Angela Veronica Wong, how to survive a hotel fire, [press & date]
Reviewed by Tony Mancus
A hotel fire would effectively empty each of the rooms rented nightly of all of their living inhabitants, at least temporarily. Whether or not one survives such a debacle, given the alarm-level of the fire, depends on escape routes, varied depths of sleep (assuming it is at night, when most alarms are set to yowling), alarm effectiveness, how much one longs for life/love/etc., foreign sign recognition (given location), and other varied factors. Most cases of hotel fire, though, simply account for disruption within a space that already provides a readymade rift between a person and his or her living patterns. In the case of how to survive a hotel fire by Angela Veronica Wong, the speaker in many of the poems is someone who seems inordinately comfortable with the psychological space provided by hotels—she seems to be a near-permanent inhabitant of a location that's fused to the notion of distance and impermanence and loss. To her, these things are facts which aren't imbued with excessive sentimentality and that is a huge plus.
Early in the second section the speaker states:
Every time I feel I've lost something I
throw plants over my balcony. I don't
watch just listen as they hit the sidewalk
showing this feeling of loss being compounded by a loss the speaker creates - she tosses a living thing out and awaits the sonic repercussions. But that is only if the lines are read as sentences building a story, and fortunately this is and isn't storybook. Wong's linebreaks are well wrought. And here, if we take the lines on their own the speaker is losing herself, losing the 'I' each time she feels she loses 'something.'
This is love, not love, this is anything. And we don't need to know what it is exactly, just that she feels she's lost (both "it," and herself). In the second line the speaker throws plants over her balcony and refuses the action almost immediately, taking into account the full stop of the period. She then gestures to the reader to "watch" by joining her as she listens to the smack of the plant on the sidewalk. And if we read that line as instructive, it shifts us from the hypothetical and routine into the immediate here and now of a plant explosion. This is a template of sorts for the work Wong's lines can do throughout the book. She relies on plain-spoken language more often than not and the narrative unravels into more than its neat contents removed and placed before us, as if from a suitcase. It is in this second section where we get to witness the compounding acts the author takes to deepen our grasp of the speaker. After defining "sundering" on p.22, we see her:
I show up in a leotard and pink shorts
and bring a suitcase full of water. (23)
The suitcase is a useless thing, but it's full of what we're mostly made of and it can fight most fires well, a vessel for putting out.
The first and final sections consist of single poems. The first section establishes the longing that folds and morphs and transforms the seemingly steady "I" inhabiting this book. There is an other in this piece who's absent and valued, remembered precisely because of that absence. It makes some sense to me that this collection comes after Wong's PSA award-winning chapbook Dear Johnny, In Your Last Letter, a book full of serially titled poems framed around the notion of the Dear John letter. The fire that exists in this book is one that may have started there. One stoked by coming back to it again and again, like memory. The final section is a very underwhelming fairy-tale - and intentionally so. It undercuts the notion of the romantic ideal that much of the book grapples with and in choosing the fairy-tale form does so within the genre that has helped to build so many wildly destructive expectations around the finding of the perfect other. In Wong's version, the princess's outcome hinges on her knowledge of others' use of chopsticks for eating rice - an act that is self-sustaining and decidedly unmagical.
What the author turns to in the third section yields a bit less and it feels less habitable than the rest of the book. Wong builds distance by switching to third person and relying on center-aligned poems (not that there's anything wrong with that, just less visually appealing than the blocks and lineation she'd used in the previous and subsequent sections). The material here is dampened for me by the mythic tone struck in the titles, though this might well be prepping the reader for the turn at the end of the book. The intention here seems to be in keeping with the character/speaker, but while traversing the arc of an ill-fated relationship inhabited by "she" and "he" it feels like the author is almost too aware of the moving pieces and what routes they're supposed to travel. Here Wong does manage to capture people's damp intentions and the implied physical and emotional distance associated with well-maintained and easily transportable/transposable props and people. It may just be the fact that these pieces are the most literally narrative out of the entire book and the most startling stuff seems to happen when the author is busy with subversion.
Serving as a direct counter-balance to the third section, the fourth is the most image-laden and sleep-addled, it is also the most violent. Aptly, given the content, it seems like we've stepped down into the speaker's subconscious here. And with that move, Wong has returned to the block-text form. It also appears that when most constrained by physical space and formal limitation—often, in this collection, at least—her poems become more acrobatic. Or it could be that the physical compression of the form that she's chosen makes the leaps more apparent. In any case, this section creates space for the reader. The world here accretes rather than being wholly handed over.
The title section is full of poems steeped in the body. This series is outwardly the most sexual of the collection, though I'm uncertain about whether or not it is the sexiest - a move the author notes in an interview earlier this year in Coldfront where she describes her first collection of poems, "...As loud as they are, and as brash, and self-deprecating and maybe even amusing, are about vulnerability almost more than they are a fuck you for not loving/wanting/needing me. They're about the bruising that leads to the bravado." And we see this bravado most clearly in this series of poems.
Throughout the book both the narrator (an assumed stand-in for the speaker in the third and final sections) and the speaker rely on plainly spoken statements, and often simple sentence construction, but how these seemingly straightforward narrative structures are strung together decidedly alters their impact. As a reader, I'm much more drawn to the moments where the logical connections are less apparent—for instance, among the title series there is a plainly spoken meditation on pornography on page 83. This piece does bear some humor in its directness and the fact that it deals with presumptions around porn, it seems to serve more as a bridge between what comes before it and what follows, with both of those pieces contain more startling images and less strict linearity of thought.
While there are some less arresting pieces throughout the collection, the majority of the book contains material that will catch you up in its smolder and sway. The sections, on their own, are very well crafted and feel like separate rooms that we're being shown - where we can pick things up and test the walls. The book almost calls for a linear read-through so we get a proper view of all of the exits. Reading it this way provides rewarding accumulation, both in terms of understanding the author's craft as well as the headspace of the speaker. Throughout, format and layout are wed to the content in a way that really makes this book feel cohesive and whole. It is a well constructed building and something very good to hold, something that will withstand the fire it contains and something that yields more and more of itself upon return readings. If I were splitting up with a fire and had to grab a handful of things to cart with me, this book would definitely not be something I'd want to let burn.