Review: Paul Hetheringtonon Lisa Gorton

Haunted rooms: Hotel Hyperion by Lisa Gorton

Memory, imagination, dreaming, invention and protean makings: such preoccupations are at the heart of Lisa Gorton’s new poetry collection, Hotel Hyperion. This relatively short and condensed book returns again and again – one is tempted to say, obsessively – to related tropes and imagery: weather, mirrors, rooms, crystals, hauntings and strange effects of light. It consistently defamiliarises the familiar until one might believe that the unfamiliar provides the clearest lens for viewing the world.

The use of quotations from The Tempest as epigraphs for the book’s five separate, yet thematically linked sections signals a preoccupation with what one might call the rational magic of things, with connected ideas of illusion and reality, and the transformative possibilities presented by seeing and making art. The poems frequently foreground particular artefacts and scrutinise their significance. They provide views of existence that are often stilled, or at least distanced from immediate, quotidian reality. They examine how what is contained and apparently restrictive may effloresce with ideas of freedom. They posit the idea that human emotional responses might find their analogues in strangely beautiful and shifting patterns of crystals and weather. They explore ways in which we might begin to newly visualise the workings of the mind and imagination. And they ask whether the experience of aftermath may provide particular ways of knowing the self.

A number of the poems – especially the section of six prose poems entitled ‘Room and Bell’ – are reminiscent of some of Gaston Bachelard’s preoccupations in The Poetics of Space (1958). Bachelard writes of ‘how forcefully … [poets] prove to us that the houses that were lost forever continue to live on in us … as though they expected us to give them a supplement of living.’ He quotes Rainer Maria Rilke’s lines ‘Oh longing for places that were not / cherished enough in that fleeting hour’ and discusses how houses from the past ‘will appear from out of the shadow’ if ‘we have retained an element of dream in our memories, if we have gone beyond merely assembling exact recollections.’

Bachelard might almost have been referring to Hotel Hyperion in making such observations, so persistently do Gorton’s poems return to ideas of houses, the power and strange transformations of memory, and the significance of associated fragments. Bachelard even has an observation pertinent to this last aspect of Gorton’s work. He notes that houses do not necessarily come back to us whole and cites Rilke’s observation in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) that ‘I never saw this strange dwelling again … but [it] is quite dissolved and distributed inside me.’ Like Rilke’s lines, many of Gorton’s poems provide a poetic image of the past in which the fragmented recollection of a once solid reality is conjured again as potent images of mind and language. Houses and their rooms may be lost, yet they can be recreated as impressionistic assemblages of detail and feeling – almost phantasmagorical and full of yearning and mystery.

Here is one of Gorton’s ways of addressing the subject:

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.
(‘The Humanity of Abstract Painting’)

The first sequence of poems in this book, entitled ‘Dreams and Artefacts’, immediately leads the reader into a consideration of how museum displays do not show us the original thing – or certainly not the original thing in the original context. Instead, they often offer re-creations that are simultaneously like and unlike the thing itself, and in this they begin to look something like the functioning of memory and dream:

Patiently, ticket by ticket, a soft-stepped crowd
advances into the mimic ship’s hull half-
sailed out of the foyer wall, as if advancing into
somebody else’s dream –

They might be mine – at least, things loosed
from a dream I had, off and on, for years.
They have suffered nothing, these things raised
from a place less like place than like memory itself –
(‘after the Titanic Artefact Exhibition’, I)

The motif of dreaming also figures strongly in the second poem in this sequence, in which a staircase from the Titanic, ‘festooned’ by growths and erosions from its immersion in the sea, ‘returns / to the conditions of dream’. In another poem, rain is ‘like a dream without emblems, an in-drawn shine’. Gorton seems to be suggesting that it is the moment when the usual workings of human time cease – when ‘history pours through’ (‘after the Titanic Artefact Exhibition’, III) – that we are allowed access to strange, potentially salutary and chastening perspectives about existence. What’s more, these perspectives are partly the products of containment in time and space, and of aftermath. They are the result of an understanding of experience that is derived from artefacts of history and knowledge, rather than quotidian doings.

These poems about the Titanic defamiliarise the known by emphasising the oddities of memory, and the way memory approximates a kind of dreaming. They also highlight the way in which history, museology and art recast, still and isolate many phenomena we would otherwise hardly notice. Even the weather is seen to be creating its own strangeness as ‘clouds build and ruin imaginary cities, / slow-mo historical epics with the sound down’.

