I’m making myself write this review because all my attempts to explain Ava Hofmann’s work to friends fail and I end up just saying, “You have to read it. You just have to read it.” Her latest chapbook, MY MY SUMMER OF TOTAL FFAILURE published this year in 2021 by The Offending Adam, is no different with these generously woven, sheared, and mended visual / comic poems. These poems vibrate, swirl, and swoon, bringing the reader missives from the depths of a visual jukebox at the edge of the speaker(s?)’s intimate impulses, urges, and interloping thoughts. These poems probe at productivity and gender with rightful nihilism and apprehensive whimsy.
I had a hard time not projecting my own 2020 summer onto this collection with a title like “MY MY SUMMER OF TOTAL FFAILURE.” The overlapping images, texts, textures, and drawings create a sense of anxiety and occupied tension that characterizes vividly how I felt isolated in a pandemic with multiple mental disorders. The more I read though, the more I began to create my own system for approaching the pages. First, I read the text in the most “average” Time New Roman-ish fonts, and then, from left to right, I took inventory of each little neighborhood of the poem—asking myself how each element worked with its adjacent parts. In this way, I think what Hofmann is doing uniquely captures a spill of consciousness in a way that hasn’t been charted before. In the poem’s complex schemes and linkages, I appreciate the ways even more disordered and often cumbersome minds create maps of meaning like these.
It’s impossible to talk about the theme of productivity in this chapbook without also considering the ways Hofmann’s work explores and makes a legible “process.” These pages are full of crossed out and blotted out words and images—circled phrases and layered commentary which demonstrate a shifting creation. That in itself to me seems like a message against the fabricated fallacy of cohesiveness produced in a lot of mainstream poetry. I don’t think Hofmann is the only one considering this either—I’ve noticed rising anxiety of the “I” in the poem. I’m thinking about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the questions the speaker poses about “I” and “you.” Hofmann in the same conversation but approaching it with different devices. In some ways, the dense and layered form speaks to the idea of productivity—there’s an urge to take up as much space as possible and say everything. On page 9, the largest text reads, “today i did nothing” and then the left-aligned text ends with the phrase “communism now.” These messages paired with the form suggest the complicated relationship between creation/ creativity and production. Is there a distinction? Where is the distinction? One of the most important aspects of Hofmann’s work is that it surfaces these questions through its unique elements—hands the reader a needle and thread and asks them to sew. Don’t mistake this for some wishy-washy “whatever the reader interprets is true” statement, but there is something collaborative in these pieces which has something to do with Hofmann’s use of the connotations/ archetypal qualities of the images and phrases she invokes.
Looking specifically at language in the chapbook, the repetition of words like the “My My” from the title was a detail I latched onto, grappling with the book’s voices. These feel like human-cyborg glitches. Another example happens in the first panel. The line reads, “to unhook completely and there is something like like information stored. grueling task of. pulling threads of out.” The “like like” also kind of sounds like someone processing or searching for a thought. The second panel features the profile of a woman’s face, an egg, and two petri-dish-like shapes; then throughout the panel are texts of various sizes and fonts as well as lines and shapes written over the lettering and images. Similarly, in the second panel, one phrase, “stunted little stunted stunned animal: my you” creates a kindred experience of mouth-stuck words. Then the “my you” after the colon probes the divisions between the speaker and others. This is a theme throughout the book—a curiosity about the self in proximity not only to others but symbols and instructions. On that same panel, watermark words read “a cross out sun” and “myself” further layering the theme of “self.” The poems leave me curious about what it means to create these distinctions and what we can learn from our edges of “self.” Hofmann is undoing those borders and looking at the frayed and overlapping territories.
Images do similar work to create a quilt of image-word communities. The poems’ elements intermingling makes me question if it’s really right for me to even separate the words from the images in my analysis—in Hofmann’s work the images are a language just like the alphabet. On slide five, I found myself drawn to the image of a forlorn-looking dog on one side and the outline of a man with visible lungs and heart on the other. A black box is over the man’s eyes and bold black lettering across his chest reads, “YOUR LUNGS / FAGGOT.” In the dog, I find the “shame” echoed in the left-aligned text, and in conversation with the lung-man there feels like there’s something about queer writing and being vivisected; cut open for readers to peer inside. The ornate water-mark type lettering on this panel reads “New Air” and this complicates the lungs for me. I’m curious about queer/trans breathing and assembled bodies.
I could and probably should write a whole separate essay on gender in Hofmann’s writing but to be succinct—these poems are also charting the relationship between trans body, history, and gender. For instance, in panel 10, there is the phrase “girlhood is: FREEDOM FROM HAVING A BODY.” The panels also include a gun and a detailed daffodil sketch that suggests genitalia—this is a great example of how Hofmann is using associations to suggest and point towards ideas like sex and still leaving room to also unpack those images themselves. In another panel, panel 15, the bold words, “BE A MAN” hover near an image of two men wrestling and the even bolder text “buggery.” These moments to me feel like a speaker or speakers echoing with all kinds (sometimes derogatory) snippets or sound bites about trans and queer people—they’re kind of like intrusive thoughts in that way and speak to the ways we’re woven with all these colliding threads about sex, gender, and sexuality even as queer people.
Each time I read MY MY SUMMER OF TOTAL FFAILURE new snippets and phrases stand out to me and complicate my initial reading. My interpretations here feel far from a complete delve into this chapbook. As I said in the opening paragraph, you have to read it! The experience is akin to viewing “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder—more brilliant terrors are around each turn.
AVA HOFMANN is a poet and writer currently living and working in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A visual poet, her experimental and multimodal work concerns itself with trans/queer history, Marxism, and the frustrated desire inherent to encounters with the literary archive.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Young Readers. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.