Thursday, June 16, 2011


Closing the Hotel Kitchen

I recently finished reading Closing the Hotel Kitchen, book of poems by Robert Bohm, published this year by West End Press. Tough, hard, raw, spare poems growing in one way or another out of Bohm's experiences in the army during the war in Vietnam -- he was stationed at a military hospital in Germany, and for a year and a half saw close-up the horrific physical and psychic injuries of soldiers who had been in the war -- and also exploring his younger years in the New York area, and the devastating years of aftermath in his life and the world.

Here are some lines from the poem "Pieces after Listening to Tracy Sing":

I'd been drinking for days, ones pissing in a friend's bureau drawer
    and another time waking up from a blackout while trying to yank
a clothesline off its pulleys
in the middle of the night in a back yard I didn't recognize.
The straight line I thought I was following
changed into angles untaught
in high school geometry. It was like
the girl Griselle who, in a story
Kathrine once told me, zigzagged
from a house behind a gate into a Bavarian forest where
she died, tracked by the Gestapo.
Hours after I recalled that, my father
and others found me lying on the floor. Orderlies
carried me down the stairs after the doc injected me
with a sleep that turned my eyelids into stale salami slices
on a sandwich even the starving wouldn't eat.
Another lifetime later, I arrived -- here. Look
At me with my snazzy bandoleer. And spit-shined smile.
I'm what every girlie needs: an emissary
from Herr Love's Ubermenschen Army.
She never said it directly, but Kathrine's whole body indicated
patience was the key. [...]

[...] And now mama's dead. As are
well, Dave is, and Elesio, and Kathrine's Griselle, and...
After the firelight, intestines, sliding from blown-open bellies
into groundholes, disappear like enormous parasites
in search of other hosts.
The puke-covered rock's where one whiner couldn't
hold his vision in. Stink
of piss- and shit-missed pants floats from fleshes
triumphantly disconnected from the ego's huntings. As one survivor
snakes through grass, his hand catches on something
thin and soggy. Leaves? He looks down: his fingernails, dragging
across a dead grunt's face, have pulled away
the skin as if peeling away soggy butcher's paper from pounds of ground veal
    in a hotel kitchen
that should've been closed by the Board of Health but wasn't.

In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut says that Billy Pilgrim, the central character in the novel, has become "unstuck in time," this after having lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war there. (Vonnegut was himself in Dresden as a prisoner of war when the city was firebombed by the American military.) The character, Billy Pilgrim, time-travels randomly from one moment to another in his life, back and forth through time, never sure where in his life he'll be next. This, it appears, is one of the ways he has "adjusted," learned to live with the unspeakable horrors he saw and experienced during the war.

Many of the poems in Closing the Hotel Kitchen have a similar quality of jump-cutting between moments and places: the speaker in the poem goes to sleep in an apartment in New York, or passes out drunk on a beach, and wakes up in a foxhole in Vietnam next to a dead soldier or is suddenly in the kitchen of his childhood home. Coming and going is one of the ways the human psyche may try to cope with what is presently called post-traumatic stress.

Robert Bohm's wife, Suman Kirloskar, is from India, and Bohm has spent much time in India himself. Many of the poems in the book, intermingled with prose passages, recount some of his travels there, and the gradual breakdown of his mind, the better to build itself back together. This from a prose passage titled "Calingute, 1970":

At the end of the main road that lead to the beach, an old hotel with window balconies from which you can gaze at the sea. Once a favorite refuge for vacationing administrators during the colonial period, it's long been in decline, an aged, storm-beaten artifact of a disappeared era. A place of ghosts now, the rooms smell of mildew and piss. Along the beach, there are a few other buildings -- rickety restaurants, ramshackle bars, tiny fruitjuice stands -- all more in synch than the hotel with the local architecture's simplicity and smallness of scale, which consists primarily of thatch-roofed huts and closet-sized vendors' booths. Is this what the old Vedic chant -- shantih, shantih, shantih -- meant to sum up: the tranquil beauty of the trivial and outmoded? Bushes and trees give birth to a psychosis of tropical color. In the midst of such sultry lushness one might expect to find a burgeoning renewal of the resort idea: modern postcolonial hotels and cottages, entertainment facilities, expensive dining spots. But instead there's the opposite of that: an anti-resort. Each shadow and sunlight expanse teems with hippie expatriates. Wandering nude on the beach, fucking in a dope daze in rundown bungalows, shitting in the shade of coconut trees, toking reefer or shooting horse wherever they want, most of them represent a new tourist group: the drop-out sons and daughters of America's suburbs. "If this is maya, I love maya," Agatha, one of the hippies, says, referring to the Hindu concept of life as illusion. Stoned, she eats a jackfruit -- stoned, her friend Ozzie listens to the sea. But their slow mind-ride through this beachy blissville of steamy light and playful ideas leads me not to answers but only to more questions. What the fuck am I supposed to make of it when the Upanishads say that in the midst of variety "there is no variety" or when they claim that the self "without being born nonetheless appears to be born"? If I don't know what all this means, how can I say I either love or don't love maya or that, when the jungle spider eats the dragonfly, I see nothing because the devouring is only a game of shadows in a shadowless void? So who are the real crazies, anyway, the ones whose good sense disguises a bland imagination or the ones whose non-sense is an atonal sax solo opening holes in a NY loft ceiling a few years after the great dying Coltrane proved to us that we are surrounded by melodies so there, so obvious, that we never hear them?

