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Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of four poetry collections: Exploding Head (forthcoming 2024), Call Me When You Want to Talk about the Tombstones, Paper Doll Fetus, and Sightseer. Hoffman is a former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Her poems have appeared in Smartish Pace, Lake Effect, Blackbird, The Believer, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.


As a child, I tested if it’s possible to drown

in a tablespoon of water, holding the spoon

over my mouth and nose. My mother went under

off the coast of Santa Catalina Island. The giant

Catalina goldfish stared like sinking buoys, useless.

Luckily resurfaced by her then boyfriend’s

outstretched arm, or she wouldn’t have

years later sewn the water safety badge

on my Girl Scout sash. I wouldn’t have been born

to turn the drowning bugs over in the creek

with my stick or grab my now husband

by the shoulder, saving him from plunging

to the river stabbed with fish like scissor

blades. Today I learned there is a river

in the sky. Invisible until the day it bursts

on us like a tunnel aquarium. Storms

are getting stronger and the floating rivers

more leaden. They say it’s what will kill us

in the end. The spoon pressed so hard

it formed a suction. I smelled

the stinging tang of metal. That day I learned

my mother wouldn’t rip the spoon from my face,

that it was better to understand then

what could kill me than to later

be surprised. I went to meetings with the splash

of water embroidered on my chest, though

what I’d earned was not the lesson of water

but something else. That smell we think is metal

is actually the reaction the metal has with

our bodies. It is the smell of decomposing

iron atoms, of how our touching the world

kills the world, bit by bit. So when death comes

like a river of shimmering blue threads

to tie us off at the throat, it will come familiar

as the scent of our own blood.


One summer, we followed the backyard creek

to see how far it went. Through concrete tunnels

my sister and I howled, jumping back and forth

across the glittering thread. We saw

the backs of houses, the lawn chairs and rusted

swings of other possible lives. The minnows

were the same at every turn, dark

disembodied thumbs. We ended at the reservoir

with the carousel of wooden horses bobbing

like creatures of the sea. Deep in the forest,

the fox still roams. He pauses mid-hunt

to lick the paw that never healed. I grew too old

to finish his story. Eventually, I peeled my reflection

from the surface of the creek and took it with me.

My sister rode a real horse, bought a farm,

settled in a life down south. I built

a family of my own, with a river of asphalt

out back. At our parents’ home, the creek

gets angry when it rains, snatching

mud from under the roots of the forest. A tree

collapses on the neighbor’s house. By morning,

the creek has churned a mosaic of shattered

beer bottles along its shores. My mother, in the window,

sees it signaling in the sunlight like a morse

code from the many years she watched

her daughters playing in the creek, all rainboots

and buckets. She grows old. Sometimes, she hears

the fox scream through the night. The fox

of my imagination lives forever. His den is never

washed away. His eats shards of glass. I haven’t

forgotten. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I pull

my reflection from the drawer like a dark gathering of silk,

find my childhood face woven into the fabric,

let it spill over my hands like water, like home.


I’m on this boardwalk over the lake, alone

except for the party boat passing

beneath the bridge blasting music, men

waving. I don’t wave back. It’s getting

dark. A pair of lights are following

behind me like a silent car. I have this fantasy

a kitten wobbles out of the forest

to my feet and I have to cradle it

wriggling in my shirt the two miles

home. Instead, I walk through this soft

pelting rain of winged insects. Keep my

mouth closed. When I pass a cornfield,

I think I could be dragged into the corn

field. I hear a rustling either a squirrel or hands

about to seize me by the ankles. The science

of how many spiders you swallow in your sleep

is flawed. It’s more likely I’ll carry home

this six-legged fairy clinging to my collar,

her glass wings clanging at a frequency

too high for human ears. There’s

something called the windshield effect,

which means there aren’t as many

dead bugs splattered on your wind-

shield anymore. And all across America,

the lakes are drying up. Dinosaur tracks

were revealed with claw marks still intact. A ship

dating back to WWII. Perhaps this monsoon

of pale green bugs is a blessing at my cheek.

I wouldn’t care if the kitten drew blood.

Insects have microscopic claws, and that’s how

this one is hooked to me now. It might be

she can’t let go. I’m just annoyed it’s never me

who finds the dead body that gets washed up.


Once, I recognized myself

in a glass door, walking out

as I walked in. They say we share

sixty percent of our genes with

bananas, which explains

the bruised hump of my body

sitting in this chair day in, day

out. Ninety percent similar

to the rat in a water

maze, fur slicked to its forehead,

paddling toward despair. Scientists

measure how long it takes the rat

to discover there isn’t any way

to escape. Did you know

an infant rat will giggle if you

tickle its tummy? We truly are

the cruelest species. I, for one,

am getting on a plane before

we have destroyed our planet

so much the turbulence makes it

impossible to travel. I want to see

Vegas where a thousand

water fountains erupt with

colored lights mathematically

choreographed to music. I’ve

already bought tickets, even though

last week there was another

flood in the streets, and I’ve seen

the video of a man riding

the current, clinging to a pool

floatie in the shape of a turtle.

He gives the camera a thumbs up

before turning to look toward

a bend in the road. People

are laughing. In another

video, inside the casino,

blackjack tables are lily pads.

Perhaps my doppelgänger

is there, her curls sopped

heavy at her shoulders, huddling

by the stairs. This wasn’t the

payoff anyone was expecting.

If there is a ledge hidden just under

the surface for the rat to stand on

so she doesn’t drown, and where

she gets her sweet puff of cereal

as reward, the water is

too cloudy to see it.


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