Review: Room Studies

Room StudiesRoom Studies by Brennan Burnside
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a high concept collection that succeeds where so many other concept poetry collections, whether based of erasure, flarf or reclaimed text, fail. Each poem describes an imagined space tightly defined and constrained by the walls defining it. The descriptions are exacting and architectural in nature giving dimensions, materials, colors and relative positions of objects in the room. One can easily imagine each space as an installation piece at a contemporary arts museum, where one could wander from sanctuary to sanctuary, workspace to den to broom closet. Working like a Cindy Sherman photograph, no particular poem is stand-alone successful; it is the accumulative effect and growing sense of the uncanny as one incorporates each new entry into the growing collection.

Near the beginning of the collection, many of the rooms are assigned to deceased celebrities who either died unexpectantly young or remained reclusive until death–Andy Kaufman, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. A few still living celebrities sneak in also–Billy Corgan, Mickey Rourke and Ron Jeremy. The color-saturated rooms at first seem normal with books left out, televisions left on, cigarettes still smoldering. But people are absent these vignettes. And quirks start to arise. Andy Kaufman’s bomb shelter’s TV has a Howdy Doody episode on loop. Ron Jeremy’s hotel room TV has Debbie Does Dallas on pause. Jim Jones’ champagne room contains a neon-green Holy Bible with an electric cord. Mickey Rouke’s kitchen has a stack of bibles: 3 red, 4 white, 3 blue. The bibles start to stack up: Ron Jeremy has a red hardcover Heilige Bibel, Hoffman’s bedroom has no bed, but it has 400 green bibles, 400 red bibles, 400 blue bibles. Vonnegut has a red bible. Salinger has an illustrated white children’s bible. As the surreal edge seeps into the rooms, so do noise, odors, and worse.

vase breaks, low shuttering thump from above
[from “Andy Kaufman’s Bomb Shelter”]

rosemary incense seeping / through floor
[from “Amy Winehouse’s Panic Room”]

cigarette smoke, fire alarm / screaming
[from “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s bedroom”]

blood creeping from / under the crack
[from “Billy Corgan’s Den”]

At this point the collection gets downright eerie. Two consecutive poems describe rooms in Sandy Hook Elementary School time-stamped 7 minutes apart on the morning of the mass shooting.

chairs with beige cushions overturned . . .
table with black metal legs, overturned, cobwebs on table
legs, sixty-three small styrofoam cups scattered in
south east corner, shattered Kuerig coffee maker, cobwebs . . .

The collection powerfully ends with five poems from the World Trade Center all time-stamped between 9am and 9:03am on 9/11/2001.

[from “World Trade Center Study Room, 9:02 am, 9/11/2001”]

. . brown and black

alarm clock radio, 9:02 am, screaming behind east wall,
quartz crystals explode.

[from “World Trade Center Bathroom, 9:02 am, 9/11/2001”]

single wooden door, crash
bar, florescent light
fixture 6”X20’, one
bulb burns out,
sound of

This collection is observant, thoughtful and terrifying variously, and worth experiencing.
[Check out my other reviews here.]


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