In how to survive a hotel fire, the delightful debut from New York poet Angela Veronica Wong (a 2011 winner of the esteemed PSA Chapbook Fellowship), the first thing you might notice is the author’s attention to structure and form. Of the book’s six sections, the first and last are each comprised of a single poem, while the middle sections each shift from form to form. The poems (or perhaps they are parts of one serial poem) in section two are untitled small, justified blocks of text; poems in section three are unjustified and centered on the page; and so on. The organization is tidy and cohesive, offering a backdrop of stability when language itself turns unstable.
These poems are generally short, their lines of black type afloat in abundant white space, an effect heightened by the book’s pleasing wide, square format. These lonely little islands of text are an apt metaphor for the personae that emerge from Wong’s work: by turns yearning, broken-hearted, anxious, giddy, lost, bored, wistful, philosophical—and often isolated. Here, one of the poems in its entirety from the series bearing the book’s title:
to be an adult!
You can make soup
for breakfast but
if you live by yourself then
you are the one
who has to go out
and buy the chicken.
The second person here of course is a transparent disguise for first; we assume the narrator lives alone. The voice is typical of other poems in the collection: chatty, personal, cynical, cosmopolitan, and utterly entertaining. The voice of an intriguing dinner guest gossiping, confessing in your ear. The kind of guest you are relieved to have been seated next to, not someone’s boorish husband.
Wong’s urbane sense of humor—one of her strengths—recalls Frank O’Hara (I’m thinking of “Having a Coke with You”). Some stellar comedic moments I wish I’d written: “Sometimes I get sentimental and I think: I miss / you. But then I remember I’m dehydrated (page 59)”; “When I get married I will invite all the men I have ever slept with.
They will all be members of the band…. Afterwards, they could form an ultimate Frisbee team”; “Sometimes I think I could spend my life having my face shoved into pillows if I didn’t fear becoming emotionally detached (page 76).” In the poem “In Which Our Heroine Packs for a Weekend Getaway,” our heroine’s suitcase “is all / hairpins and lingerie, / vanilla scented lotion. / High heels. // Someone once said anticipation / beats actualization….” I can’t help picturing Carrie Bradshaw packing for the Hamptons, or that costly wisp of a nightgown I once purchased for such a getaway, the credit-card charge at Saks more thrilling than the trip itself.
Wong excels at writing in a key that is wonderfully charming, playful, and funny. She is also capable of penning downright gorgeous passages of heightened lyricism, which I would love to see more of in her future projects. (I sense that the poet distrusts classically beautiful language and traditional narrative—perhaps for fear of boring the reader—but I find that they serve as welcome counterpoints to more abstract, dislocating moments in her writing.) One of my favorite poems, appearing in the second section, reads:
I keep making mistakes like looking at the
sky and expecting to see stars when we
all know all it really is is a dark cloth with
holes. There are butterflies that fly only in
pairs, chasing each other in spirals rising
to the sun like our first thoughts after waking.
Other favorite lines: “I like words that are what they do—break- / waters break water” (page 28); “By leaving my hair unwashed, I have brought the / ocean into our bed” (page 69). Stunning.
If a single moment could sum up the book, it would be this, a centerpiece appearing nearly in the middle of the collection:
Outside her window the city
is ripping something apart solely
for the sake of putting it back together again.
Inside her skin holds her body in place.
These lines reiterate the book title’s themes: fire—that is, destruction, violence, resurrection.
Survival—putting things back together, a body held in place. The restless state which the speaker projects upon her external landscape (a reflection of her internal landscape) is perhaps a symptom of homesickness. If a book is a journey, the speaker is searching for a home, and if not a home, a resting place. The hotel from the collection’s title and series (comprising the fifth section) is merely a temporary home, a space of arrival and departure, of transience and semblance.
The collection closes with an anti-fairytale about a princess, “In the Kingdom We Are Now.” If fairytales are about escape—and about lessons that can be learned within the safety of a few pages—this tale offers neither respite nor friendly warning. The princess has a list of eight things to do; number three “was to do undo everything on the list…. she ended up right where she started in time, but everything was undone. Strange, she thought.
This must be shadow puppetry, she said to herself, how everything is a ghost of what it was before.” The princess is isolated and lost in a seemingly inert world, no potential for transformation. The princess is not a poet, but we never forget that she is written by one, a very good one indeed.