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January 22, 2022

I miss the days when I would take a trip to escape the bitter days of late January in Ohio, writing postcard poems as part of my process of meditating on the places I’d visited. It’s a good week for armchair travel, a week of half-melted snow and shades of gray, with a current high of 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

I came back to Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s 2011 volume Sightseer when my wanderlust could be satisfied in no other way.

From the first stanza of the first poem, the emotional experience of sightseeing is here, with a “fluorescent pink jumbo finger starfish” in a gift shop “the most horrendous thing I have ever seen….the one magnificent and irrefutable/symbol of capitalism, of everything that is wrong with tourism.” But despite this, we’re led to wonder “who wouldn’t want to take you home?”

As in Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” the “human position” of being a tourist is never out of sight. For instance, in a graveyard in Krakow the speaker says:
“I am not ashamed
that I photographed intricate writing
I cannot read. Or that I rolled my pant legs
when the sun shot through the trees,
put my elbow on one of those iron sheets
and thought of where I could get a meal.”

In the Dresdner Frauenkirche we see stones and arches but also a man with a cart selling wooden toys, “push-button puppets….It is only when the puppet falls that the thread between its joints/becomes visible. I select one from the tray, though I know/the toys are Swiss and this is Germany. I know what country I am in.”

The metaphors of “In Dresden, A Wall Without a House” make looking at a ruin come alive:

“Every perfect orange brick is a bandage spread across
an open wound the organs have already tumbled out of.

The piano strings have snapped. In the closet, the dresses
have shriveled and slipped from their hangers through the floor.

The rug has lifted into the air and for a moment
hovered there before releasing its ashes into the street.”

The title poem meditates on what it would be like to “linger a thousand years on this shore,” trying to imagine “how long has it been since ships heaved at the bastion” and perceiving that “the eyes of Our Lady of Safe Homecoming have turned to stone/from staring so long at stone over the terrace and into the empty sea./In her prayers, she is a barnacle broken free by a passing boat,/a sightseer, the heavy Christ in her arms a bundle of souvenirs.”

In “On the Western Coast of Anglesey, the Tourists” have peered at a tourist site and read about it and now they are standing where “the burial mound is nothing more than/a hump of grass on the hill.”

My favorite poem from this volume, “Idiot Green Salad,” seems to me to capture the experience of being a tourist best:

Tell me the story of the mercury gilding of the dome
at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and do you remember the number
of people who died and whether the vapors

swayed with faintly human expression as they rose.
The 400 kilograms of real gold, 4 bell towers, 40 tons of marble, 40,000 workers,
40 years’ construction. Each of the workers’ two hands, one pressed to the cold

140-ton red granite column, the other to his heaving chest.
Can you give me directions to the Café Idiot? I have looked
forward to lettuce, cucumber, tomato, orange, avocado, and nut.

How many gallons of gray paint were necessary to hide
the gold from the Nazis. Whether the men
dropped off the dome or collapsed later in their homes. Whether it burned.

If at night, at the sink, the bright trail of blood seeping to the drain
startled them one by one. Whether the workers
wandered the cathedral, lost. If the shimmering

dome can be seen from the shores of the Neva Bay. Dostoyevsky
was pardoned at the execution scaffold, a sword
broken over his head. If the spirit is roused

by the sight of its godly shimmering. After
the herring in spicy sauce, the icefruit cools your tongue.
Whether their hands shook. Whether it was worth it.

At this time of year, when cat toys, books, and blankets litter the furniture and part of our basement has become what we’re calling the “pescatorium,” where flaked fish treats are available day and night, it’s good to be able to think about travel with these poems, getting glimpses of far-away places through a discerning gaze.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2022 8:25 am

    Remembers me of my last visit to Dresden, two years ago. A wonderful city with a lot of stupid people (anti vaxxers and Nazis go hand in hand there). Also, the Elbtal is full of wonders.

    • January 24, 2022 5:27 pm

      One of the things I love about reading travel writing and talking about it with people is discovering new places I didn’t even know I might someday want to visit. Elbtal is one of those!

  2. January 22, 2022 12:35 pm

    Your kitties look so cozy and peaceful – makes me want to take a nap right now! (Alas, I’m at work, ha ha.)

    • January 24, 2022 5:29 pm

      They are inside/outside cats during the day in good weather, but all they do on these cold winter days is alternate draping themselves disconsolately over the furniture and curling up, resigned. Every once in a while they deign to play with a cat toy; we have a feather thing on a string that they can’t resist pouncing on.

  3. January 22, 2022 4:35 pm

    Your kitties are all looking lovely. I would love for it to be 22 degrees! It’s been at or below zero here for the last few days and bike commuting to and from work has been exhausting. Even though you can’t travel, I am glad you are finding literary travel escapes!

    • January 24, 2022 5:30 pm

      i admire your fortitude, biking in such weather! Like my cats, I barely even poke my nose outside.

  4. January 22, 2022 8:22 pm

    Last night I watched a show on PBS about poetry. It featured celebrities and poets reading famous poems or selections from poems. All this to say, this is good to read today, as it also is reminding me why I return to poetry again and again.

    • January 24, 2022 5:32 pm

      That’s great! I like hearing poets read their own poems, although there’s something to be said for hearing actors read the lines instead. I once heard Louise Gluck read at the University of Maryland, College Park, and she delivered every word in a stage whisper, which meant few in the audience could hear or understand.

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