In Margaret Bashaar’s Stationed Near the Gateway (Sundress Publications, 2015), a gothic cast of characters inhabits a Hotel, each trying to figure out their respective places in it. They walk between dimensions, among dreams and each other’s bedrooms, through gardens, under water, getting tangled in one another’s hair. They roughly ricochet off each other, bite each other’s shoulders, continuously looking for a shared song to sing and never really seeming to find satisfaction. The search for peace and connection, however, remains ongoing and passionate: even the ghosts in this book are restless.
The main character, running barefoot through these poems, is Claire. Earthy and sensual, Claire enjoys eating apples and tomatoes, and isn’t afraid to get banged up a little. We are told that she lives at the Hotel—that emblem of transience. No wonder, then, that Claire is described to the reader in terms of movement; she is associated repeatedly throughout the book with rabbits, birds of paradise, and sparrows. In “The Girl Who Lived at the Hotel,” for example:
There is a sweetness on her lips that never wears off, trees
burnt black and shining in the corners of her mind.
She does not need light to see, knows what she breathes in is not air,
but the place where she blends from woman to rabbit to sparrow.
These creatures, and Claire herself, also evoke a certain amount of vulnerability: we as readers come to love her, and we want to protect her. And yet we still secretly hope that she will follow the Demon Hunter into the darkest corners of the hotel. Claire is intrigued by the Demon Hunter who moves into the hotel and our first glimpse into their relationship is “anise heavy on his breath he whispered to the prettiest dark haired girls things demons said to him when exorcised.” Claire begins to write him letters.
For all of her running through its hallways and gardens, Claire seems tied to the hotel—almost like purgatory. She wants to evolve, but is perhaps a prisoner. Her affairs with the Demon Hunter and the Proprietor of the Hotel suggest, sometimes, a feeling of being trapped (as do the moments when she is described as wanting to evolve into ocean), and yet they also provide examples of Claire’s boldness, as in one of Claire’s first letters: “Claire Writes a Letter to the Demon Hunter Upon Learning of the God Dimension”:
I will always remember
you slapped my ass,
of the haunted hotel.
I was 22, and yes,
I did want it,
but it had been
4 years and still
I can only admit this
after 3 am and too much
of what I thought
I swore off
when I held my hands
like the virgin’s and married
the Black Sea.
This yearning for water feels important. Part of the reason the poems suggest that Claire may be trapped, or ambivalent about her attachment to the Hotel, comes from the book’s repeated return to water, and the way the poems associate Claire’s spirit with water. Water suggests the desire to ripple and sway, not to stand still or remain sedentary, and in this book, it is associated with possibilities of escape, such as the long, gorgeous “Baleen,” which appears at the end of Part I, when it seems that Mary (a missionary) may finally be able to leave the Hotel.
Unlike Claire, who enjoys going into the dark without a flashlight, Mary finds no comfort in darkness—she floats in white light, doesn’t drink, and only falls in love “with fictional men these days.” Mary is a priestess who doesn’t know what spells to cast. She and Claire do not seem to exist in the same room (or dimension) very much. They commune, though—each needs some of what the other girl has. It almost reads at times like if they could exist together inside of one body, they could solve some sort of cosmic puzzle and leave the Hotel, as in “Because We Ran Here With Bare Feet”:
She is speech, I am mind,
and we look for the body tangled
in treetops or covered in moss
softer than my hair, this mattress,
softer than anything made my man.
Claire and Mary are the true characters of this collection, and we love to spy on them through cracks in the walls. The other characters at the Hotel drift through cold kitchens, dark hallways, over train tracks—and spy as well. One in particular, The Proprietor, likes to cause harm. He is a rough man, a symbol of control and negativity. The Demon Hunter puts himself in harm’s way and battles evil spirits, but it is the Proprietor we fear. Claire’s relationship with him is depicted in “Claire Visits the Old Hotel”:
She let the Proprietor kiss her and his mouth was
dry heat and questions she could not answer [. . . ]
The Proprietor’s summer dried her up.
Three years and Claire could not force him down,
tongue cracked and jaw swollen.
He tied her to his body to make her
into a sacrifice for the Monkey god
and she did not argue.
The next morning he threw her down a hidden
stairwell, smashed her on the floor . . .
When Claire is with the Demon Hunter, the Proprietor watches them jealously and becomes an even more aggressive spirit, something there is no shortage of in the world of this collection (or the world we share).
Bashaar also writes about Claire sharing a bond with a character called “the monster.” We get the idea of a role reversal here, and it is lovely: this monster is also afraid of Claire, knows that her “touch might break him someday.” We watch a cat and mouse game and wonder who will be hurt by whom. Who will evolve into the sea air outside? Perhaps it will be Claire, who states she is a “woman particle all out of phase.” We can hope.
In “The Proprietor’s Eyes are Everywhere,”
. . . You can draw symbols on doorjambs in chalk, but I will walk through.
You can talk to the deer heads all you want,
but they answer to my voice in the end.
The indiscretions you make here are not yours to keep.
Did you think it would be that simple?
Maybe the souls trapped in this Hotel will someday escape the Proprietor’s wrath. Maybe they won’t. They exist in the Hotel’s structure, in its wallpaper, their skin bruised and translucent, aching to levitate and feel an open-mouth kiss by the sea shore. Who is the real monster? Who are the real ghosts? Bashaar’s lines create a multilayered, beautiful universe that we do not want to leave. Maybe we will always be there.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook Clown Machine just came out from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP.