Stephanie Valente’s hotel ghost is a chapbook informed by love, specifically the in-between realm of ‘need’ and ‘want’. But Valente’s poetry is also informed by mythology and astrology, both of which provide a deep richness that is often lacking in contemporary/internet love poetry. It’s not that one cannot find examples, but the running motifs of legendary feminine creatures and allusions to astrology throughout the whole of hotel ghost make this chapbook well worth investment.
Available from Bottlecap Press, C.A. Mullins’ indie publishing house, Stephanie Valente’s persona wanders in and out of needing and wanting love, both within the moment of now and the solidness of a sustained relationship. The opening poem, “Field Notes,” sets up the sort of observe-and-report approach that many of the later poems utilize while “Affinities” tackles some of the central themes of the chapbook as a whole. The term “affinity,” of course, means “a feeling of closeness and understanding that someone has for another person because of their similar qualities, ideas, or interests;” therefore, this aptly named poem displays the affinity between the persona and her sister, as well as the dead poet whose words resonate with them so strongly, and, more importantly, the shared connection between (presumably) all three: Womanhood. All of this is brought about by another affinity: Poetry. The two sisters read the dead poet’s poetry and the persona then seeks to take part in poetry herself, which is, within her mind, intrinsically linked to empowered womanhood. The next poem, “You’re Only Lonely When You’re Not Alone,” is short, snappy, soft, and quiet, but not without great significance, which is a style that employs the technique implied by the title of Valente’s opener, “Field Notes.” The first stanza of “You’re Only Lonely When You’re Not Alone” implies the negative connotations of drinking which then seemingly gives way to the aloofness of the second stanza, perhaps brought about by alcoholic perceptions and/or complicated emotions. Whatever the case, the ending tone of this poem is implied by the fact that the napkins are folded and the purposefully oxymoronic “liquid smoke” actually “fades out.”
There is a resistance existent within Valente’s persona throughout the poem “Of Sorts,” a fact brought about by both a longing for and a feeling of helplessness toward the person who is “spinning / plates & cups,” a parlor trick which is, perhaps, an allusion to the topsy-turvy draw and fear of said person. Indeed, the persona seems quite conflicted, for she is aware of the draw, but is still apprehensive on an intuitive level, evidenced by referencing the knowledge of domestic arts (sewing, knitting, croquette, etc.). “The End of the Atlantic” is a delicate, intimate poem where there is love and fondness experienced between two persons, both of whom share their time and each other with a large body of water. While the relationship between the two is not explicitly stated, nor easily inferred, the poem may be a memory or moment-by-moment documentation of two lovers at the beach. In response, then, comes a desecration, a sacrifice of marine life, stated in the title of the next poem: “Oysters on the Half Shell.” This poem is both humorous and melancholy, both dialogue and internal thoughts, and displays the desire and the longing within one individual to connect with another, though the other sorely disappoints all hope and expectation. But oysters are said to be an aphrodisiac, leading to “Love & Doorways,” in which the persona develops a drunk-like fixation upon “a lover,” whose physical attributes and personality traits are desirous enough to warrant earning the title “lover.” Stories which give way to flesh, booze which gives way to acts, and an appearance which gives way to ‘right now’…this is the heart of “Love & Doorways.” And again, almost in immediate response comes “Things To Remember When It’s Over,” a deeply sad poem filled with the hurting knowledge that there are and can be beautiful moments, although such moments of caring tenderness are few and unsustainable. “Once Is Not Enough” again sees Valente’s persona longing for an extended intimacy with another individual. While thoughts of this individual are first focused on youthfulness, the persona’s desire grows out of the realm of appearance and enters a comforting place inside the heart and mind, where distance is bridged by communication.
As mentioned above, Stephanie Valente’s poetry is often informed by the imagery of mythology, fairy tales, and astrology to broaden our understanding of her persona’s feelings of love. While such feminine personifications are briefly mentioned in earlier poems (see: “Affinities”), the first poem in hotel ghost to deal with womanhood and mythology/astrology directly is “Arcadia,” in which an earthy, witch-like woman is described as happy and aware of herself, particularly in claiming and owning her sexuality. This woman laughs while “swallowing crystals” and wearing “torn stockings” and “a pierced / halo;” so, despite her appearance, is the persona sad for the woman or has the persona found a role model, a woman with a sunny disposition toward life and love regardless of reputations? The next poem, “Tell Me,” is a plea for comfort, for love, for being understood, because the persona wishes to have her thoughts and assumptions regarding love and relationships validated by someone she desires. There is an aching ‘want’ running throughout this poem, not of romance or sex, but of the desire to be understood. Another explicit reference to mythology, “Neptune’s Daughters” again visits the sea, bringing to mind mermaids and sirens, feminine beings desiring the intimacy and/or demise of masculine land-dwellers, which was previously implied by both “The End of the Atlantic” and “Oysters on the Half Shell.” As with “Arcadia,” this poem presents a woman who could be either pitied or idealized. Regardless, the two sisters (presumably the same from “Affinities”) seem to encourage the woman, since both siblings are optimistic that the woman will strongly persevere, thus leading the way for other women, such as the two sisters. In this way, the woman/mermaid/siren of “Neptune’s Daughters” is a stand-in for all women, for Womanhood, even if only within the eyes of the two sisters, both of whom seek strong, feminine role models. In “The Iron Thief,” there is a direct reference to astrology; that is, the persona reveals she is an Aquarius, the sign itself personified as a “water-bearer,” which the persona uses to explain why she has taken the lead and thus contradicted the misogynistic gender roles whereby the effeminate partner must follow the masculine partner’s lead. Accordingly, if Aquarius’s are leaders, then the persona has chosen to lead the viper-like male into whatever territory the two of them may find, whether it be lasting or fleeting. An astrological motif is carried into “Vernal Equinox,” an event which is also known as the Spring or March Equinox; appropriately, therefore, there is a thawing that takes place within this poem as spring arrives to replace winter. The poem’s “winter-wife” distinctly implies that the titular Vernal Equinox is a bringer of change, such as the end of a relationship, which is evidenced by the poem’s conclusion: “when the ice / fades, a frosty lover shall return to the world.” Sadly, therefore, the merits of their winter-marriage are the poem’s referenced berries, which are harvested, consumed, and then regulated to the past.
