Poem of the Week | March 17, 2012

This week we’re featuring Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s previously unpublished poem, “The General’s Report.” Runner-up in poetry for our Editor’s Prize this year, Hoffman is the author of Sightseer, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize. A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she received her MFA from George Mason University. She is the recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Individual Artist Fellowship and has been a Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Center. Her work has appeared in Pleiades, Fence, and Mid-American Review.

Author’s Note:

The idea for this poem originated with a book from the late nineteenth century which contains a list of accidental cesareans such as a pregnant woman delivering her child by means of being “gored by an infuriated ox,” or in this case, being cut in two by a wayward cannonball. I encountered this text while reading for a larger manuscript, Paper Doll Fetus, which doesn’t shy away from glitches in human procreation, but this was certainly one of the most gruesome (not to mention unnatural) I had come across.

In troubling over how I could tell such a story, I became captivated by this character of the general and how he might tell it. In the midst of horrors on the battlefield, what must it have been like to witness this equally horrible but also exquisitely lucky birth? So although it contains a central defining event, I think this poem is really about its witness.

And if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, Chapter III in Gould and Pyle’s Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine makes for some mind-boggling reading.

The General’s Report

Over many months on the fields, I had come to know
intimately the sound the air made passing through
my horse’s nostrils, heavy air, air sprinkled with musket
powder, tang of blood that carried on the breeze
like a pollen and touched all men’s shoulders and multiplied
and was jostled between the feathers of the birds who’d found
the maggots they were looking for beneath the men’s
stiff collars and was shaken from the skies in their flight
so that everywhere we marched, the grasses had already
conceived of our deaths. The air was no good anymore
for breathing. I sat on my horse and looked out upon
the bodies as they struck the ground, arms free to indulge
in fits of undignified waving at the hills which were blind
to their farewells, legs stumbling like cowards
running from the bullet already in the chest.
And their limbs flailed above the skirmish
and the whole battle moved like a mythic creature
inching across the ocean floor, waving its hooks
and tendrils. And on this day, my eye wandered
to the edge of the trees where my men had dipped
their canteens in the cool creek the night before. Where
my horse had slept standing and unafraid. Where
as if my tongue had been a heart bursting open, the sweet juice
of chewing tobacco rushed my mouth. And on this day,
when I looked, there was a woman among the trees, white
skirt like a spirit, long as her body was long. She lowered
her bucket into the stream and though I was far away
I heard the crinkle of water folding into the small
dark place. There was a ruffle in her dress just beneath
her breasts, lacey like a chain of leaves in the fall eaten away
of all but its veins, its strongest delicate parts. I must have
gone deaf to the battle then for I heard the stirrup’s
squeak of protest as my eager ankle turned. It is not like
a man to notice such things, but when he is starved by war.
Her belly protruded with life, so sweet to see her
there, so swollen and hopeful, plentiful bucket. I simply
watched her stand, with perfectly balanced stillness. I may
have even made her from the bark of a pale tree, drawn
her lips from a leaf, except the grace with which she lifted
her hand and set it upon her belly I could not have conjured.
She looked out upon the fields where my army was
leaping and turning its ill-conceived ballet, and I wanted to
drop the curtain on us all, I was not entirely not a gentleman.
It is possible to be deafened by the sound of a cannon-
ball, not to hear its whistle between the trees, no man
able to report its landing call. I can tell
only what I saw. One minute, as I have thusly described,
a woman. And the next, I will refrain from describing
in too exact a measure, two women. One
with only the top of her body, her hair spilled
across her mouth. The other with only the bottom,
which collapsed at the knee and spilled
her belly into the water. Then I heard the splash
clear as day, even from a distance. My calves
squeezed the horse between my legs and the forest
approached me bounding, unsteady. We stood
above her and her eyes looked straight at us, no bashfulness.
The bucket sat on the ground unmolested, its water sloshing
about. Her skirts were tugged by the creek which wanted
to carry her body with it, which did not understand
stilled things. There was something in the water in a red sack.
I thought she had dropped something, some soft part of her
belongings. I reached in and the water rushed past my hand crisp
and stinging, a swift script of blood whorled at my wrist.
The thing moved like a fish tangled in a net. I pulled it
from the water and the blood dripped all over my uniform
I raised it and I looked and there I saw a human face,
so dimly lit as if it looked out at me from the window
of a small room on the second floor. I set it in the grass
and tore the sack with my knife water gushed across my knees
there was a baby’s cry. My horse raised his head.