The trumpeters have gone aheadbook cover

Poetry review by Angela Gardner

Hotel Hyperion

Lisa Gorton
Giramondo Publishing Co., Artarmon,  2013
ISBN 978-1-9218751-2-0


Hotel Hyperion, is a collection of new poems from Lisa Gorton, the author of Press Release, a first collection that won her the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Melbourne Prize.  At less than fifty pages Hotel Hyperion is a distilled, intense and carefully thought out collection. It is arranged into five sections each containing a sequence, and in the case of the final section, The Triumph of Caesar, a few additional short poems. The sections are Dreams and Artefacts that uses a visit to the Titanic exhibition to contemplate the role of memory and of museums; The Storm Glass that describes an alchemical invention using crystals to predict weather, The Hotel Hyperion a first person account that touching the moral issues of establishing of a human colony in space, Room and Bell which recounts the domestic life of a house through memory, and The Triumph of Caesar a series of ekphrastic poems.

In reading and rereading the poems the connections between individual poems and the sections become more and more apparent.  The long epigraph to the collection that comes from an anonymous fifteenth century manuscript describes the workings of, and reaction to, a camera obscura, a newly formalized invention of the time with all its inherent wonder. The view it shows is of a ship in a tempest “not like natural things but like nature itself”.  That description could be a metaphor for poetry itself, or any art. The epigraphs for the sections themselves come from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, continuing the image of the power of nature, and of shipwreck. These quotes cover images, remembrance, distance, and inheritance; well chosen to provide a key to grasp the links between ideas and show the cohesiveness of this collection.

In ‘after the Titanic Artefact Exhibition’ dreams, memory and the sea itself rework an actual object and actual event into something new and different, a replica, something seen through glass at a museum that

“leads nowhere – or it leads to the house of images
where nothing is lost” ‘
‘after the Titanic Artefact Exhibition’ p5

The role of museum as collective memory of a people and culture is not over-emphasised but implicit. In fact Gorton suggests these objects, or memories of objects “…might be mine- at least, things loosed/ from a dream I had” (ibid), becoming more personal and therefore more palpable.

The description of the sealed, miniature, replica of a world, with its recognizable natural artefacts: leaves, clouds created out of unstable crystals in the Storm Glass tell of “tomorrow’s weather/haunting a small room” (‘A Description Storm Glass and Brief Guide to its Use in Forecasting Weather ‘ p11).


                                                      “…the wreckage
upon wreckage which is making, remake weather
as a succession of rooms,”
                                                      ‘A Description Storm Glass and Brief Guide to its Use in Forecasting Weather ‘ p13

This looks both back to the forces of nature that sunk the Titanic and forward to a poem in the final section ‘Homesickness’, that tells of the work of British artist Roger Hiorns who transformed a condemned apartment by pumping it full of a crystal solution. Hirons work, called Seizure, replicates the Storm Glass albeit on a larger-scale, but turns this into art rather than a method of forecasting the weather.

The poems that make up the ‘The Hotel Hyperion’ section make good the epigraph “Tis far off,/ And rather like a dream than an assurance”, for at the end of reading the reader is no more assured that the future exists in differentiation from the past.  The people in the poems of this future world are believable, the science and artefacts equally so, but the world created in the imagination is incredibly bleak and sad. The poems contain strange recovered memories of something that may never happen but hold threads back to the crystalline worlds of the storm glass, and Roger Hiorns copper-sulphate soaked apartment, through the ice crystals growing  on the ‘life-cast figures’ of the sleepers: those distant space travelling, cryogenic, life-supported humans of the poems.

Where ‘The Hotel Hyperion’ sequence describes a possible future, the next section ‘Room and Bell’ describes an equally claustrophobic past. From outer space we have moved to the colonization and exploration of a different kind. ‘Room and Bell’ is a long prose poem in six sections told in the first person by a child trapped in a bedroom by illness. Even in this poem the central images of the collection are not far away “Snow Dome in my hand, watching the /last glitter settle on its plastic ship and backdrop waves”. Here the high windows of the convalescent’s room act as a lens so that the room becomes a camera  obscura “which remade weather as a moving picture’ (Room and Bell III, p.33)

The final section of the book The Triumph of Caesar allows the poet to make us focus on what she wants us to see, in the way that the eye of a film director directs the vision of those who see a film. The opening poem to the section, ‘The Humanity of Abstract Painting’, provides a lovely segue from the previous sequence about the structure of a house where the abstract is described as:

“…the house that silence returns to you.
This is the empty house.”
                                    ‘The Humanity of Abstract Painting’ p.40

There follows a number of poems written as commissions by artists and curators for exhibition catalogs. They are sure and deliberate, the relationship of the poet to visual art is deep and genuine.

An earlier poem ‘A Description Storm Glass and Brief Guide to its Use in Forecasting Weather’ had looked at Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar but here in ‘The Triumph of Caesar after Mantegna’ we are given an entire poem to contemplate the painting in detail. Each first line of the poem is the same “The trumpeters have gone ahead” as if we are looking at a painting, then looking again and again. It is like stepping into the silence that occurs after sound.

                  In his pictures, the weather looks real, the people
dressed in stone – bright wind-caught stone- and stayed
in the gesture of a statue, the iconography of feeling
waiting in the flesh like animation stills.
                                    ‘The Triumph of Caesar after Mantegna’ p45

She moves easily from describing the spoils of war to her own experience as a child in the back seat of her parents car ‘fields stacked with light/ which did not pass but poured through me’. Gorton describes what she sees in the painting but also what things mean and how they trigger memory.

It is difficult in a short space to give any real impression of the depth, complexity and elegance of the collection. The poems themes touch on mimesis, the communication of emotion, on memory and dreams.  The collection declares ‘here is something that is made’, it is a believable world, where art is part material, part transcendent. This collection displays beautiful, joined-up thinking, ‘not like natural things but like nature itself’.