The book’s second section is a series of meditations on a storm glass. For those unfamiliar with this apparatus, a storm glass is a mysterious predictor of the weather – a glass container sealing in a mixture of ingredients that form patterns of crystals, apparently in response to changing weather patterns. The storm glass may be best known among students of history for its use by Admiral Robert FitzRoy when he accompanied Charles Darwin on the second voyage of HMS Beagle – a voyage instrumental in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Gorton’s interest in the storm glass is not so much historical as poetical, although her opening poem in this sequence briefly makes use of FitzRoy’s comments about storm glasses. For Gorton, the storm glass suggests the mysterious, protean, magical-seeming changeableness of what we see and usually believe we understand – there is a reference in a poem to the idea that storm glasses were invented by alchemists. It also suggests even more elusive things, such as ‘a Jamesian / treasury of scruples, or that more formal vaulting of remorse –’. Lines such as these, which link the storm glass to abstract values – and there are a number of them in this sequence – draw Gorton’s consideration of this apparatus towards a kind of metaphysics of human emotional and intellectual responsiveness.

However, these poems remain to some extent elusive because the connections between the storm glass, the treasury of scruples and the vaulting of remorse are hardly teased out. Instead, like the storm glass itself, the poems revel in the self-contained alchemy of their transformations – and, in this way, Gorton invests the storm glass with a dynamic metaphorical life. Its ‘grottoes’ are ‘epitomes / of fantastical ambition’ and its crystals are ‘in colours of obduracy’, evincing a ‘version of tact / which gives volume to silence’. The crystals also have an ‘exactness peculiar to foreboding’ and a kind of contained, self-referentiality, ‘where images fold into images the way a child disappears / into the film in which she plays herself –’

This ideas of containment, self-referentiality and self-possession can be found everywhere in this volume – most obviously in the repeated images of mirrors. It is as if the poet wants her readers to step outside of their lives and into an immersion-experience with her art. She wants them to consider such matters as how a person may give ‘his whole life to become // his idea of himself’. It is also as if the storm glass is an analogue for the way human beings may address their sense of being – or even the way that they might live, if only their self-containment were ever complete.

The fifth poem of this sequence refers to Mantegna’s famous series of paintings, Triumphs of Caesar and, in this context, making and creating becomes a process of ‘wreckage / upon wreckage’. This reminds the reader not only of the poor condition of Mantegna’s masterpieces, but of the way in which the paintings themselves document the destruction of culture and decontextualise the numerous artefacts which constitute the trophies of war. Here Gorton seems to be contemplating the cycles of destruction and transformation through which art is built on the ruins of cultures that preceded it, and also how art, so much at the core of human activity and its transformative imaginings, is ‘uninhabitable’ – that art is extraordinary in its beautiful, contained remoteness from the quotidian, even as it comments and illustrates quotidian things. It is partly for this reason that the storm glass is characterised as a ‘book of hauntings’, because it seems to suggest so much that common sense would tell us has no place within its sealed container.

Hauntings, contained spaces and rooms are tropes that carry over into the book’s fourth section, ‘The Hotel Hyperion’. In this sequence, the reader is granted a vision of a future where a collector gathers artefacts in order to construct a history of space travel. The section opens with a poem from Gorton’s previous poetry collection, Press Release (2007), in which a mother pays homage and bids farewell to a child who has been chosen as a ‘Hibernation Astronaut for the missile “After Life”’. She speaks poignantly of absence and relinquishment:

                           Press release, my darling,
And do not sorrow. Do not once sorrow.
If you will think of me, think only of these years
I held your unfailing present in my empty hands.
(‘Press Release’)

The next poem begins, ‘In truth, the history of space travel / is a history of rooms’ (‘The History of Space Travel’) and is spoken by a collector of artefacts for a Futures Museum. At the end of the poem, the collector speaks of listening to the voices of the dead – ‘Whispers, pleas, accusation, prayers’  – and the poet, in presenting this idea, reminds us that all speaking is destined for either silence or, in rare cases, museum collections. The idea of what-has-gone-before, of the power and pathos of living-after-the-event, is taken further in ‘Screen, Memory’ – a poem in which the corridors of the Hotel Hyperion are so similar and its technology so dedicated to showing images of people inhabiting its corridors, that the whole place is like a shifting hall of mirrors in which reality and replication almost become one, and image and physical presence are hardly distinguishable.

