The Burnt Hotel by Olivia Macassey.
Pokeno: Titus Books (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
The Burnt Hotel is Olivia Macassey’s second book of poetry and contains three sections of ten poems each. Part one, ‘Come and play with me’, is resonant with memories and an inability to not remember ‘the things you are afraid you will dream about’ (“Playing with the Boys”). We are confronted with the grim realities of decay, broken relationships, un-belonging and regret, yet the poetry is lively and unsentimental. It is lyrical and fresh, full of surprises, mind play and investigation. The poems present to the reader, as in a film, narrative and imagination in such a way that we wonder where truth starts or ends, and fantasy begins:
can be strangers on the train we
can be ghosts in the wind and I can tell
you all your secrets if you insist
(how your hand shakes over that coffee cup).
There are people who won’t come
out until midnight, people who want you
to make them cry
so they can watch themselves doing it,
people who can live so they can watch themselves
watch themselves. (“Playing with the Boys’).
and the intriguing:
‘and I’m still here, looking in the mud for your eyes,/ just as children we used to uncover/ the faces of the painted fish on our bowls, suffocating in fried rice,/ just as adults we uncover/ a blue smile, a hopeless arm beneath the blanket, a story.’ (“The fish / the bird”)
‘”Other people’s lives”, starts with upbeat and rhyme:
‘Look in the bathroom and see what you’ll find/ lipsticks or Valium or just wasted time’
and cleverly turns dark:
‘The pavement knows all our feet/ (and the drunk teenagers vomit behind walls, and the man in the park/ pisses sitting down, his back scraping a tree he can’t/ stand up now)’.
“About that Monk” counterpoises the ‘violence of dedication’ with non-aesthetic imaginings – cynically, thoughtfully. “Sub rosa” is intricate and fascinating with ‘fat pale folds of insanity’.
Part two, ‘So dark inside the wolf’, focusses on beliefs. From various angles, Macassey examines fables such as Cinderella and Little Red Cap; poems, song lyrics and commonly held ideas about the body; and chocolate, religion, etc. with often sinister, sometimes amusing, results. The poems display energy in approach and language; each reading reveals more, showing what can consume us. Take, for example, “Otesanek”, which begins:
I’m worrying about the monsters under the house.
I’m trying to untie that beautiful knot we had all agreed upon
the one that is a serpent, swallowing its tail.
The quickest way to a man’s heart
is through his stomach, and as for love
can it be this – the thousands of papercuts made against the sky
by the short needled pine? I went all the way to the end of the beach
asking myself that famous question.
But we were haemorrhaging that year, epistemohaemophilia, nothing
was that clear, except the sky
and even that wasn’t watching, well not at first.
He opened his mouth and this gave me the opportunity to slip inside
and start to unravel things.
This poem finishes edgy and sinister yet palatable with rhyme. We are seduced, as in fairy tales, by comfortable language despite the dark themes, being scared to believe:
‘follow the blind, look through the gaps/ lift up the latch/ and swallow them whole.’
“The evil of chocolate” and “Annunciata” are lively with humour and give light to this section which may otherwise have seemed too dark. We read: ‘Virginity is still better than power: it’s doves versus battery hens.’ (“Annunciata”)
Part three, ‘The night he went sleepwalking’, encompasses nature, something of the big picture, and we still wonder where the boundaries are. Sights, signs, experiences and thoughts juxtapose and converse and when we finish at the last poem, “The burnt hotel”, it seems an excellent metaphor for nothing, even our thoughts, enduring. It ends:
‘I remember the night my life caught fire./ It burned for eleven hours it was/ beautiful in an unbearable way/ and when it was over there was nothing left.’
The Burnt Hotel is a remarkable book. First glance evokes a warmth with its cover glowing orange and then we find the first two pages are black, blank, ember-like. It is intriguing, fantastical and packed with wonderful writing beautifully published on quality paper by Titus Books.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.