, gladiolus, hydrangeas. “Flowers could do sex and death,” Hoffer told me. “That didn’t feel like a contradiction. It felt like a generative tension.” Flowers really are that way. Their sexualities, the functional extravagance of their bodies. There are some more explicit references to sex in the collection (“I imagine you / fucking me / but also telling me / no”), but the sexiest poems in the collection are about flowers.
“Peony,” for example, begins with a statement that folds in on itself, turning into a question. “the buds will open, or / if it is Tuesday, and you are still in California / will they remain / buds, willing to be but no / you to witness the unfolding.” The agony of waiting for a long-distance lover turns even basic facts (flowers bloom in spring) into question. It’s a relatable pathetic fallacy: The flowers will bloom because he arrived, they won’t if he stays in California. The speaker is temporarily distracted from longing by her own flower metaphor, watching ants crawl over the pink bud: “they do not hurt the blossoms / nor do the blossoms need them to open but I comfort / in the tracing of pale surfaces.” But then another figure reminds the speaker about her longing: Peonies are so silly and relatable in their heaviness, the way they bloom grandiosely only to flop to the ground. The lover sticks with the speaker through the rest of the poem—the waiting, the distance, the California problem and the longing for certainty. “all the petals that must be inside, how many / numbers are no answer / as they separate one / from the next, not the number / that I need.” The speaker wants a simple, mathematical answer to her longing. She wants the opposite of days, which only count distance. She would like a way to measure closeness. The poems ends without conclusion. We don’t know if the peonies bloom or if the lover shows up.
In “Flood Season,” the speaker describes caring for a sick loved one. The opening line makes it unclear what kind of intimacy we’re talking about: “I draw you out on a bed, and look for your cancers.” When I read it for the first time, I imagined myself, a hypochondriac, searching a healthy lover for signs of impending doom. As I keep reading, I realize that the poem’s “you” is actually sick and that her relationship with the speaker might not be explicitly sexual. The proximity of sex and death is, for Hoffer, “really true to my experience of caretaking someone at the end of her life who literally birthed me. It’s not dissimilar from the kind of intimacy you have with a lover.”
But “Flood Season” never reveals the relationship between the speaker and the other person in the poem, a relationship held together by erotic warmth and a morbid sense of proximity: “I know with the right attention your blood-slicked innards would unfold easy.” The speaker describes her own breasts hanging over the loved one like ballasts, describes the loved one hiding her naked body, almost coyly. “I knew you best falling out of bed for the first time, how your nipples glimpsed then shied away in your redressing.” A moment that reminds me of visiting my father in the ICU after heart surgery. Some combination of the drugs, the windowless room, and the near-death experience had made him loopy and shameless—unconcerned about revealing his penis when he blew his nose into the front of his hospital gown. Hoffer illustrates how caring for the sick brings us as close to a person as sex does. The poem leaves the intimate scene of the bedroom and goes outside. The loved one cups lake water in her hands and lets it go. “With the liquid let out, the diatoms and microcorals settle to a film.” Hoffer’s work often has this kaleidoscopic quality, zooming in and out from description of a landscape to a consideration of the molecules from which the landscape is built—from describing the way someone’s insides might look outside their body to simple statements that reveal the weight of a love. “When we get home I clean your nails in a white basin.” The poem ends both macro and microscopically, comparing lung tissue to pink clouds.
It’s a relief to look up when you’re grieving. I caught myself doing a lot of angel-gazing after my grandmother died, thinking about her (not a sentimental woman) while I watched sunlight stream through the clouds after a rain. It’s cliché in retrospect, but there’s a reason we put heaven up there. “it is the thing about clouds that they look / like other things,” Hoffer writes. The sky invites metaphor, invites our projection of ourselves onto it. Another poem references the Georgia O’Keefe paintings of clouds viewed from an airplane: “before the airplane the tops of clouds were congeries gathering in the void above so many earthbound heads.” In the first in this series of paintings, sheep-like blobs of white cloud dot a dark blue carpet of sky. A light, cotton candy pink topped with cotton candy blue mark a solid horizon, separating sky from sky. The way kids will draw a line to demarcate sky from ocean, the over there from the even farther away.
When you’re grieving, the logic that used to govern the universe falls apart. The boundary between life and death is not so firm as you thought. When the ghost is a blood relative, you carry them with you in your body. My grandmother might be dead but her gaze isn’t; I look through it every day. In one of the visitation poems, the speaker is haunted by this fact: “I want / to have a child if only to clarify the image / she weaves — a suit that happens / to be just the size of my body.” The desire to have a child to perpetuate keep the image of your mother alive makes sense. It also makes sense that Hoffer is compelled to look up. The other side of our need to clarify the impression that the dead leave on us is our desire to melt into the universe. In “Sidelong: Treatises,” flirty narcissism gives way to humility as the speaker takes comfort in outer space. “The moon is bigger, but I am pretty / sure we are both celestial objects, carved out of the dark by the sun.”
Olivia Durif writes cultural criticism, personal essays, reported pieces and book reviews. She lives in New Mexico.
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