Imagine a woman all jaw and piled hair, lipstick, and long teeth. Imagine her formless, a chiffon dress falling from a wooden hanger. A woman I could seamlessly step into; a woman I too could become. The following lines from the poem “Fragment” in Cynthia Cruz’s most recent poetry collection Hotel Oblivion conjure such a spectral feminine outline:
My body is exposed,
glittering in its invisible skeins
of dread and terror.
And the face.
The terrible intimacy of the mouth.
“Fragment” appears in Cruz’s seventh collection, which documents various states of the body in trauma, hunger, dreams, cinema, or archives. Cruz recurrently writes about cinema and actresses, and I cannot resist costuming my body with the images of these women, slipping between identities like open rooms. To read these poems is to succumb to the sway of Cruz adopting the roles of other women, as I wish to as well. The opiate of oblivion is to assume the gesture of another until it becomes your own. Within the sparse, cloistered rooms of hotels, Cruz illuminates a body under harsh fluorescent lighting: raiding a mini bar, watching films like The Passenger where Jack Nicholson fucks all and assumes the identity of a dead man, or rifling through old polaroids to piece together an elusive past. Sometimes the “I” plays the part of another woman, a German actress or a blonde actress, whose persona Cruz might also adopt: “Always, / not one thing, but many.” There is a kind of feral quality to the shapeshifting “I” who moves through these transient spaces of anonymity, illicitness, and escape, like an animal or phantasm. As Cruz writes in “Fragment,” “But what I am / is a ghost. / Empty vessel, yet / voracious, intense.”
The brute truth is one can never escape one’s body, except as a ghost, metaphysically shedding the physical self like a stocking or slip. Cruz pursues the miasmatic trace of scent and of skin throughout Hotel Oblivion as if, in “photographing / my every moment / in an attempt to locate / the place where I lost myself,” she will be able to pin down the black hole of trauma—from poverty, anorexia, hospitalization—nibbled through by fear or self-preservation. It is as if, in culling all this archival material, Cruz can finally understand the narrative of her past, linear and lucid with three acts, like a movie. But the hole refuses to make itself whole; the movie refuses a plot. There are only the fragments, the scraps, the bits and pieces, that Cruz pours over again and again to form an “enigmatic archive” that conceals as much as it reveals. As she asks in “Saturday,” “How does getting it all down / do the same work as making?”
Due to the impossibility of getting it all down, Cruz writes inside gaps and fragments of memories and experience. The result is a collection, like her other collections, that fixates on literary figures, recurring phrases like lines of dialogue we can’t forget, and traces of recollection, rather than on linear narrative or resolution. Cruz traces biographies of other writers like Jean Genet, industrial landscapes, or income disparities where class difference renders you othered and invisible. Cruz has written that when she first began writing poems, her teachers insisted her poems were impenetrable. They resisted lauding Cruz’s economy of attention on moments of overdose, vagrancies, or loss.
To consider Cruz now in 2022, alongside her recent cultural criticism publication The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class, is to see an economy on the page that mirrors the stresses of economic insatiability that wear upon a body which wants to be “thinner. Smaller. / Spectral, even.” To consider Cruz now is to see a writer whose obsessions never waver. From the death drive drug-infused fever dream that is her first collection Ruin to the vagrant body in Hotel Oblivion who moves not just between rooms, but between other characters, time periods, and places, one understands that the impenetrable self is the very conceit Cruz finds meaning in – and which propels her urgent drive to make. To lose oneself in the body or the guise of someone else is another kind of oblivion. The body may “collect, and contain, devour and swallow,” but it remains unstable and elliptical, vanishing into itself like an actress, or ember. The body, throughout Hotel Oblivion, is “Always, / not one thing, but many.”
Though confessional and in first person, I hesitate, as another poet Adrienne Rich cautions, to “reduce [Cruz’s work] to I.” Cruz’s poetry contains the diaristic vestiges of confessional predecessors such as Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton who lay bare emotion and experience. Like them, Cruz is also interested in gender and embodiment, place and geography, yet Cruz’s world building is not of the East Coast college preparatory ilk, but of the poor. In this sense, her writing evokes working class poets like Frank Stanford, albeit if Stanford referred to the rivers, moonshine, and gutted fish of Arkansas as Roland Barthes’s “telluric matter.” Cruz articulates the conditions of poverty when she writes, “When I was sixteen I lived / in an abandoned house / with other young anarchists.” In similarly plain and lyrical language to Stanford with oneiric underpinnings she adds,
We lived inside a small dream
in which we lived
with each other
inside a kind of sweet dream.
Soon thereafter the boys become addicted to heroin and many of the people from this community die. The illusion of a home or communal living crumbles. Drugs ravage her friends in their efforts to escape destitution’s cruelty.
Hunger proliferates in Cruz’s most recent work of nonfiction The Melancholia of Class, where Cruz discusses her fixation on a blue dress in a store window during a period in which she was homeless, and her frantic desire to purchase the dress even though she had no money for food. The desire is ultimately not for the dress, but for the guise of a middle-class lifestyle, the thrill of posturing as another echelon in a neoliberal economy. In Hotel Oblivion, the blue dress appears again, as if misplaced inside another dream:
In the afternoon, on Saturday,
I bought a pale blue dress from Humana
and walked alone, home, in it,
through the parades of my emptiness.
