KT Herr reviews Sarah J. Sloat’s Hotel Almighty

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Hotel Almighty by Sarah J. Sloat

Sarabande Books, 2020

86 pages, $19.95

Review by KT Herr

Captivity, Negotiation, and Balance in Sarah J. Sloat’s Hotel Almighty 

I’ve loved Sarah J. Sloat’s visual erasure poems since the first time I came across them in a 2017 issue of Dream Pop Journal. Upon learning they were part of a larger project, I kept an eager eye out for subsequent publications. Over the last three years, I’ve returned to them frequently, taught them in classes and workshops, and carried their quiet whimsy like a poetic tuning fork in my figurative pocket.

Which is why it struck me as especially perverse that, upon receiving my much-anticipated copy of Hotel Almighty––which recently garnered a New & Noteworthy mention from The New York Times Book Review––I found myself unable to sit down to it. I fanned the pages like a flip book, letting my eyes spin with a flux of text and color. I rubbed the bright cover with coveting fingertips and pressed my nose to the spine; all standard courtship rituals with a fresh book. But two unfortunate side-effects of this unusual year have been, for me, both a fraught relationship with basic reading comprehension and an irrational terror of dashed expectations. The very excitement that spurred my anticipation also skewered me with foolish anxiety.

I dithered. I postponed. I tried and failed to read other things in an effort to cudgel my brain out of its frozen state. I had a nightmare in which I wrote this review without ever opening the book, and was banished from Poetry forever by a stern panel of frightfully indignant and disapproving editors. Then I came across Sloat’s magical Spotify playlist promoting her book, and through the brilliant back door of musical beguilement, my anxiety cracked open. The playlist consists entirely of Beatles songs covered by other artists––the utter, perfect congruousness of which finally sent me flying into Hotel Almighty’s resplendent pages.

I should add at this juncture that, until this fall, I’d never read Stephen King’s Misery, from whose pages the poems of Hotel Almighty were culled––or, for that matter, any Stephen King whatsoever. As a rule, I avoid the entire genre, being of the general mindset that there is enough horror in the world without inventing more. But I’d decided that, in order to do justice to this review, I would need to read it––which task, it seems to me now, was the true shepherd of my anxiety, and not Sloat’s text at all, with its sumptuous promise of delightfully perverse image, incisive composition, and nimble syntax.

For those who wish to enjoy Hotel Almighty without undergoing the psychological rigor of reading Misery, be assured that this is entirely possible. Moreover, I urge you to assess your mental state carefully before embarking on King’s novel. Particularly in light of this year’s peculiar challenges, the toil of getting through it was not insignificant. I will say, though, that my respect for what Sloat has accomplished with her collection was significantly elevated by an intimacy with her source material. 

Ultimately, I opted for a sandwich approach. I read Hotel Almighty first, my eyes so famished for its pages after their long, anxious paralysis that I read each poem twice or three times in a row; then Misery, begrudgingly digesting its harrowing ordeal of incapacity and solitude; then finally, Sloat again, newly cognizant of the full freight hidden behind each page’s artful occlusions. 

The poems of Hotel Almighty are largely composed in a sub-genre of erasure poetry most frequently referred to as “blackout poetry,” wherein poems are crafted by leaving a small selection of words unmodified on the original page. The text around them is then either partially or fully obscured––using mediums such as marker, crayon, collage, thread, white-out, or paint––or cut away, as is the case with some of Sloat’s pieces, revealing visuals placed behind the page of source text and leaving the desired poem as the only remnant. 

Sloat speaks to the synergy between the plot of her source text and her composition strategy in the book’s introduction, saying, “in line with the theme of confinement, I limited each erasure to one page and left it in situ.” This phrase—in situ—has haunted me as, along with so many people, I continue to shelter in place, protecting myself and my beloveds through self-isolation, while around me half the country parades to restaurants, bars, weddings, and sporting events in a wholesale rejection of shared reality. 