The intensely sexual “Follow Suit” shows (one may interpret) the persona referring to herself in the third person so as to distance herself emotionally from the actions described in this poem. While no immediate gratification is mentioned on the persona’s part, fondness develops nonetheless for the male, though his presence is never explicitly stated. Again, the evidence of developed fondness is suggested by the closing stanza, whereby the traditional post-sex cigarette is a “chilled” experience, possibly because the fondness the persona has for the male is not shared. But then in the poem “Breakfast,” just what does Valente mean by the “eggs / sauntering / the butter?” Is it a typo or does Valente really mean to imply that the hearty, massive eggs are walking over the malleable, melting butter? Does the heat of the stove (i.e. love) and the yolk of the eggs (i.e. the other person) conspire to bring about the demise of what the butter used to be? What was once solid, rigid, and hardened has now become a soft liquid, thereby requiring the presence of the eggs for support. If so, it is an interesting insight (or, perhaps, a field note?) into the nature of relationships wherein one party is larger than the other in terms of personality and/or control. A hint may lie within the conclusion, which implies that the one who is malleable will wait by the telephone for the one who is, in certain ways, larger and more powerful. “Overdue” is, perhaps, a fanciful peek into the lifestyle of prostitutes, of hotel ghosts, of a sexual haunting. Here in this poem, again, there are the two sides of ‘need’ and ‘want’ and how somewhere in between these two realms there is the present reality, where all too often neither realm is met satisfactorily. Tinged with melancholy, “Memory” reveals that the persona suddenly realizes she cannot remember the precise details as to how she and her partner met. And in worrying, the persona attempts to hold on to the present, on to the now, by focusing on the nearness of their heads and the soft movements of her lover’s eyelids. But the inaccurate memory foreshadows a future equally unsolid for the two lovers. In “He Finished the Gin,” which is similar to “You’re Only Lonely When You’re Not Alone,” there is decreased focus on setting and increased focus on the presence of another person, a lover. Again, the first stanza sets up the scene and the action while the second (plus the title) hints at a conclusion: water, a vehicle for the emotions in an astrological reading, is likened to the lover’s lips, which tremble, betraying trouble and anything but calm and tranquil seas. Like a tiny, internal love letter, “When You Are Not Looking, I Write on Your Sheets” recalls the comfort of being with another person, especially someone with whom you are falling in love. Yet this comfort cannot be experienced so intimately while absent from the other, so the persona must rummage through thoughts and memories so as to reclaim a portion of that comfort, of their intimacy. But, as the poem’s conclusion conveys, this comfort is not complete while the other is missing, so it therefore exists in an in-between place, like the place between night and morning or the place between ‘need’ and ‘want’.
The chapbook’s concluding poems, “The Valkyries” and “Hawk Dancer,” both call to mind mythology and love, but bring about within the persona a renewed identity, one gleaned and claimed from having been through the experiences of the preceding poems. Valkyries, originating from Norse mythology, are feminine beings who had the power to choose those who lived and those who died during battle; in the afterlife, the Valkyries could provide provisions to those who had perished. It is therefore fitting that, of all the feminine beings and potential role models referenced throughout hotel ghost, Stephanie Valente’s persona concludes with identifying as a Valkyrie. This aptly titled poem in particular demonstrates the persona as having taken on the leadership role of a “good water-bearer” by determining her beloved’s fate like a Valkyrie, by dictating when and how the evening will unfold, by deciding how to entice ever so properly, and by providing provisions for the other when the time is right and the persona’s battle has been won. The chapbook’s last poem, “Hawk Dancer,” brings to mind both a predatory act and a delicate duel of romance. “Hawk Dancer” conveys the dance of finding love, of finding the proper point of convergence between attraction, availability, personality, and willingness that make love between two persons possible. A beautifully haunting piece of two people trying to connect, this poem is a perfect coda to hotel ghost. As previously mentioned, it is quite interesting to note that much of Valente’s poetry exists within the in-between realm of love’s ‘need’ and want’ while infused with knowledge of mythology, folklore, fairy tales, and astrology, all of which are deftly employed to fill her chapbook with a breadth and richness not readily available in the poetry and stories of young, contemporary and/or internet-based writers. However, Stephanie Valente’s hotel ghost does more than simply vacillate and include references to legendary feminine beings, but utilizes these motifs with a keen intellect so as to flawlessly embellish her poetry just ever so properly. Soon to be released in just a matter of days, don’t miss out on the opportunity to pick up a copy of Bottlecap Press’ very intelligent and most recent release: Stephanie Valente’s hotel ghost.
AUTHOR BIO:: dom schwab is a reader/writer of poetry/prose. dom is gay, GQ w/ no pronoun preference, a vegetarian, and lives in Chicago. dom’s most recent work has appeared in Zoomoozophone Review’s female/non-gender-conforming Issue 5, Boscombe Revolution Issue 3: Revolution & Gender, and JunkYard Kool, an anthology presented by Kool Kids Press.