By – April 1, 2024

About a quar­ter of the way into Car­lie Hoffman’s star­tling col­lec­tion, we are warned that the poet’s heart is full of hors­es.” With this state­ment, Hoff­man invokes the image of untamed, fast-run­ning ani­mals, all cor­ralled into one space. It’s an apt descrip­tion for her com­plex, chal­leng­ing stam­pede of poems, whose lines are at every moment poised to run in at least four direc­tions (Four Way Books is the appro­pri­ate­ly named pub­lish­er of these run­away poems). 

The col­lec­tion begins with a depar­ture from New York, and the loss of an unnamed beloved. Like the moon, the poet promis­es to retract into an uncon­di­tion­al orb of light.” But rather than con­tract­ing, her focus expands as oth­er loss­es emerge in wild, equine fash­ion: a moth­er as hard to access as a frozen stream; lan­guages that the poet can­not speak but that belong to the fam­i­ly his­to­ry; and a riv­er in Poland where dead aunts hold siddurim.

The sec­ond and third sec­tions of the book veer pur­pose­ful­ly into the his­to­ry of the poet’s fam­i­ly. Par­tial­ly remem­bered frag­ments of dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal moments are yoked togeth­er with pho­tographs, news­pa­per arti­cle quotes, and snip­pets of Ger­man. What keeps it all intel­li­gi­ble is the pow­er of Hoffman’s lyri­cal, exu­ber­ant language:

I drop off the menus one last time am a handful

of quits in the park I read the news­pa­pers all about cold I quit cold I, 

a con­se­quence I run out of. I run out of clean underwear

clean hair rain comes I slam the door turn back I quit

Else­where, Hoff­man turns tra­di­tion­al forms inside out, as she does with an ele­gy to Paul Celan’s young cousin, the poet Sel­ma Meerbaum-Eisinger.

All through­out When There Was Light, Hoff­man defa­mil­iar­izes the usu­al poet­ic pro­ce­dures of lost love, prob­lem­at­ic par­ents, a city that is hard to live in, and even the com­plex­i­ties of her own Jew­ish his­to­ry — forc­ing the read­er to linger on frag­ments and reassem­ble images in fresh com­bi­na­tions. Read­ing her poems is a lit­tle like learn­ing a for­eign lan­guage. One resists the new inter­ac­tions between words, then grows accus­tomed to their strange­ness and lux­u­ri­ates in their sur­pris­ing beauty. 

Discussion Questions

Car­lie Hoffman’s When There Was Light shows a mas­tery of think­ing through lan­guage. The tex­ture, sub­tle­ty, and beau­ty of these poems are brought togeth­er by ques­tions of fam­i­ly, iden­ti­ty, loss, and shame. A fam­i­ly emi­gra­tion from Ger­many to a farm in Upstate New York shows the con­se­quences of seek­ing the Amer­i­can Dream through assim­i­la­tion and sac­ri­fice. Hoff­man thinks in poet­ry, and her metaphors give atten­tion to a space in which dif­fer­ences are hard to make out. 

As part of an unseen com­mu­ni­ty, Hoff­man moves in and out of fixed def­i­n­i­tions. Her poems demon­strate her feel­ing of out­sider­ness in her body. She blends fem­i­nism with mys­ti­cism, as in Kab­bal­ah for Last Novem­ber”: You have always been the woman in the flood­ing / room, refus­ing to move out of the way.” She also won­ders about inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma, as in Yahrzeit in Decem­ber”: “ … trac­ing back the gene / of neu­roti­cism that gorges / on a mind.” She goes deep into her­self, to be in an in-between place, an exile. When There Was Light adds to Jew­ish poet­ics not only in its sub­ject mat­ter, but also in its sys­tem of thought: an area of doubts, wish­es, and possibilities.