Poetry Review: Dark Illumination in the “Punk Hotel”

Poet Rob Cook bends time and space at will, dispenses with natural laws when convenient, and shuffles sensory perception like a deck of cards.

Last Window in the Punk Hotel by Rob Cook. Rain Mountain Press, 158 pages, $12.

By Vincent Czyz 

Discussing William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge explained that Wordsworth was attempting

to give the charm of novelty to a thing of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the … wonders of the power within us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity … we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and minds that neither feel nor understand.

He anticipates by exactly a century the 1917 essay by Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in which Shklovsky outlined a concept now known as defamiliarization: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult in order to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” What Coleridge called “the lethargy of custom,” Shklovsky called “habituation”—you get so used to things you cease to notice them except in the most basic way. My point is not that Coleridge headed off Shklovsky at the proverbial pass; rather, that both men arrived at a similar aesthetic understanding—one that Rob Cook seems to have taken as a guiding principle.

Cook’s collection, Last Window in the Punk Hotel, originally published in 2010, was reprinted this year by Rain Mountain Press and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. I’m surprised—it should have won. Something bigger in fact. This is the kind of poetry that torches Coleridge’s “film of familiarity” and leaves it a cinder-black negative whimpering in a corner. It startles dreams with their own colors and slaps routine out of your day. While it might loosely be referred to as “surreal,” it’s not a towering heap of non-sequiturs (as the late John Ashbery’s later poetry tended to be), nor do you need to send in saved-up box tops for a special decoder ring to enjoy it. Rather, Cook bends time and space at will, dispenses with natural laws when convenient, and shuffles sensory perception like a deck of cards.

“Tenement Pastoral” asks you to imagine a man “who looks/like a giggle wearing/a fedora.” In “Children of an Infinite Albany” wind is replaced by “sentimental herds of static/cleaning exxon [sic] spillage/from the sky.” In another poem a radio is “an electronic hideout”; in another, a tree is “shaped like stilled lightning.”

The way many of the poems are organized is straightforward enough. “Bureaucratic Copy for Good Temps” details the demeaning conditions under which clients of temp agencies are forced to work. “What We Don’t See Crying on Our Plates” is an intensely visceral argument against eating meat. “Whole Foods Pastoral” challenges the sanitizing of food production and retailing while questioning what such an upscale establishment is doing in the underfunded East Village. It ends on a characteristically desolate note: “maybe one person walks home softly so none of the sky disappears.”

Cook lives in the aforementioned East Village, and many of these poems are written about his neighbors, who include Asher, the fedora-wearing giggle: “From the bottom of the building I hear them,/the two bothers living together/close to hatred for almost ninety years.” Herman, the other brother, is “A man holding hands with cigar smoke.” Old age, exhausted possibilities, and poverty have trapped the brothers in their rut of misery, but the other characters who surface in these poems are no better off. There’s nothing Bohemian or romantic spilling out of Cook’s building or to be found on the cross-hatching of streets and sidewalks around it. The poems are unrelentingly dark—Hopperesque loneliness winds through them like smoke from a cigar Herman left burning in a stairwell—and yet Cook works enough literary alchemy to make them compulsively readable.

One of the stand-outs in this collection of outstanding work is “Third Street Pastoral”: “It’s always late at night,/that hour when the television watches whatever’s fading in the chair.” It ends with “On the wind can be heard/a planet of one squirrel lost in a stairwell.” The beauty of such endings—such lines—is that they are untranslatable. The final image in particular conjures up a sense of futility, confusion, and entrapment, but the poem says it without saying it, which is what the best poetry does.

Dense and varied, the collection also includes prose poems and short stories. I’d like to reprint in its entirety “Nights to Which Most of the People Disappear,” an example of the former, but in the interest of conserving cyberspace, I’ll settle for a few lines:

how close to evening it is. […] how close the expensive popular kitchens are to disappearing in the direction of the closets at the bottom of a puddle where another city was discovered. How close it is to the shining of cars underwater, the galaxies of the west side highway, minor office towers and the taxis moving past in sheets of anger and fatigue and fish memory.

Perhaps Cook didn’t feel his short stories qualified as such, but if that’s the case, I’d disagree. Lyrical and episodic, the narratives are shot through with black humor. Many deal with the hazards of meeting for a date or an “intimate encounter” through personal ads, and the typical awful surprises are in store: “Why did I come here, I thought to myself. She was hideous. She looked like a man and had blotches like leeches all over her arms and hands.” Another deals with the humiliations of temping (a mini motif). A few more of these tales could have amounted to a worthwhile collection unto themselves.

Cook’s work has appeared in some of the most reputable literary magazines—Caliban, Fence, Tampa Review, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, BOMB, Pleiades, Versal, Skidrow Penthouse, Wisconsin Review, and even the Best American Poetry series —to name a handful. He has authored several collections, including Songs for the Extinction of Winter (as finely wrought as Last Window), but he has yet to receive the public attention he deserves. If you’re not familiar with his poetry, with the dark luster of his worldview, take a seat in the disintegrating lobby of the Punk Hotel and wait. No doubt he’ll be along presently.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.

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