One poem after another, a startling snapshot, though that's suggests something too superficial -- more like photographs taken from within the moment being photographed, each moment a photograph of itself. In the modern world of relentless corporate news media blather, it can be healing, enlightening, just to touch ground and feel the rough skin of an actual piece of reality, even if it isn't a pretty postcard.

Near the railway station, yesterday's
tea-slurper, and ex-
rickshaw driver, tower sprawled
shawl-like on his shoulders, talks
about steel production, quotas, pace.
"What a way to die!" he rouses
the crowd while men and women
holler in agreement.
Then, another sound. In rigid unison, booted feet drum the ground
as the police, in riot gear, approach. They march
into the mob, swinging
lathis as if each banged skull is a temple gong ringing
with Vedic truth. The woman
with the four-fingered hand shrieks
as she throws a rock.
Above the street, a raven caws from a power line. Shrill
rickshaw horns cut through
meaning's densities. A child
reads a book at a bus stand while
only a half block away
a man with gashed brow slithers on his belly toward
a Hindi song blaring in a movie theater that isn't there anymore.

(From the poem "Two Days ... Shimoga".)

I first met Robert Bohm, more or less, a few years ago when he found this blog, and we've traded e-mails from time to time since then; it appears we have at least one or two mutual friends scattered around the country. We met face to face for the first time this past winter at the AWP conference in Washington, D.C., and had a chance to chat a bit while he was hanging out at the bookfair at the table of his publisher West End Press. I've enjoyed our occasional e-mails, and it was a pleasure to meet in person finally; I'd had Closing the Hotel Kitchen in hand shortly before we met last February, though at the time had only had a chance to read a little of it.

As I read the book, I kept wanting to have copies of it given out to everyone who listens to a sales pitch from a military recruiter. Copies should be handed out in every high school history class. Copies of Closing the Hotel Kitchen should be handed out in every fundamentalist church.

Four a.m. Mommy in her wheelchair
bumps and bangs into walls, wondering where she is.
Before I stumble in drunk from outside,
she gasps, has a heart attack, dies.
Sept 6 and hot; I stink of creosote
and in 3 hours have to go to work.
While she turns cold downstairs, I crawl into bed on the second floor.
When I wake, it's two lousy decades later
in a Yonkers motel.
I turn on the cassette: Gladys Knight & The Pips.
In the State Hospital, and empty room awaits
Mat's grandson, me.
"Chewed correctly," I write that morning in a notebook,
"the fat spider bursts, a sweet berry in your mouth."
"Yeah, sure!" someone quips in one
of my flights of imagination.

(From the poem "Paradise Boogaloo".)

The poems in Closing the Hotel Kitchen create, in stunning manner, the tactile visceral experience of life in the constant emergency room of the time in which we live. Word explosions lie in every page waiting to go off. Every poem an alarm clock jolting the world of shadows and murk to pieces. "Think," wrote poet Thomas McGrath, "in your dream of life,/ Into what you will awaken!"

I'll finish here with some lines from the poem "Endless War":

From one acre of rice paddies to another.
The freighter's boilers clank, drowning out
behind me
a dead grunt's hi to paradise.

Weeks later, waves crash, vomiting froth onto sand while the wind
bends palm trees and the mind

Seated on the beach, I remove a curried fish
from the newspaper sheet in which it's wrapped
and eat it with my hands.

Under palm fronds thin men, talking among themselves,
walk home from manganese mines at day's end.
I sleep in an abandoned shed.
Before dawn, the macaw screeches.
I get up.

Later, the beach in first light.
Receding waves leave bits
of foam on the sand. Bubble'
by tiny bubble, they disappear.

I recommend Closing the Hotel Kitchen by Robert Bohm.

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