Review: A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, by Adam Clay

The poems in Adam Clay’s A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World listen for clarity in the constant noise, the constant static, of time. Like someone who refuses to press the scan button on a stereo, the poems turn the dial one click at a time so as not to miss one clear word from a channel that comes and goes. Paradoxically, the poems listen by speaking. At the edge of the world, only language can build a bridge back into the world, but one must pay close attention because language can also build a bridge to nowhere; as the speaker of “Natural History” tells us, “The tree is a metaphor for something, as is the creek, as is your sightline.”

“Sonnet” asks, “Do we wish / for words and then they come to us? Do we wish / for words and say the opposite of what we mean?” It seems that one can answer “yes” to both questions. At the end of the poem, the speaker declares, “I would not and will not touch you / before we find a word to settle between us.” The settling word provides the medium through which the speaker can touch you. Almost all of the definitions of “settle” seem to apply in this line. The word comes to rest between the speaker and the you of the poem; it clarifies by causing the dregs of dither to sink; it establishes an agreement between the parties; it quiets and calms the implied tension between the speaker and the you. Perhaps most importantly, it secures a moment of order in the chaos of time. The poems in this collection seem to search for these moments by waiting for them in language.

While language has the potential to end alienation—at least temporarily—in “Sonnet,” it further alienates the speakers elsewhere in the book. In “Last Bread Crust,” “You are in a cage / ten feet above…and nature acts / as though it does not see you.” The speaker of “The Last Horse” desperately tries “to perceive something sacred / in the heavy air drifting up and out and away. // But there was nothing holy about the intangible.” The speaker of “Song” is “a line from Whitman knotted in itself.” In the twelfth section of “As Complete as a Thought Can Be,” the speaker alludes to but twists Buber’s theory of the formation of subjectivity: “Sometimes when I think you/ I am thinking I.” In “Recalling an Earlier Snow During a Present Snow,” the snow “always sets [the speaker] down somewhere else,” estranging him from the present. In “A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season,” you “are filled with the need / to document something, // as if the act of documentation will assure you / that you exist.” In a world where “[e]verything was, and everything wasn’t,” language serves as the only means of transportation, bringing us closer to the world and carrying us away from it at once.

“Myth Left in Memory” measures the distances of language. The speaker admits to “always fleeing something” and being “a part of a conversation / that gazes a bit to the left.”  After deferring to “what the stars say,” the speaker tells us of an oar that “disrupts the water” and “turns this creation myth / on its head, pushes the blank-faced narrative toward the river, / turns it over, sends it // back out again.” This sending-out leads the speaker to ask, “What is worthwhile? A narrative / such as this, tied into something greater?” The line break after “narrative” suggests that a narrative—any narrative—is worthwhile, but the poem continues with a warning against solipsism: “A narrative such as this, tied into itself, // might bring the head / of salvation on a platter.” These lines resonate with the line from “Song”: “a line from Whitman knotted in itself.” As long as the narrative spans outward, it has the potential to connect the speaker to the world, but when it turns inward, it isolates the speaker, leading ultimately to the implosion of the hope that language offers. The poem concludes with this kind of implosion: “What I once thought I knew has turned into noise and light.”

However, “noise is never / born to be itself,” the speaker of “As Complete as a Thought Can Be” tells us. In “Natural History,” “nothing…has a name.” This namelessness produces noise. In “Reaching for a Lexicon, an Apple No Longer Shining,” we find the speaker “renaming everything in the kitchen, // everything that already has a name.” These lines recall Wallace Stevens’s search for a supreme fiction. As I understand it, the supreme fiction requires one to perpetually return to the level of pure sensation and reconstruct a relevant fiction based on those sensations; however, the fiction obsolesces as one constructs it because the sensations change, so one must constantly “rename” the sensations. If one could stop time and motion, one could perhaps discover truth, but because time and motion never stop, one can only create a fiction that will suffice. As Clay writes, “when one is busy / renaming, there is only representation.” Representations crumble easily, but they constitute our only way of entering a world that exists in perpetual motion. Illustrating this process of creation and destruction, the speaker of “Light Bulb Hum” says, “I see myself in the flicker / and swell of burning out. The sound of a bridge // being rebuilt. A spark for good luck. A bridge / on the other side of the world / falls in on itself.” This is a world always under construction. In the lobby of the hotel at the edge of the world, one can talk the world near, but it flees from those words as quickly as it came to them, so one must always talk, always listen, to keep pace.

A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, by Adam Clay. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2012. 96 pages. $16.00, paper.

Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2007. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Caketrain, Double Room, The Fiddleback, Phantom Limb, and Spectrum, and his reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and other journals. Jordan currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he teaches English.