By Karen Corinne Herceg
There are two voices in Jill Hoffman’s latest book The Gates of Pearl. In many ways these voices both coalesce and duel with one another simultaneously. They alternate between Hoffman’s poetry and her mother Pearl’s poems and journal entries. Pearl passed away in 1979, but her voice rings through as if we were on the other end of the line in one of her “Telephone Poems.” The gates of Pearl open and close to a daughter whose love prompts her to explore and expose the depths of her own emotions by examining those of her mother. The book is somewhat of a call and response between two people who ponder relationships, the vagaries of life, and the frequently cruel circumstances of a shifting world. It employs dialog and monologue, inner reflection, plaintive outbursts and genuine moments of painful humor. Stark and brutally honest, we see that the umbilical cord stretches out infinitely while still binding us so very tightly to that maternal bond and source of a perpetually complicated symbiosis. It is fraught with the desire of connection and the need to separate. This conflict is evident in “Portrait,” a poem that aptly captures the dichotomy of the mother/daughter relationship, when Hoffman states, “Our one soul/haggles for hours/on the phone…” (P. 20, ll. 1-3), and in “Venus” observes: “…my small feet are your hands” (P. 33, l. 4). In “Mama Pyjama” Hoffman observes, “A pearl was set each year in my tail” (P. 38, l. 9), evincing a very tangible image and a play on words that endows “Pearl” with multiple implications.
Revealingly, Hoffman refers to herself as “Daughter of Pearl.” While it casts a shadow upon her own identity, somewhat sublimating it to her mother’s, it also reinforces the omnipresent legacy of deference we feel for that person who brought us into the world. Having come before us, we mistakenly believe they have resolved so many of life’s puzzles. We believe that, having brought us into this life, they have already conquered it to some degree and will impart their wisdom to us and guide us. We are certain to be disappointed in our expectations, for our mothers are human after all. We believe they will assist us in navigating the world, while they believe their child will be a new hope for overcoming their own obstacles and failures. Hence there is misunderstanding from the very start. Compounding this for both Pearl and Hoffman are distant, complicated paternal figures and husbands. Pearl’s narcissistic, absent husband, leaves her somewhat destitute in the wake of divorce and Hoffman feels the loss, too, but also the burden of her mother’s sadness. These stories are intricately intertwined, as seen when Pearl states of her father “…and you were writing my/story…” (P. 4, ll. 4-5) and when she pleads with her father to see her: “Look at me Daddy/Look at me” (P. 74, ll. 15-16. In trying to rein in her self-worth, Pearl cries out, “You are not the center of the universe!” (P. 27, l. 1). But while the mind comprehends, often emotions do not comply, and there’s an ongoing counterpoint in dialog of supplication and pleading and a desire for freedom and selfhood.
Parental disappointments carry over into adult relationships. Instead of cultivating self-worth, early wounds create romantic notions and unrealistic expectations of marital bliss. Pearl observes of Dostoevsky’s character Anna Karenina, “She gave up everything for love—even her life/I think I did the same” (P. 23, ll. 1-2). She dreams of movie stars from the past where she is the heroine in the stories, her ideas of love confused with fanciful, sexual encounters that only promote unreal expectations, being “…lifted up caressed and placed lasciviously on the petals” (P. 43, l. 7), of a literal bed of roses. The promises of a happily ever after life diminish in the wake of harsh realities we encounter in the unhealed wounds of our chosen partners. We sacrifice much of our goals and passions in exchange for illusory pursuits that only bring us back to confronting ourselves. Pearl vacillates between regret and acceptance of her decision to divorce, weaving the father/daughter relationship through her own experience as well as Hoffman’s. She declares:
I left Daddy I had been
divorced but I was
already crying sobbing
because it had been a
mistake… (P. 35, ll. 14-18)
She believes this because she already has her own child, Hoffman, and in yoking the two of them together states, “…you—or me—I was a child/who needed a father” (P. 35, ll. 21-22). And later in another journal entry she states outright, “…I met and married my Father” (P. 70, l. 18). The legacy of repeating the proverbial sins of the father threads through these words with biting veracity, although Pearl does have many moments of seeing through the veil of her whimsical hopes. In another journal entry she concludes, “My glass slipper shattered—so are my great expectations” (P. 46, l. 9). Hoffman combats this fate of magical thinking in “The Girl Who Laid Golden Eggs” stating, “This girl didn’t want to be told fairy tales; nobody, she said,/knew her life” (P. 66, ll. 1-2).
Pearl resorts to food addictions as a result of the many frustrations she experiences, eventually leading her to join Overeaters Anonymous. She struggles with this in her own thoughts, her journals and her support group. In a “Book of Pearl” entry she catalogs a litany of supposed transgressions much like in a confessional, listing all those she has “short changed,” including her husband, and adds parenthetically, “(even though he deserved it)” (P. 7, l. 5), and concludes, “I did not live up to my potential” (P. 6, l. 5). There is a bittersweet humor that seems to sustain her yet is mitigated by harsh circumstances she cannot seem to overcome emotionally or physically. Pearl pursues an unattainable impulse toward perfection that creates shame when she inevitably falls short of the impossible causing her to observe, “…my defects cause my secrets” (P. 15, l. 8). She also refers to secrets as “toxic” and wishes to share them in order to purge through truth.
