Lisa Gorton: Hotel Hyperion

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2013, 50pp.

Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion is about as tightly organised as it is possible for a book of poetry to be. In a sense, with the exception of a couple of poems in the last section, the whole (small) book can be read as one long poem whereby what seem like the author’s obsessive themes are worked at from different angles in different sequences. To make the book even tighter, the movement from one sequence to the next enacts one of these obsessive themes: the way in which, Chinese box fashion, rooms open onto other rooms which are eventually seen to contain images of the first.

In the book’s first poem – part of a short sequence about the exhibition of artefacts from the Titanic – we meet a replica of the Titanic’s hull “half- / sailed out of the foyer wall”. I say “we” as though we were static observers in the poem but in fact the audience itself is moving, tickets in hand, into the fake ship. There is a lot of emblematic staging here, both in the exhibition and in the poem. The subject of the poem is those objects retrieved from the wreck of the ship, each now cocooned, museum-style, in a perspex case illuminated by a single light. But the poem’s interest is not so much in the objects themselves – ie as icons of a past time, or past tragedy or past culture – so much as in the way they serve to symbolise how items can be retrieved from the world of dream or the world of memory. It is as though they each are examples of Coleridge’s flower – dreamed of in a trip through Paradise – which, on waking, the dreamer finds in his hand. The emphasis is, in other words, on the movement from one world to another: past to present, dream to reality, memory to consciousness.

This initial sequence also lays out the crucial axes of the poems of this book. The ship’s fake hull “moves” horizontally into the room of the exhibition but the objects have been moved vertically up from the “solitude of the sea” (to quote Hardy’s great poem). In the last poem of this sequence there is a reference to rain, something shared by the concluding poems of the book’s other sequences:

It is raining as I leave  - 
long rain breaking itself onto the footpath,
breaking easily into the surface of itself
like a dream without emblems, an in-drawn shine.
Overhead, clouds build and ruin imaginary cities,
slow-mo historical epics with the sound down,
                         playing to no one.

Whatever this ultimately means – is the cloudworld the world of the larger, determined, processes of history? – for the moment I’m interested in the fact that this is an image on a vertical axis depicting the world in which we live as a fluid horizontal plane, intersected at right angles by water. Rather than being a world of grittily real and retrievable objects it seems a world of fluid and temporary formations, a “dream without emblems”. I’m always interested in how poets figure the way other worlds break into our own especially whether they come from beneath, above or from the side and there is a lot going on in the intersection of the horizontal and vertical in these poems. There are the staircases: the middle two poems of the sequence deal with the Titanic’s actual staircase under the water whose iron curlicues are mimicked by the festoons of sea growth which slowly accrete, but there is also a reconstructed staircase in one of the exhibition’s rooms. The latter is an oddly unreal reification, based on a photograph and, of course, leads nowhere though the poem suggests that it might lead to “the house of images”. On its landing is a clock stopped at the moment of the sinking, “that minute / history pours through”.

This first little sequence is a kind of vestibule for the book itself positioning us, if we read it carefully, in a kind of endless museum or exhibition which will contain objects stripped of context and drawn from worlds of dream, memory and perhaps others. The rooms housing these objects are themselves subject to irruptions (as in the case of the ship’s fake hull) but these will be on a horizontal axis. Above the museum is the world of macro-reality which rains its processes down.

The second sequence of Hyperion Hotel or, in the way the book is conceptualised, the second room which we enter, is a set of poems devoted to an eighteenth century device for determining (actually, for guessing) weather at sea: the storm glass. The idea behind this object is that external weather (air pressure or temperature or presence of lightning) acts in an unknown way on a solution sealed inside a glass jar to produce patterns of crystallisation which can be interpreted and thus provide some sort of forecast, especially important for shipping. Even by this stage of familiarising ourselves with Gorton’s interests, the significance of this machine is obvious. The storm glass is a kind of miniature site in which the external is captured, though the process by which the external erupts into the sealed world of the storm glass is unknown (much as, I suppose, the way reality enters dreams, and vice versa, is not understood, despite many, by now venerable, theories).

