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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Tom Clark

reviews Rachel Loden’s Hotel Imperium

University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia USA.
ISBN: 0820321699. Price: $15.95, Paperback, 80pp.

This piece is seven hundred words or about two printed pages long

You can read eight poems from Hotel Imperium in this issue of Jacket.

Hotel Imperium, front cover

PALO ALTO POET Rachel Loden’s debut volume sparkles with a bright humor and sharp critical intelligence that have already attracted notice. Winner of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series Competition and nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Association Prize, Loden’s ‘Hotel Imperium’ brilliantly deconstructs and reconstitutes twentieth-century cultural mythography, particularly that of the Nixon-to-Reagan decades.

The complication (and beauty) of Loden’s writerly comic procedure is all in the nuances and gestures of meaning conveyed by particular word-choices, tones and implications. Carefully angled and modulated, her mini-narratives are clean-hewn and economical throughout yet generously elaborated at all the right moments.

This is the new socialist brain. This is the statue
of Dzerzhinsky falling over. This is my wife Pat...
...This is the new man born out of Adam.
These are the new world order mysteries — oh,

Republican cloth coat. Oh gallery of Trotskyist
apostasies. Tricia and Julie do not weep for me -
I live and flourish in the smooth newt’s tiny eyes,
my new brain fizzing with implanted memories.
(‘The Death of Checkers’)  [p. 6]

Boldly invading territories where most ‘art’ poets seem to fear to tread, Loden exploits history, politics and mainline pop-cultural iconography for her central subject matter. With subtle skill, she deploys this subject matter to express displaced concerns, tricking out of its shopworn contents attitudes and urgencies that are very much of the moment. Sexuality, self-esteem, and other contemporary areas of exposure are revealed as the subject matter-within-the-subject matter.

If I have but one life, let me live it.
As a blonde
, knowing what I know,
counting among my friends both Kennedys
and diamonds. But darling,
I was waiting in a negligée
beneath a pink and vacant sky
when God demanded Mansfield’s ditsy head.
I dreamed I brought it to him
in my Maidenform bra, and woke up
in a cold sweat. James Brown sings
this is a man’s world, and any magazine
can tell a girl the way to clean him, mount
him, and give him that last wish in bed.
(‘The Gospel According to Clairol’)  [p. 37]

Loden’s poetic forte is a clever, subversive conversion of the clichéd figurations of kitsch into the starkly-lit truths of critical history. She approaches those tarnished presences with special care, disinters, dusts, polishes, re-enlivens, energetically embodies them, as though they were the only myths we’ve got.

This is the man we love,
the man about to ride
his tall horse out of town.
Now the last salutes are done,
and a strange unease
settles over Washington.

The old man’s overcoat stirs
in the dark, as though
about to cup a hand once more
to an unhearing ear, to wink
an amiable eye and disappear
serenely, in the chopper’s roar.
(‘Reagan Ascending into Hollywood’)  [p. 21]

Retro-set in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Hollywood, the White House and the Soviet Union, among other legendary periods and venues, these small, spare melodramas of a generic epoch negotiate their wry, edgy intimations and insinuations with a cool detachment that ironically undermines their fond surface sentiments, their halfhearted attempts at a coy nostalgia. A calculated ambivalence in the way the poems come out leaves us contemplating them with many open questions dangling in our minds.

It seems that something red as love
is bleeding through the centuries,

that a reservoir of silky human grease
is oiling those celestial machines.
I don’t want to see the zeros turn

as on a clock about to wake us
from a murderous dream, confetti falling

helplessly into the fissured past.
I don’t want them to unload the gurney
from the festooned ambulance:

the revelers in all their unforgiving
fury, the new patient in her bandages.
(‘Premillennial Tristesse’)  [p.12]

Shelley thought poets should be recognized as unacknowledged legislators — an oxymoronic thought that riddles all attempts at the poet- as- social- spokesperson role. But whether their observations are listened to or not, keen-eyed poets have long supplied our most particularized point of view of things. Good poems can still offer the best kind of culture-criticism, as Rachel Loden’s do — articulating vividly our deep and simple responses to the images and icons by which history will define us.

The publisher, University of Georgia Press, has a website at The book is available from Amazon and other bookstores (see Jacket’s bookstore pages), and you can visit Rachel Loden’s own webpage, which lists various purchase options:

Tom Clark’s poetic novel, ‘The Spell: A Romance,’ will be published by Black Sparrow in May.

You can read three poems by Tom Clark and a detailed bio note in Jacket 9.

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