Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Margaret Bashaar's Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel

Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel  
by Margaret Bashaar
Blood Pudding Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Margaret Bashaar's second chapbook, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel, is an unforgettable ride through a landscape that has frozen in time one particular summer, seen through the eyes of two young women, Mary and Claire, and the man or men who inhabited this space with them at a time when their lives were altered.  The space in question is a haunted hotel in a "dead coal mining town" in which the only attractions are seedy bars, cemeteries, junkyards and abandoned train stations.  It's Bashaar's intensely original, erotic lyricism that reanimates the denizens of this haunted summer and makes us care about them.

The chapbook, from Blood Pudding Press, is an object of art visually as well.  Mine was bound with soft purple ribbon to match the fleshy-purple marbling of its pages.  It's always fun to open a chapbook from this press to see what flutters out:  in this case, a delicate blue heart and a sexy, creepy little booklet.  

"Sexy" and/or "creepy" can describe a lot of the poems here, though many are also tinged with notes of shame or wistfulness at the memory of a certain kind of loss.  Others affirm the strength of a survivor who has absorbed the power of the once-powerful entities she has eluded or defeated.

In "The Girl Who Lived at the Hotel," Bashaar writes of Claire, "When she tries to remember a name, the feeling/ of sun on her neck, her throat is suddenly open./ Water spills out of her mouth and it is the remembering/ that loosens her joints, makes flowers bloom in her palms."

Mary, "The Girl Who Kept Secrets," is as hermetic and self-determined as Claire is spontaneous and vulnerable:

She gets a hold on everyone she meets,
fingers gentle hooks, folds up tiny boxes,
whispers into all of them the secrets she can't keep.
She ties them up, stacks them to the ceiling in her closet.
She's six deep by now.
She holds the answers to questions under her tongue
before she breathes them into boxes,
before she learns how to forget them entirely.

In "The Unmaking," we are introduced to the mysterious figure of Claire's lover, the demon hunter, who "... wraps around her wrists and he pulls her along,/ he pulls her along and her feet barely touch the ground./ They go up the hill, up over the sidewalk,/ the stones,/ up to the water tower, up to the cemetery in its shadow/ and he leads her between the headstones and it is dark and it is cold."

In "The Leaving of It," Claire begins to slough off the influence of the haunting, viewing the hotel now from a more distant vantage:  

She is half way home from where she balled her fists and prayed
for a garden three years ago, but she was something else then, 
a linen thread, an unlit candle.  Her lover told her she was in his walls,
that she was a part of him he could not carve out and she did not believe him.
She is still not certain if he handed her an apple or a peach,
if she's been tossed out into the ocean like a caught fish
or if she is still on a boat somewhere, gasping,
but she has gasped so long she no longer remembers
what it is like to breathe.

But in the next poem, "Claire Visits the Old Hotel," she is drawn back to the place:  "... She could never separate/ these dark rooms from the summer/ and summer went to hell/ with its honey wine and monkey breeding."

It's Mary who makes a clean break with the hotel in the poem that follows, "Baleen."

... She laid the road out in
front of her and drove and drove until she came to an ocean that gnawed the
land with foamy white teeth and she waded out into the surf with the cat in his
crate in her arms, lifted him up over her head as the waves rolled over her, and
when she was shoulder-deep she dropped the cat into the water and he was, in
and instant, transformed into Eden's whale, fur sucked into his mouth for baleen
and Mary startled only for an instant.  She leaned against his bulk.

She pushed him out to sea.

The cycle's longest poem, "Meditation on Ichthyosaurus at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA," leaves the setting of the hauntings and their aftermath and speaks to Mary/Claire's growing sense of universal awareness, but perhaps there is an allusion to the demon hunter here as well when Mary/Claire addresses the ancient marine reptile:  "I have eaten you in every lifetime and yes,/ you have devoured me and now/ I stand here and we are both bone and we/ are each monsters the other could not quite imagine."

In the poem that follows, "Claire writes a letter to the demon hunter upon learning about the God Dimension," Claire seems to make peace with the situation that "There is no shaman,/ no road woman,/ no man reincarnated/ 14 times with hands/ dry as old paper,/ no surgeon,/ no vow that can root out/ the sliver of the hotel's wall/ I carry under my skin./ My heart has grown around it./ I think of you/ when I realize this."

The poems in this chapbook are variously sensual and introspective, mysterious and candid, vaguely lurid at times, yet always captivating.  Like Bashaar's heroines, her readers will find it difficult not to return again to the haunting landscape she creates in these poems and try to understand just what happened there and why they can't seem to forget it.

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