The first poems of this sequence describe the glass and answer the obvious question – what is the inside/outside to be allegorised as: reality and the poem, macro political life and the individual, the world and the soul, etc? – in a slightly surprising way by invoking ethical life. Thus the “clear spirit” develops a crystalline pattern that recalls “a Jamesian / treasury of scruples, or that more formal vaulting of remorse”; another poem speaks of “fantastical ambition”, “colours of obduracy” and “a structure of feeling / in place of thought”. Finally the sequence steps into a literal room:

A Storm Glass belongs to winter rooms,
to where a reader, like the picture of a reader,
comes to the last page and looks up ”“

Inside this room the weather makes patterns through the window, there is an antique clock in a glass dome (stopped, of course) and a child looking at a book containing reproductions of Mantegna’s “Triumph of Caesar” which serves, in Hotel Hyperion, as a recurring symbol of objects torn from their context and presented as in an exhibition and, because Mantegna’s paintings are in a sequence, they represent the way a continuous experience is reduced to a set of still images, to “animation stills”, as this poem says of the way a storm glass represents weather.

The title sequence is a piece of science fiction. It seems likely that part of the way this book is organised is as a set of refractions of its themes and it might well be intended that we are to see the Titanic exhibition as representing the way objects from the past are retrieved and displayed, the storm glass sequence as representing the way the present is continuously turned into crystal structures and the “Hotel Hyperion” as being about the way future objects become displayed. In a book as ferociously organised as this one, this wouldn’t be unexpected. There is another attractive structuring device in this third sequence as well because the first poem appeared in Gorton’s first book, Press Release, as one of three “Sci-Fi” poems. In other words, an item from a different context is injected into a new book and encouraged to develop its own sequence just as the undersea staircase in the Titanic accreted living festoons in keeping with the pattern of the original iron curlicues.

The series begins with a mother farewelling a child setting off, in hibernation, to begin a colony on Titan (the moon of Saturn whose name, interestingly, recalls that of another ill-fated ship which has already made an appearance). The story that develops quickly leaves this near-future narrative behind to leap centuries and focus on a collector of objects from failed colonising expeditions, such as the Titan one. The collector’s objects – which include the frozen ship of the Titan expedition, complete with its crew – are fated to appear, like everything in this book, in an exhibition, here in the sinisterly named “Futures Museum”. There is a great deal of emphasis on the sealed rooms in which the collector lives – the second poem begins with “In truth, the history of space travel / is a history of rooms” – and the way in which reality is transmitted through fake windows which are actually screens “fed from outboard cameras on delay” making reality (in an allusion to the lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream) “my own, and not my own”. The final long poem of this sequence moves from the collector even farther into the future and focusses on a guard in the Futures Museum and performs that modulation present in the first two sequences of moving the poem into areas of memory and personal experience. The guard thinks of the objects on display as being like the “animated stills” that one sees when watching a train fly past on a level crossing and this connects with actual, remembered experience – “I am waiting at the crossing gate / in rain so soft it is an easing of the dark . . .” The second of the three sections of this poem moves from the guard watching a film of a rocket taking off, shown on a continuous loop, to the experiences of childhood itself, as though what was a gesture in the first poem becomes a definite movement in the second. He (or, more likely, she) speaks of the land around the crossing for trains as

                   . . . the dispossessed place -
along the side of the house, in the dusty underness
of a jasmine arch, wherever sour ground was
netted with dank weeds – where I called things mine
                   because they haunted me.

The entire sequence ends, Chinese box fashion, with an exhibit which is a diorama (“because out-of-date technology / endears lost futures to us”) of the Titan colony and includes a tiny figure of the Collector going about her business. She is carrying what will become a relic not of the settlement but of her own life: a snow-dome of a ship at sea.

