The title of Brett Fletcher Lauer’s debut collection—A Hotel in Belgium—embodies the aesthetics of the poems, a shimmering alloy of detail and abstraction.
The book opens with a frontispiece titled “Poem.” The speaker sets up some rules of engagement for what is to follow:
A poem is a “room made/ of chance.” Indeed, the collection is very much concerned with the idea of “chance”—both in terms of the arbitrary nature of life and in terms of the predetermined nature of privilege.
In a poem titled “Stockholm Syndrome,” the shape-shifting speaker is hard to pin down, switching pronouns, and distancing himself from himself with each new line:
Such a voice seems risky, even problematic, as poets don’t get the carte blanche of fiction writers, no matter how many times we repeat that the poet is not the speaker. Yet that moral ambiguity is also what makes the poem so startling, and the title “Stockholm Syndrome” has you forewarned.
“Work Product” also enters dissolute territory. The poem opens with the speaker “breathing heavy / into one end of the receiver”:
The “stranger” in the poem may either enjoy, or feel disturbed by, the voice “breathing heavy” on the other line. “Work Product” winks at gender by referring to the “stranger” as a gender-inclusive “he or she.” Beauty and surprise and intrusion all seem to blur into one another in “Work Product.” The suggestion of a telephone “receiver” here feels like a throwback, and that is one of the poem’s insights. I thought of Ariana Reines’s experimental play Telephone. Lauer similarly explores how technology can wreak havoc upon both consciousness and communication.
How does one write poetry when images are losing their meaning to memes? We can’t stop. We feel compelled to watch, and re-watch, say, a video clip of “a rabbit befriending a red fox / somewhere in Montana or Europe.” That’s from Lauer’s poem titled “The Collected Poems,” which continues:
I appreciate the humor here, and the new normal of hating the constant smart phone notifications, while also craving them like candy. There’s a merciless wit here, a wit the speaker also turns upon himself.
A Hotel in Belgium evokes Holden Caulfield’s yearning for refuge and recovery from shadowy traumas. The last stanza of the titular poem, “A Hotel in Belgium,” contains some of the book’s most luminous lines:
This moment emits a glow and feels like a break-thorough. “I must be a little horse” is a lovely line, humble and aching, all the more moving in contrast to the other, sharper voices.
In “Model Community,” the speaker turns his critical eye to a suburban utopia: “Filled with wonder and California weather, the historic/ architecture indicates streets worth walking.” Yet again, the speaker doesn’t spare himself, making the following admission:
He’s stuck in a languor from which he cannot rise. And that last image, “cloudless days our imagination required,” conjures up the traumas of 9/11 in a way that meshes with the remove explored in many of the poems. It’s a self-saving detachment that seems to define our time.
As Timothy Donnelly helpfully suggests, Lauer’s various speakers may be read as “one single melancholic hero.” Like the best kind of heroes, they have their foibles, which makes them all the more human.
A Hotel in Belgium is available from Four Way Books
Safia Jama was born and raised in Queens, NY. A graduate of Harvard College, she currently teaches writing and pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Rutgers-Newark. Her poems appear in Reverie, The New Sound, and the forthcoming Cave Canem 2010-2011 Anthology. She is currently a guest-blogger for Bryant Park’s Word for Word poetry series.