Thursday, February 24, 2011

I think about you so much

When I finished The Sleep Hotel by Amy Newlove Schroeder, I thought to myself, Man there are a lot of flames in here. The intersection between nature and human life seems to run as a solid thread holding the fragments of these poems together. My overall reaction to the book floated between indifference and being mesmerized, sometimes being struck by the breathtaking juxtaposition of stark images and clear purpose. Other times, I would get lost in the tangle of the seemingly overworking of these elements. For this response, I want to tease out the difference between the two types of poems I see in this book and why each strike me in their own way.

The first type, the ones that I particularly felt connected to, were shorter pieces, typically less than a page, consisting of fragmented associations and the brief collision of spiritual and/or sexual feelings and strong images. A poem like “Covet” combines a strong opening, quick slices of images, and a deep moral undertaking at the end, alluded to by the title:

birds fly when my neighbor tells them to
whenever she waves her hands

or that’s how it seems to me

when I think about her, in my lock box of gravel & sand

my clawed face, my scar
Sycorax cleaving the sprite into the tree

it’s a jeweled abandon, isn’t it being mean

so happy for you so happy so so

envy consumes itself

first the face then the hands the feet

The spacing and unraveling exposure of “the point” strikes me in this poem. In a way that reminds me at times of Michael Dickman, Schroeder lets go of her information at just the right time, choosing her timing, words, and space delicately to arrive at the physical consumption by envy. The line “it’s a jeweled abandon, isn’t it being mean,” rules because of its poofing out of “being mean.” In my writing, I force the issue too quick sometimes, if I even get there at all, often by holding my “point” in my head and slapping it down unpurposefully to get it on the page. (Side note: I love the first stanza so much for its combo of attention grabbing quality, image, and deeper meaning.)

A poem like “Sonic” has the opposite effect for me, unraveling in such an ambiguous way, that I never find myself moved in the manner the subject matter and presentation would suggest was the intention. Rather, Schroeder’s longer sectioned poems string me along, and when I was done, I didn’t really feel anything. The first two sections of this poem, for instance, illustrate that this type of writing is essentially fragments within fragments of a fragmented poem:

where houses used to be

now /
flight vapor


trying to see with the mind
or through the mind:

a lot of sex with him—no radiation

(if I didn’t love him
he could hurt me)

the streets became empty fields, but still have names like Buena Vista

doesn’t air speak
the same fluent language as water?

Typing out those lines, I notice the attempts at tension, like with the parenthesis or line length variation, and awesome lines like “the streets became…”, but it lacks the addition effect of the fragments in “Covet.” I find that these longer poems do not hold my attention or emotionally impact me. I have never written long poems until recently, and that is one concern I have: the sustaining of voice, style, and most importantly purpose. For this poem, Schroeder takes us to the last section where I’m still not holding much:

almost asleep but the birds are peevish

the birds don’t sleep
even under the drape of darkness

birdsong, not like bells but bell-shaped

I just wanted to see around it,
around the possibility of flight

chain link fence
diamond-shaped empty

O sound

hidden in the sea

While this section has more cohesion than the beginning, with a little more sustained in the form and in the interwoven idea, ending the way it does still keeps me from grasping the significance.

My point in this discussion is less about the goodness or badness of this book, but rather looking at Schroeder in terms of the variability of a first book. While on the page, many of these poems look similar, either of the two varieties mentioned, and the content has some reoccurring things, like fire, the method of poetic engagement varies greatly, everything from syntax and word choice to jumping between heavy description in one poem and abstract fragmentation in the next. The title poem, “The Sleep Hotel,” is one of my favorites from the collection, as it allows the image to do the work:

lights went back & forth in the near distance

Mars was supposed to be close
but I couldn’t find it

while my father slept
I sat, open-eyed, in a green vinyl chair—

watching tubes, monitors, joking nurses
who made the same jokes over and over,
wearing their brisk obedient clothes

when he woke I fed him
ice chips from a plastic spoon

As I’ve discussed before with Todd, my favorite types of poems are the ones that have qualities which allow the reader to simply enjoy them right away, like a compelling narrative (this one) or an energetic mood, but that also possess the depth to reward a reader for further reading and examination. This book shows examples of both types of poems, which illuminates my own difficulty sometimes of leaning one way or the other (immediate enjoyment vs. deep insight).

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