Hotel Almighty––the book itself, and the project of the book—reflects a sort of synecdochic prescience with regard to events of this year, and to the pandemic in particular. From the source text’s grueling saga of physical infirmity in captivity to the practical constraints of composing these sorts of erasure poems, synchronicities abound. And while Sloat acknowledges in her introduction that, in light of her existing constraints, she made no effort at a cohesive narrative, the poems of Hotel Almighty nevertheless dwell unequivocally in a shared interior world through which the shifting specter of a speaker wanders. Late in the collection, one poem declares, “the / spirit. / moved on in spite of everything, seemingly independent of / a / plot,” and this untethered but nevertheless processional gesture captures perfectly the book’s overall manifestation.

Sloat’s speaker is at once ephemeral and certain; a ghost moving through the walls. As one poem confides, “the itch let herself in / again. and / again,” and that itchiness, that sense of return and revisitation, invites a sort of precociousness into the text. There’s playfulness, too, in the moments when Sloat tips her hat to the rigidity of her constraints: at the end of one poem, a dangling “s” is scooped from the line below, in what is almost the afterthought of a plural; in others, commas and semicolons enact an almost breathless pause after a poem’s final utterance. 

As a reader, I’m left with a pervasive sense of containment balanced by negotiation and piercing vision; a captive speaker nonetheless gazing avidly into chamber after chamber of the world. Each poem is like a room in a dollhouse, or a tiny diorama of a hotel, the various appointments of which the speaker’s observations engage. In her essay “On Erasure,” Mary Ruefle writes, “we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don’t know or haven’t experienced,” and the logic of these poems seems to employ a sort of peering-in, peering-out, and looking-around consistent with that partiality. Something persistently there, which functions as a necessary counterpoint to that which is not.

And of course, perched below and above and betwixt the text is the fantastical yet gorgeously restrained imagery of Sloat’s unmistakable, quirky collage, which often balances what might be an ominous constellation of observations with wry, whimsical visual commentary––or vice-versa. A smattering of red confetti and a small image of an outdated telephone accompany the oddly foreboding “The hour passed. / Operators Were Standing By.” Elsewhere, a page covered in striated images of seemingly pained human forms features the impish “I had to gust around New Hampshire, on a small donkey.”

At the risk of sounding superstitious and overly effusive, it feels true to say that Hotel Almighty cured my pandemic- and tragedy-fueled reading anxiety. Haunted enough to suit my mood, curious enough to tease me out of it, semantically sparse yet lush with vibrant illustration, I find myself soothed by it almost as a child is soothed by paging through a favorite picture book. The oeuvre of Sloat’s images, too, sends me back to long childhood hours spent tagging along after my antique-dealer mother as she searched stall after auction table after box lot for inspiration and unexpected bargains. If something can be both nostalgic and patently fresh, then this book sits immediately at that intersection. 

There’s so much more I could say. I could laud Sloat’s instinct for texture, her knack for pairing the aesthetics of text and image. I could revisit Sloat’s brilliant Spotify playlist, and enthuse about how the mechanisms of covering a song parallel the process of creating erasure poetry. I could wax occult about Hotel Almighty executing erasure-as-divination, a way of letting a suggestion tease out “whatever it is that’s making that / wonk-wonk inside.” I could divulge my plan to order a second copy of the book, with the intention of excising pages to hang on my walls as art.

But rather than elaborate on those things here, I’ll simply offer them as a selection of amuse bouches, to sweeten your anticipation of—to quote Ruefle again—this “absolutely marvelous” collection.

For more deliciousness, sit down with a recent interview or book review from The Indianapolis Review, or find more information about recent publications and the poet’s previous five chapbooks at her website.

Bio:

KT Herr (she/they) is a queer poet, songwriter, and curious person with work appearing in Barrow Street 4×2, Frontier, Dream Pop, and others. KT currently lives in Massachusetts on occupied Aquinnah Wampanoag land; teaches remote poetry classes; flirts with neighborhood skunks; and regularly abandons corporeal form.