With “Room and Bell”, a sequence of six prose poems, we enter, as Paul Hetherington notes in a review of this book in the Sydney Review of Books, the world of Bachelard’s influential Poetics of Space. The room, a site of childhood illness, has now been removed in a process of renovating but it can be recaptured if the speaker closes her eyes when walking into her mother’s house. The way childhood orientations form the co-ordinates of our later way of interpreting the world, forming an “architecture of memory”, is the basic text these poems explore but they work hard to integrate into themselves the obsessions of the object-collecting, context-investigating poems of the earlier parts. Thus the room is inhabited, as it was at the end of the storm glass sequence by someone reading a book and the collector’s snow-dome of the “Hotel Hyperion” sequence also reappears:

. . . . . I hear again the stream which ran once where now the garden is. That imaginary sound underran all my hours in that room just as, now, the memory of that room underruns alike my images of home and my desire to collect things closed in glass – For, holding a Snow Dome in my hand, watching the last glitter settle on its plastic ship and backdrop waves, I recover the experience of that hour when, folding down a corner of my book, I watched the leaf-shadows turning over on the ceiling and claimed as my own those freedoms founded on retreat.

The central issue here is whether the “Room and Bell” sequence is an autobiographical core which the three preceding sets of poems have refracted into different genres – respectively exhibition theory, exposition of a technological oddity, and science-fiction narrative – or whether it is simply another formation of this group of obsessive concerns and images.

I’m not sure what the answer to this is but the book’s final section might give some clues. This seems at first to be a group of refreshingly discrete poems but the themes of the earlier four sections do re-emerge. In “Freeways”, for example, we can see the interest in the child’s perception of spatial arrangements “I remember freeways, / from the back seat of my parent’s car”. In “Homesickness”, a poem about an English artist’s saturating an entire flat with copper sulphate solution so that all surfaces are impregnated and crystals grow over the entire “house” we can see not only the growths on the Titanic’s staircase but also that process of transformation that inevitably recalls “Full fathom five” from The Tempest (quotations from which introduce all of the sections of this book in yet another level of intense organisation). “The Triumph of Caesar”, the last poem in the book, allows Mantegna’s work (significantly a series, designed for a passageway, and focussing on objects of Caesar’s spoils on their way to a new context) which has recurred steadily throughout Hotel Hyperion, to have a poem of its own. And, first poem of this last section, “The Humanity of Abstract Painting” is a more compressed meditation on many of the images which the book develops elsewhere at length:

                              Afternoon rain on the windows,
bare rooms stilled with light – an idea of the house
                     that had always haunted your life in it,
          as if to say This is the machine of the present.
                    It reinvents experience as a daydream . . .

What, finally, is one to make of this intriguing book? One could point to it as an example of the way in which themes are likely, nowadays, to be treated in a poetic sequence rather than a single complex lyric. Cynics might see this trend as the result of poets’ producing longer poems to act as entries in the various poetry prizes but I like the way in which a group of obsessions can be approached, probed and incarnated from a series of perspectives. It seems a technique which has the virtue of retaining the complexity of the material while giving the reader a better chance of working out what it means to the poet. Yeats’s “Byzantium” is a wonderful work but it requires a lot of background information before it can begin to make any sense at all. Today it would be written as a series of related pieces about historical processes, the second Rome, rebirths, spiritualism, dolphins . . .

Another issue with Hotel Hyperion is the “readerly” experience. Not only are the poems so ferociously organised and so tightly held in position that it is a wonder they can breathe at all, but sometimes you feel that it is a wonder that the reader can breathe. I suppose this is the experience of all highly formal works of art: one part of one’s brain is registering the material and responding to it while another part is looking at its formal complexities. It is wonderful to explore the elegant complexities of the “Room and Bell” poems or to follow the complicated plot of the title sequence but the reader never has any doubt that this reading is a precisely defined quest. There isn’t much opportunity, as there is in some kinds of poetry, to relax and inhabit suggestive images and eventually reconfigure them inside one’s own experiences. Just as the “Hotel Hyperion” sequence ends with the Collector leaving a room, snow-dome in pocket, when you luxuriate in the complexities of a book like this, you know that, at the end, the author will have been there before you.