The poem beautifully conveys the sense that memory is a series of small self-narratives taking place, as it were, in repeating rooms and corridors. It considers how much of what we know is a re-envisaged and re-narrated set of images and stories, through which recollection dynamically constructs our identities. Such stories and imagery tend to be so self-contained, persistent and protean that some have argued that while a person’s sense of reality and self cannot exist outside of the constructs of memory, memory itself – inherently unreliable as it is – reveals that there is no reality outside of its shifting, haunting mirrors. Gorton’s poems explore and quiz this perspective.

The poem ‘Settlement, Titan’ extends this idea, claiming that the glassed-in lives of settlers on Saturn’s largest moon, lack ‘the small, slant rain that is intimate / because it does not know you’. Instead, the settlers live in a pre-set, artificial environment in which everything is predictable – even the seasons. The voice of the poem remains that of the collector, who sees such lives as a kind of dream, cut off as they are from the never-fully-knowable ‘reality’ outside of constructed spaces, and who now begins to adopt that dream by virtue of collecting ‘things’ that belong to it. Another poem, Discovery’ ponders the wreck of a space ship, in which the dead passengers have a ‘filigree of ice’ on their skin like ‘the mechanism of a clock copied in snow’ – as if, in such an artificial place, reality might begin to mimic what has been made or, at least, be seen in its light.

Then, in ‘The Futures Museum: The Sleepers’, ‘life-cast figures’ seem to mimic the passengers in the ruined vessel, bringing ‘home the strangeness of things / being motionless’. These figures are encased in ‘counterfeit ice’ and, in the poet’s conceit, become ‘votives of a stranger’s loss / Of any stranger’s loss’. Here human life, questing ambition and knowledge are largely defined by absence and enclosure. And in the concluding poems of the sequence, hallucination, hauntings and memory merge into a crystallisation of elusive loss-made existence, as if the only measure of a person might be their afterlife and remnant artefacts. Finally, even the collector is gathered up in the museum she helped to create.

As mentioned already, ‘Room and Bell’ foregrounds many of this volume’s key preoccupations. In it, Gorton returns to some of the ideas and places of childhood that she charted so beautifully in Press Release. These are six prose poems about rooms – what people remember of them; how they are constructed in the imagination; how rooms remain charged with significance even when people leave them or they are demolished. The writing is subtle, proceeding quietly and suggestively. It considers a sick child using a bell to summon others to her room, and the notion that a vanished room continues to encapsulate the idea of a ‘retreat’ and associated freedoms; it presents a ‘bland, small room’ which provides a way of entering ‘the dream that a place is mine’. There are also rooms created through, or as an accompaniment to, the act of reading – imagined places that connect to a feeling of homecoming and the idea of an ‘architecture, which is built in us’.

The final section of Hotel Hyperion, ‘The Triumph of Caesar’, takes its title from Mantegna’s series of paintings, and begins with a poem, ‘The Humanity of Abstract Painting’, that reprises some of the themes of the sequence that preceded it. This is a poem about houses, rooms, mirrors, furniture, artefacts, rain, representation and memory. Another poem in this last section, ‘Homesickness’ extends such ideas into a consideration of how the artist, Roger Hiorns, pumped huge quantities of copper sulfate into a condemned flat, which within two weeks was ‘overtaken by crystals’. For the poet, this house becomes ‘like a work of memory’ and resembles ‘patience made into a way of life’. Then, after a poem that considers freeways, childhood journeys and run-down motels – ‘Paddocks going out ignorant as clouds, / country that makes nothing and is permanent’ (‘Freeways’) – there is a three-part ekphrastic poem that finds in Mantegna’s paintings – particularly Musicians – its main points of departure. It considers the way art and life intersect and are yet not the same; how art, like the artefacts mentioned earlier in this collection, becomes a ‘gesture of remembering’.

There are, if I have counted correctly, 29 poems in this dense and richly rewarding volume. They constitute a sustained and complex exploration of how outer and inner worlds connect, of how to approach and address what we see, of the shapes and disfigurements of memory, of the links between dream, hallucination, reality and being. They are replete with persistent, transformative crystallisations.