In the absence of in-person poetry readings, I’ve been seeking out surrogates for the sensation of really being there when a poem echoes around the room. I’ve favored chapbooks for their scope—transporting me for a few hours under a poet’s controlled intention. Zoom readings have provided some of the immediacy and kick of a real human voice (when the internet’s digital gremlins don’t degrade the reader into a kind of glitched-out android). Still, I haven’t found a way to feel like I’m sharing the experience with others, and in missing out on that, I’ve been missing out on one of my favorite experiences: that subtle hypnosis that takes over when a poem completely fills up a room and everybody in it.
I say, forget the mere suspension of disbelief. A really good reading suspends the listeners’ self-control, leading them where the poem wants to go, getting them lost for a while, leaving them someplace they’re not sure how they’ve arrived. It’s part of the magic of live readings, and occasionally a version of that effect manages to manifest on the printed page. Poets who make expert use of mantric language and lists or who lead readers down a slope of sly dissociation might just steal the reader’s very will.
Carine Topal’s “Pleasure Hotel” took over my entire sense of readerly direction in just this way. As the limited, repeating set of words in this poem made their paces through one deft transformation after another, I found myself far outside of my own head, seamlessly pulled wherever the poem wanted me. The poem’s imagery of smoke, rose, and moonless night shift with dreamlike logic from the concrete, “Smoke rose from the pleasure hotel” to the analogous, “burning hotel pleasure rose like smoke” to the surreal, “we face-to-face in the moonless pleasure hotel of smoke, yes, we rose and rose.”
The poem’s compelling imagery pulls a reader immediately into a minimalist but evocative scene. The rhythmic beat of the poem’s mantric language hypnotizes. All the while, the shifting semantics and syntax press intention and movement into that pulsing cadence without resorting to exposition. The cumulative effect is perfectly encapsulated in a prose-poem block that lets each sentence speak for itself while relying on juxtaposition to do the heavy lifting of propelling the reader from one frame of mind to the next.
Whether or not you’re trying to make up for missed readings, the entrancing drift of “Pleasure Hotel” provides a brief but haunting escape from the here and now. Give up a few minutes (and a bit of your self control) and let the poem take you where it will.
“Pleasure Hotel” can be found in Issue 84 of The Greensboro Review.
Michael Springer is a second-year MFA candidate in poetry at UNC Greensboro and Poetry Editor for The Greensboro Review.