IMAGINE A HOTEL as a vortex sucking up cultural detritus and beautiful minutiae from all directions. Imagine a lobby, corridors, numbered rooms, where disparate eras mingle and cityscapes shuffle, where inside is out and nothing is safe, much less predictable. Take a room key, friend, to a new book of poems called The Hotel Sterno.
Our author, Jeffrey Little, a former Twin Citizen who now lives in Maryland, jump-starts almost every line with a subversively comic voice that could belong to an omniscient maitre d'hôtel disguised as an alien maid. This speaker sees through walls, floors, ceilings, spying on idiosyncratic objects (a swizzle stick, CB radio, Renuzit air freshener) as they become strangely animate, and eavesdropping on American pop icons (Norman Vincent Peale, Jackie Onassis, Don Knotts) as they fall into accidental orgies. These twisted scenes never last long, because like most hotels, this one relies on transience. Guests have no choice but to cruise the halls and peer around every conceivable corner.
A poem titled "melons in the air shaft," for example, begins: "upstairs the anarchists are drying their tube socks on the bathroom/radiators again, seven doors limping to a bar. after the quickening/i joined the hotel's equestrian team--jumping the courtyard thickets/like a scarab fucked up on rhinoceros crap...." From here the poem's four remaining quatrains circle the world about a dozen more times, yet we never leave the building. Scattered references to lodgment throughout the book help project this illusion of focus. More important to the voice's architectural strength, however, is the boxy shape these poems usually take on the page. At first glance, many appear to be prose pieces, their lines nearly identical in length. Closer examination, however, reveals carefully built verses with deep metrical awareness.
The constant flow of manic observations contained by so many straight margins brings a risk, namely sameness. By the book's second half you begin to expect outrageous lines like "out of a sphincter of/light i see spiro agnew w/a neon bullhorn barking orders to aaron burr...," and your reading mind is more likely to float over them. Little counters this danger with plenty of syntactical variety--a syncopated phrasing and punctuation that reflects the many jazz allusions peppering The Hotel Sterno. Breathing space is also afforded by occasional short poems that sit more quietly on the page. Often these pose as object odes with titles like "dentures" and "fire alarm," but they offer relief from the physical assault with more elegant, abstract musings.
It's really an enchanting place to be, The Hotel Sterno, although you may not find much rest or comfort here. Nonetheless, the book's glossy squareness feels pleasing to the hands--a fine door to the far-out lodgings inside.