Angela Veronica Wong
How to Survive a Hotel Fire
reviewed by Stephanie Burns
When, in the fourth section of her collection, Angela Veronica Wong begins interchanging the repeatedly recurring poem title, "How to Survive a Hotel Fire," with "How to Start a Hotel Fire," she forces us to consider "survive" and "start" in relation to each other. Are these actions opposite? Does one action preclude the other? Wong’s poems traffic in delightfully irreverent language coupled with surreal cause and effect scenarios, but it is this difference between surviving the titular fire and starting it that provides one of the collection’s most compelling tensions.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing poems in the entire collection is the two-line poem near the end of the collection:
"How to Start Survive a Hotel Fire"
The cross out is not about forgetting it’s a violent revision.All the male doctors and the female nurses in pink. (92)
The crossed out words call attention to themselves rather than disappearing from the final draft as they might normally do, and we find the meat of the poem there. The second line of the poem is so banal (while still undercutting the expected) that we turn to the relationship between the crossed out ‘start’ in the title and the ‘violent revision’ in the first line. Does the “cross out” refer to the strikethrough in the title or to the line it itself appears in? Did the narrator actually start the fire? The suggestion is removed here, but is reintroduced 11 pages later when it actually replaces "survive" in the title.
It is not until the last of these "How to Start a Hotel Fire" poems that we realize that Wong is not making a narrative choice, but rather is exploring the word switch and its implications, "This is when I reach out and slide my hand / inside my sentences to see how they shift" (110). Later in the poem, she investigates other substitutions,
Here we can substitute in consideration with in relation acknowledging the ways that would change the meaning We cannot substitute essence for meaning (110).
Meaning is fluid and dependent on the relationships between words, but essence never changes and is inherent to the thing itself. A chair remains a chair--an object made for us to sit on--when set by a table, or a television, or a piano, but the significance of its placement there, its meaning, changes slightly with each variation. Wong’s substitutions call attention to the difficulty we face in finding meaning, especially when the words keep changing. Switching "survive" to "start" transforms a tragic situation from a no-fault, act-of-god into a crime and the narrator into a dangerous figure. And yet, as above with "in consideration" and "in relation", the difference between some phrasing is a matter of fine shading and connotation.
The rest of Wong’s collection shifts meaning in similar ways. In the fourth section of the book, "What We Learn About Trust," Wong strips the serious phrase "broken neck" of its impact by repeating it in every line of one of its untitled poems,
the vase with the broken neck the banana with the broken neck the bottle with the broken neck the virgin with the broken neck the cello with the broken neck (61)
If you aren’t careful, you might miss the death in the fourth line, nestled as it is between so many more mundane items. Elsewhere, Wong undercuts dire, serious statements by equating them with the banal:
i've never been kicked out like that before. i can barely bear anything anymore, which is to say i need a boyfriend because carrying my own stuff is boring. (77)
Though she shifts from first to third person between sections, the narrator’s voice throughout the collection is that of a surrealist neurotic, "She always thought it was / the always thinking / that got her in trouble"(43). The poems are often dream-like and in a stream of consciousness form.
Still it is the repetition, both within poems and across the collection that truly shapes this book. The repeated titles in section four are joined by those in section three, "In Which Lessons Should Not Be Learned." All the titles in this third section begin with the words 'in which' and many include the words "Our Heroine." The repetition provides those sections with a sense of unity, but it also promotes a sense of time standing still in the experience of reading the poems.
How to Survive a Hotel Fire slips from form to form between each section, shifts and substitutes words and phrases and plays with variation from repetition. Wong arranges her language like a jazz piano player riffs on a theme and in doing so, pulls us into her world of old socks, lost buttons, air raid drills and gentlemen's clubs.