The Burn of Seeing

It’s a Sisyphean task, taking the responsibility to convey all the movement and humanity that Cynthia Marie Hoffman attempts in Sightseer. There are so many things one must choose to leave out, and it is the left out which compels in her collection. How many collections worth of material was she able to mine from these excursions, to bring back to us in the new history side of the world? And will she find herself written into a corner if she keeps exploiting them, or like a responsible miner, shut the mineshaft down? Despite all of what was left out, the keen gaze Hoffman exerts on her chosen subjects, many of them religious artifacts, asks the reader to step past the gate and down to the below surface as in the poem “On the Western Coast of Anglesey, the Tourists” (59-60) while at the same time requesting the assertion of gaze at those two women on the beach in their hiking boots.

The question is asked, again and again, through the lens of human history, whether we are the same as those who left these remnants, or different. Whether they, too, consumed what they saw, bought the baubles from salesmen despite the thankless hardness of life (we assume) they lived. With “Dear Fluorescent Pink Jumbo Finger Starfish,” Hoffman opens with that question in the personal: Am I the consumer, ignorant, or am I the poet, empathetic? How could we know? Burning comes in several times in the collection, from “Burning Paper in Lazarus Cemetery” (9), to the fire of sun in “Dear Sunset” (10-11), to the fires of Auschwitz in “Dear Remu’h Synagogue” (19-21), to finally the fire of “The Second Largest Wooden Cupola in Europe Burns” (67). This final fire begins literal, and transfigures into the fire of the glare of the poet, at her desk at night: “the path to my porch is the long silver cross. / Look for me, you will find my house / by the flickering blaze…” (15-17).

Is it with the dead or living we should empathize? If empathy is the poesis of poetry, does it matter? Should it not be both the dead and the living? And if this is the case, are we not in danger of the impetuous, spontaneous flame which bursts forth from empathy as if it were napalm? So some things must be left out. Even the deftest poet teeters upon that rock on the side of a volcano, surrounded by lava, ready to burn with the feeling of too much empathy. The control Hoffman exhibits in this collection is a testament to her ability to make those decisions on what to leave out, to focus on what is most compelling, while remaining open to everything available.

In the poem “Island of Donan Castle” (26-27), for instance, Hoffman narrows in on not what her experience, or that of other tourists, consists of, but instead the experience of those who lived and built the legends surrounding the castle. The castle becomes those monks and prisoners occupying the internal: “Your bare back, your body gathered // tightly about your heart” (3-4). These lines say nothing of the head, later revealed “unfastened by the sword” (13). A cool head which made swords wait for the completion of a final sacrament. Monks who displaced a farm were themselves replaced in the manner by which they held prisoners: death followed by sheep. That the stones of the castle had seen this blood means what to the visitor gazing upon them? That now he can consume the terror on either side, or merely the model castle in the gift shop on the mainland? Empathy versus consumption guides this text, sets its boundaries and breaks them.

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