I Am Never Not Singing: On Cynthia Cruz’s “Hotel Oblivion”

CYNTHIA CRUZ’S UNPARALLELED new collection, Hotel Oblivion, begins at the end of the body: “It is the body that leads me, though I always want to anchor myself in the mind.” The speaker of the 70 profoundly obsessive, hypnotic poems that span the collection, with often repeating titles such as “Hotel Letter,” “Fragment,” and “Refrain,” is principally the voice of the mind singing from within hotel rooms in Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin, and Belgrade. In the solitude of these rooms, the speaker engages with an array of Polaroids, magazines, ephemera, fragments, and memories, compulsively collaging them inside a “large crimson and silver scrapbook” so she may become “an empty vessel” and achieve her truest form. Advising her in this aim is Sabine, a repeating character in the collection who functions as equal parts pen pal, psychoanalyst, oracle, and double. Akin to the mountains outside of Dresden, which “are miraculous / in that they exist as strange / but beautiful chalk-like formations,” Cruz’s speaker longs to “arise from no place / like an apparition,” purging the self of these personal historical materials and reframing them into art as a way for the mind to transcend the borders of the body (as in the poem “Schöna”):

After today,
I am only an empty vessel.
A series of glass vitrines, endless
rooms, or an emptied out
archive. I will take everything in.
Collect, and contain, devour and swallow
every single bell of light and all
of your trembling cells of sorrow.
Here, even, now you can try it:
open your mouth
and feed me your vowels,
sweet in their magnificence,
radical and terrible.
Watch as I transform, then vanish
before you.

Because vanishing cannot exist without a witness — somebody, somewhere, who observes the performative act — Cruz enlists a “you” who functions as an audience member. In Hotel Oblivion, the reader is an active participant integral to the transformation that Cruz’s speaker undergoes. Of course, the “you” is also the speaker’s physical self, separate from the mind. As Sabine suggests (the speaker often addresses her directly), the general “you” appearing in the poems often mimics the fluctuating distance between the speaker and the art they are producing. Location plays an important role. The title, “Schöna,” is a train station in Germany. What the “I” and “you” mean to each other is never fixed — intrinsic to the relationship is movement, departure, emptying, and transformation. We see place expanding metaphor in another poem, “Hotel Letter,” when the “I” asks: “what was I / before I began.” The speaker contemplates where the self existed before her body came into being, and the reader bears witness to this hyper-personal beforelife that indicates the act of making and producing exists prior to mortality. In another poem, the speaker states she was “only a child, myself, when it began,” suggesting, too, that childhood is also a kind of beforelife and oblivion, perhaps one and the same.

The hotel rooms in this collection signify transience and entrapment, an unfaltering paradox that allows for the mind to live on in oblivion instead of being obliterated: “Changing, / the poems are becoming / letters or songs. / Making them is all I do.” Cruz’s “I” becomes the mind’s self, existing at the intersection of the body, the mind, and the making of art. From this perspective, the self, now unowned by the body and its history, is free to be its own archivist traveling on “the U-Bahn at night [carrying its] own damage — / inside the body — inside the mind —” reaching for its “own self-made language.”

It is through this self-made language that Cruz masterfully constructs the portrait of the artist in everyday life, in which art is both separate and inseparable from her. In the world of Hotel Oblivion, it is always both: “Empty vessel, I take all of it in, / so I can give you this thing.” The collection’s expansive cast of references includes poets, philosophers, filmmakers, writers, playwrights, actresses, and photographers, such as Jean Genet, Hélène Cixous, Unica Zürn, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Lars von Trier. Many of these artists contend with the feeling of nonbelonging and the desire to escape the constraints of their often tragic and traumatic circumstances in their work or personal histories.

In her poem “The Reason,” Cruz describes The Factory, a famous black-and-white photograph of actress and fashion model Edie Sedgwick, as “beautiful but it has death / inside it.” Her eyes, which are “staring directly / into the camera,” starkly exhibit “desire and its / blinding ravishment.” Just before in this same poem, we see the lead actress of Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida offstage in a scene as “she watches the band, / mesmerized” as soon as “music enters her body.” Ida exists in contrast with her aunt, who is referenced as “another / double, one more version of who / [Ida] might become.” In “The Language,” Cruz’s speaker also struggles with this “doubling” as a woman and as the persona of the artist, who will be faced with the reception of the art after the work is launched into the world: “It is terrifying, and I am afraid / what the world will do. But also / it is a kind of abyss. An ending.”

The philosophical query of what differentiates the self from how one is viewed is at the heart of Cruz’s oeuvre. The author of seven poetry collections and two books of essays, Cruz has an unflinching awareness of the body and gesture and how visibility is anchored to gender and class. In her second collection, The Glimmering Room, the speaker wanders the desert wearing “combat-strength sunblock,” the body having failed her, and holding close inside “a slumland of the mind” a terrible secret she cannot say. In the poem “Hotel Oblivion,” appearing in her 2014 collection Wunderkammerthe working class speaks from a dreamscape in disguise:

It hurts
To look at us. Afraid, we mask our faces
In glam makeup to ward off the invisible.
Wear ancient Warhol wigs and Red
Falke or Fogal stockings. We are promiscuous
In our thinness, don’t leave the green mansion,
Are trapped inside the snow box […]

They must use the language of the society that entraps them in order to have any hope of being seen, a paradox Cruz explores and challenges throughout her body of work.

In Guidebooks for the Deadthe predecessor to Hotel Oblivion, Cruz’s speaker longs “to be a girl again” and channels God to “be made perfect: / The Warholian magic / Of transformation: Candy Darling / In long blonde wig.” Through the voice of Marguerite Duras, Cruz asserts that “poverty is in the language,” and as one grows into adulthood, one cannot escape poverty’s watchful eye because a “child born into poverty / will always feel its presence at the edges of everything. ”

In her extraordinary follow-up, Cruz offers in Hotel Oblivion a deeply felt excavation of hierarchically damaging virus. Symbolic of this journey is the moment in the book when the speaker rejects the “Warholian magic” from previous collections and dyes her hair “chestnut-brown like” [Clarice] Lispector” as a means to create the world from her own fragmentation and become invisible on her own terms. Through Hotel Oblivion, Cruz expands and transcends the interiority of the lyrical “I”, achieving a fresh and vital depiction of the I-Thou relationship in poetry. This is a wholly original book, one in which Cruz’s luminous music attains a self-realized language singing out of the disaster. “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last,” Cruz renders. “What matters is the trace. Silent, / the willingly weak and near- / incoherent language, inside.”

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Carlie Hoffman is the author of When There Was Lightforthcoming in spring 2023 with Four Way Books, and This Alaska (Four Way Books, 2021), winner of the NCPA Gold Award in Poetry and a finalist for the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award.

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