Pearl explores familial connections among generations, her grandson seeming to morph into her own persona in a dream she recounts, and then into a desire to take back her husband as she asks God: “…is this your licking or saving me from it?” There is a nostalgic yearning for the familiarity of the past that is more hopeful than emblematic of truth. What is lost was never actually present. Pearl wants her “mate” to return, “Not as he was but could have been” (P. 32, l. 12), once again yoking her desires to an untenable reality. Pearl loses herself in unrealistic notions of the people in her life that extend from her parents to her children. In giving birth we relinquish much of the self. There is tremendous sacrifice involved in the proper care of a child that necessitates so much denial of one’s own dreams and passions. She states, “Another woman would offer her/breast—but I’m trying to cope” (PP. 13-14, ll. 26-27). Pearl wants to know when there will be time to take care of her own life, and as she moves forward asks, “Is this the beginning of a little self-love” (P. 11, l. 14). She sought comfort through food with obsessive swings between desire and deprivation. Frequently Hoffman defines their relationship through the prism of this omnipresent obsession and attempts to free herself from its oppressive presence. In “Pearl” she states, “…I have no shopping list” (P. 60, l. 2). Food references morph into various aspects of these women’s lives, deftly represented in their emotions as a coping mechanism and a nemesis. In referencing a cancelled appointment she is “…left in such a turmoil/you wouldn’t want a meatloaf made in/such a way” (P. 26, ll. 16-18). After another dream of her ex-husband, food mutates into sexual images, is served, but there’s nothing she can eat, concluding, “I go towards the icy box – holding out its frozen breasts and erect Penis to me/I go/towards its pleasures and oblivion” (P. 28, ll. 7-9). She concedes to a defeat of desires instead of any resolution to conquer the demons. The sense of loss overwhelms an impetus to move forward. In the final analysis, Pearl sees herself as not even worthy of crumbs stating, “…and even this was not permitted me” (P. 31, l. 8).
“In “Demeter” Hoffman describes the way Pearl prepared foods, almost as a work of art. Yet she sees she and her mother as “…each in our separate pomegranate chamber” (P. 25, l. 12). She vacillates between appreciation and resentment. In “Stranger,” Hoffman is clear about her own disillusionment with Pearl, despite her deep love and connection to her. She refers to her as a “stranger” and states:
Mid-journey, I turned around
to tell you my joy
at some trivial thing or other
and saw an old woman
talking to God on the phone
about the raw foods for her last
supper. (P. 47, ll. 7-13)
As the journal entries and poems progress through the book, we see Pearl slowly sinking while Hoffman struggles and ultimately rises. She has capability beyond her mother to express herself creatively and successfully. It leads her away from deference to Pearl into a realm of compassion and acceptance. Pearl says, “I desert myself” (P. 55, l. 9) and Hoffman struggles to avoid repeating this fate. In “Anonymous” she strives to move beyond seeing herself as an extension of Pearl, surrendering her “unguarded words” to her mother’s ear and concluding, “Ever have I been the jewel hung there” (P. 58, l. 13). And in the poem titled “Pearl” Hoffman has “Pearls in my ear and on my/cheeks” (P. 60. ll. 1-2). Pearl is never able to separate herself from her parental tethering even in death: “Home is where the cemetery is—where Mother and Dad are” (P. 64, l. 8). Of course we all carry our inheritance with us, but the self must strive to separate and stand in its own truth. Pearl descends into guilt and regrets, still craving her father’s approval even toward the end of her life: “Daddy’s gone now but I still feel the cry in my throat—Look at/me Daddy Look at me” (P. 74, ll. 15-16). She pleads to be released from the haunting thoughts that bind her to the past and keep her mired in destructive forces as she cries, “Leave me alone feelings of indecision, perfections, and no/compassion for myself” (P. 81, ll. 17-18). She also asks to leave her “feelings of rage,” but that is exactly what she needed to express in order to release her feelings and excavate her own life. Hoffman realizes this. In “My Mother Dreams She Is A Head Of Cabbage,” she speaks of her “…smiling/in her Elizabethan/collar” (P. 82, ll. 2-3) but she also sees her as “…planted/eyeless outside a window” (P. 82, ll. 7-8) and “…peed on/by a German soldier” (P. 82. ll. 9-10). Hoffman has her own justified rage at her mother’s inability to overcome her inner demons. They consume her in her inability to live up to untenable ideals that are, ultimately, cries to the parent asking if they will finally love us once we reach perfection. Pearl recognizes this but is unable to sustain it, noting how love was always a “bother” to her father. She writes to herself, “…You are loved Put down roots The tree will stand firm with roots/it might even send forth flowers” (P. 87, ll. 12-14). But she cannot absorb and sustain this in her psyche.
Hoffman works toward independence and integrity, and learns these lessons from watching her mother suffer while retaining a compassionate heart toward Pearl’s struggles. She misses her mother but misses more of the person Pearl could have been and says sadly, “People miss you” (P. 91, l. 14). In “Sorrow” Hoffman speaks of “…our penitential/rags/that we never change” (P. 95, ll. 3-5) but concludes:
And yet the light
comes in a way
and just the unfractured
with its dish of words
can get up when it wants to
and dance. (P. 95, ll. 7-14)
Hoffman gives Pearl the last word in the book, more resilient and hopeful, albeit from beyond the grave. She seems to be commanding herself as well as her daughter to “Get up out of your coffin and move your feet!” (P. 104, l. 1). Hoffman has offered us stark, courageous insights into an intricate, complicated and difficult relationship. She triumphs with her own “pearls” of wisdom and leaves us with an impetus for reflection upon our own parental ties and self-worth. This book is a true labor of love, fearless in its self-examination. Ultimately, Pearl’s gift is to show us the pain of life’s struggles despite her inability to overcome most of them. Hoffman’s gift is her authentic, intrepid voice showing us the way to reclaim the self through fierce inventory of our lives and an ability to triumph by walking that tough road.
You can find the book here: The Gates of Pearl
About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Schultz. She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Nirala Publications released her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, in November 2016 with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com