Review: Habeas Corpus by Cindy Hochman

Arthur McMaster, PQ Contributing Editor

Habeas Corpus
by Cindy Hochman
Glass Lyre Press
Paper, 2015, 27 pages
ISBN: 978-1-941783-02-3
Cindy Hochman knows what makes a memorable poem—fresh use of language and captivating imagery, of course, but equally so “that certain something.” Poets have found several answers to this challenge. The early Modernist e.e. cummings gave us brilliant nonconformity. The late Brit poet John Betjeman did insouciance better than most, while his near-neighbor Sylvia Plath offered much the opposite, in confessional angst. If innovation is the coin of the realm, and to me it is, our own William Carlos Williams played gaily with what he called “sprung rhythm.” For Hochman that necessary something, and in her case that delightful something, is the double entendre.
Habeas Corpus (Latin, You have the Body) is more than a collection of its parts, although that is the oh-so-clever woof and warp of this tender little volume. Not to put too fine a point on the drawing power of human anatomy, but they are evidently her own parts. Talk about personalizing one’s work! What we have here is rather an Incredible Journey from the eye of poet as cancer survivor.  While not a few of these poems tell a story of Hochman’s own survival, it is survival writ large that intrigues her.  And that is where the common place becomes compelling.
Let’s look in on one of the first in this delightful book, where Cindy Hochman tells us: “I’m alone in my womb.”  Here is the poem, “Legs.”
Back when I was ether-eyed and doe-legged, back with my Buddha breaths and a little pastel heart, back with my unruly mop of wild wheat hair and unholy mess of wild thoughts, back when my home was the porcelain throne, back when I smelled the sea-spray and foam, back when I had a quick-trigger tongue, back when I was not so wound up and not so wounded, back when I’d fall down on my sweet knees and say god bless these moon-thin legs, jack-knifed and splayed, with no spider veins—my precious legs in assorted beds.
Surely these are the thoughts of anxious poets. We love to remember days past, don’t we? Proust made a career of doing so. Cindy’s elegant, wistful streams of consciousness, Remembrance of Things Past grace most of the book.
Her poem “Fingers” pays homage to Sylvia Plath, noting Plath’s poem, “Cut.” Consider this from Hochman’s prose poem’s core: “. . . Did you lose your finger in the war? I lost mine at Niagara Falls. When he slipped that lethal ring around my golden finger, it turned a mad blue. If I snap my fingers will you come? One finger on the pulse and one on the trigger.”  Later she finds: “Fingers strumming my imaginary guitar, dialing my imaginary lover, counting my imaginary dough.” The tone throughout blends a kind of wisdom, a world-weariness, juxtaposed with welcome. She is a generous poet.
History and politics are never far from Hochman’s mind. And her poem “Mind” is truly a tour de force. “My mind is a minefield,” she begins. Later “. . . my mind is not mine.” Or with reference to American history: “No butterflies or inkblots — just bullseyes and firing squads, the battlefield at Gettysburg, and the occasional cigar. My mind is an electric chair at the moment of jolt. My mind is the great executioner and I am its last meal.”
In the poem just preceding that comment alluding to our nation’s fascination with violence and death she points her American sonnet directly at one of the great political criminals of our day, Dick Cheney. Here are a few select lines from “Heart.” Note that the tag line appears in italics in each instance.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart. To replace the one he was missing at birth.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart.  So he can triple bypass the abject poor.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart. It has no left atrium and no left ventricle.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart. It has four fully loaded echo chambers.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart. It ticks like a weapon of mass destruction.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart.  With a sticker that says I Heart Haliburton.
            Dick Cheney got a new heart.  It beats like the one in The Wizard of Oz.
Her work is prescient; it is fun. It can be demanding and off-key, off-book. The little lady tells it like it is.
I will end with a few lines excerpted from her final poem in the book, “Full Body Scan.” Consider the mood, the self-reflective admonishment: “None of my wounds are superficial. Burned fingers, bullet holes. Gash, gauze, guns. . . .” Later she adds, “Electric shock/electroshock. Epinephrine. Next of kin. . .  Code Blue, Code Red. None of my wounds are superficial (am I dying for my art?) Tell me: Which is the nurse’s button? Which is the nuclear button? Which is the panic button? I think I shall make an exquisite corpse.”
Such is the stuff of lean, clairvoyant poetry. This is the poetry we all need to survive.