I can imagine writing another essay on Cynthia Cruz that is not this one, where I might simply inventory Cruz’s descriptions of clothes or wear them as my own: crimson heels in Neukölln, a photograph of a black and silver swimsuit in a box in East Berlin, the actress Nina Hoss’s red cosmetic case on a train to Dresden, “the ironed cotton dress” of Doris in Völklingen, or “a cream- / colored blouse, French, with tiny shell buttons / and a narrow, black, ribbon-like tie / for survival.” Food is not the sole tool for survival; fashion and fantasy sustain us, too.
Therefore, imagine me costumed in the French blouse as I read Hotel Oblivion. Imagine the “I’s” paranoia settling over me like a chenille bedspread from childhood pulled up to quell a fever, and, like the best kind of writing, where the words’ affective energy dissolves the liminal space between you and the author, I cannot get out from under its weight. Like Cruz’s “I,” my body embraces its own oblivion, albeit within my apartment’s four walls instead of a hotel, eating a single plastic wrapped chocolate alongside Cruz, lit in chiaroscuro like a noir. To forget my life’s quotidian humdrums, its own quiet pains precede the desire to transcend my own body, to speak through the mouth of another. I crave an alternative identity like one would a blue dress in a store window and yearn to lose myself in another’s narrative as if their story could glamorously transform my own. In my thirties, during the month in which I read Hotel Oblivion, there is a stack of bills on my kitchen table that I cannot afford to pay and lesson plans for the multiple jobs I hold. Sometimes I forgo dinner under the auspices of a shoddy appetite; to braid Cruz’s cast of characters together in conversation in the present tense, the now, is an exercise in magical thinking that fills me full of fantasy. I try on all Cruz’s identities like the most elegant of clothes. The promiscuous interchange of one woman for another is an impulse we share.
Cruz recurrently returns to the cinema and actresses as alternative selves. In some poems, she plays a “prettier” version of herself, slipping in and out of self-hood like a series of nondescript rooms. In hotels, we can perform versions of ourselves for other people or pretend to be someone we’ve always hoped to emulate. These non-places, as Marc Augé dubs them, allow you to be the actress you have long admired, like Kirsten Dunst as Justine in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. In this film, Justine wanders from room to room through a mansion on her wedding night as if she can escape her circumstances and self, “as if moving back in time to her own beginning.” Cruz goes on to write,
And what is it
she collapses into? She loses herself inside a kind of small death,
not unlike what happens when one eats sweets, or dreams,
or the moment when an idea enters the mind. Her madness
is no madness, it is a reprieve, a tiny sleep, a space
she forms out of nothing, and then enters, an in-between.
Where do I go when I drop into sleep? Where
does my mind vanish into?
When I tasted the cake I went away for a small moment,
I was erased. I entered something else, a next-to
The “I” of “Fragment: Small Talk on Melancholia” twins Justine: costuming her experiences and appetites. The “in-between” becomes the non-place, the site where our selves exist outside comprehension or legibility, beyond the brocade of language.
If oblivion derives directly from Latin oblivionem as “forgetfulness; a being forgotten,” the hotel, the in-between space, allows us to shed not just our identities, but also all the tandem anxieties that accompany them: grief, depression, or shame. Yet, Cruz writes in “Fragment: Verwüstung,” “Truth is the antidote / for shame and shame / is what I carry with me / everywhere.” Like a toothbrush or wallet, shame can slip easily inside a pocket, kept close to the skin. So, too, do these poems press against me, as Justine or others press into Cruz. And in transitory spaces of hotels or in theaters, we also can forget an accuracy of language that can fail to convey the full spectrum of emotional experience. In “Hotel Letter,” Cruz compares herself to Guyotat whose obsession to make a new language leaves him hospitalized from malnourishment. She writes,
On the U-Bahn at night I carry my own damage –
inside the body – inside the mind – my own self-
To turn inward, towards silence or anonymity, is to escape Michel Foucault’s dispositif, the institutional and administrative structures which uphold imbalances of power including gender, class, or race. Doctors or wardens may lock us up under the guise of self, or public, protection, but to move beyond language refutes empiricism in favor of an embodied truth. To live within the “self-/made language” favors fantasy over systematic failures. When financial limitations or lack of food weaken our ability to effortlessly navigate the world, the interior’s imagination is both a golden compass and another source of confinement. It feels, as Cruz writes in “Correspondence,” “To live inside / one’s mind, is its locked hotel room, its own phantasm and cell. Its own / strange room.”
In Italian, stanza translates to room. Rooms can trap us like Jean Genet or become cells of memory that we traverse, then transcend. The unit of the lyric is a dwelling place, a place in which to linger or to dream. It is Cruz’s dreams that I open and enter, stanza by stanza, in Hotel Oblivion, but they are so real to me that I can almost intuit where the silver hairbrush is on the bureau or the tube of lipstick on the vide poche. I can almost feel how the bomber jacket softens around my shoulders or how “the force of a thought…enters the sleeve of my body.” Which is to say, I am brought back to my own body, its physical presence, in situ, through the embodied encounter of reading, as well as the women who have come before me, the woman I am becoming now.
Like an exercise in acting, I consider the props Cruz lays out before me in Hotel Oblivion and pick them up one by one. How would that candy taste in my mouth? How would that blue chiffon offset my dark hair and plain features? How would the world look to me through the eyes of this woman and this one and this one? What else could oblivion mean to me, if not for the living as many?