Reviewed by Amanda Auchter
Hotel Almighty, the debut collection of poems from Sarah J. Sloat, begs the question: how does one overcome — and even embrace — misery? Sloat writes, “think a / bizarre / thought // bring it / in like a child” (5). It is this concept of bringing in bizarre thoughts from both poet and source text — in this case, Stephen King’s Misery — that gives this collection a raw, emotive freshness that many erasures often struggle with.
Erasure poetry has become increasingly popular since Mary Ruefle’s slim collection, A Little White Shadow, was published by Wave Books in 2006. Wave Books later launched a feature on their website that enabled the curious to build their own erasures using interactive source material.
This type of poetry has been around far earlier than 2006, of course, but it’s really been only in the last decade and a half that the form has gone more mainstream, regularly appearing in journals and entire collections, such as this one.
What sets Sloat’s Hotel Almighty apart from other collections of erasures is the attention to art and graphics embedded within each poem. This brings the work alive even further, giving it a depth that simply inking or crossing out often fails to do. In the introduction, Sloat notes that “The physical pages resembled miniature canvases, so I added a visual element that let me defy the constraints of the source text further, with stitches or a strip of fabric, with confetti, or most often, collage.” Each page of this collection is indeed a surprise that surpasses the expected constraints of erasure poetry.
Collage, sketches, ink, paint all make an appearance in this debut to add mystery to some poems, illumination to others. The poems work alone as limited prayers or insights — or as Sloat notes in her introduction — an abandoned “binding narrative” free to “let the poems be like couplets in a ghazal, elusively connected.”
It is the elusive connectivity of these poems in which the reader can build meaning upon. Each poem is presented as ephemera both in context and visual scope and serves to heighten the emotive and intellectual experience. For example, Sloat’s erasure on page six visually depicts a black and white sketch of a tree wrapped in red stitches standing outside of a building. The poem is then diffused (erased) down to the spare essence of a type of misery: “the sound of the wind / filled / the phone / squeezing into the / line / like / a / nerve awake / at night.” The misery here is the pain of distance, of the inability to connect with another. And again: “my mind. / was / like being dead, / Everything / shrank away / sleep, / the wind / No / ship to come in no boats / at all” (55).
Aloneness and isolation are themes that fills this collection, which is not surprising considering the King source text. However, Sloat takes these themes and formulates them into a meditative, often surreal experience. Images of flowers growing in different towns, of sleep existing as a circle that will not come, of God moving downhill (and presumably away from the speaker) all serve to create tension within the reader’s own experience of this work. This tension builds successfully through the collection to create a world where the speaker “picks” their way back from the abyss “like / an artist / going to / sketch the ruins” (25) and where “thousands of / impossible / flowers” are equated with laughing (46).
“If I / could be / A dim shape / slumped over / and round / Would that be so bad?” asks Sloat (13). Misery often manifests in Hotel Almighty as a question of purpose, of desire to be something else. Guilt is “a Rat-catching job,” (29) Sloat says, adding to the narrative buildup of the often destructive internal landscape humans carry. The idea of memory, of nostalgia, is described viscerally as “an axe coming down” (63). It is the mutability of the internal life presented in these erasures accompanied by the collages of empty boats, a minute telephone hanging from a finger, a chair without a body, a forest of dark trees, and hands reaching out that brings power to this often strange world.
There is also desperation, here. “Joy / would / crawl over / broken glass if that was / the / way,” writes Sloat. Operators stand by as hours pass as though waiting for something new to happen (27), long moments can “weigh as much as fifty pounds” (30). Waiting for something to happen — a phone call, a response, a bottle of champagne to be opened, tenderness that has been collected for the winter, all give promise for something better to come, as a way through the misery.
The poems in Hotel Almighty are every bit as image rich as the collages and ephemera that surround them. Part of the joy in this collection lies in its beauty of innovation, but also in how the fragments of erased lines create their own perfect narrative. This is a book to be enjoyed, but moreover, one that challenges reader experience and expectations. “Erasure, like all found poetry, is a process of discovery and reinvention,” Sloat begins the introduction. Hotel Almighty is a profound work of reinvention — from King’s pop fiction to a hybrid work where houses grow wild with flowers, where one asks hell to “subside a little” (42), and where the reader enjoys every minute of the bizarre, vivid, delightful journey.
Amanda Auchter is the author of The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry and the 2012 Perugia Press Book Award, and The Glass Crib, winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming at The Huffington Post, CNN, Rust + Moth, Mulberry Literary, and The West Review. She lives in Houston, TX.