Essays — October 20, 2014 12:02 — 0 Comments


In the title poem of her collection, Self-Storage (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2012), Rebecca Hoogs writes, “It’s unreal the way I keep returning to places/like this one, distant from where I live/and in ruins, yet where I live.” She’s speaking of Hadrian’s Villa, the 2nd century Roman emperor’s country estate.

Under Hadrian’ father, Trajan, the Roman Empire had grown as wealthy and as large as it ever would, stretching from England in the north to Egypt in the south, from Syria in the east to Spain and Morocco in the west. The rich enjoyed innovations in home life like running water, skylights, and radiant heat. They ate flamingo tongue, giraffe steaks, and dormice dipped in honey—food imported from three continents. If they felt a little off, they sent for a personal physician, a doctor who might treat constipation, pull an aching tooth, administer drugs via hypodermic needle, or even perform cataract surgery. The English historian Edward Gibbon wrote in 1776 that no Christian nation yet had reproduced the quality of life enjoyed by well-to-do Roman citizens living under Trajan and Hadrian.

Despite such domestic bliss, Hadrian indulged his wandering spirit. He spent most of his 20-year reign surveying and reinforcing the boundaries of the Empire. In Greece, he fell in love with a boy named Antinous. A line of verse, allegedly written by Hadrian about his young love, translated by W.S. Merwin, and used by Hoogs as an epigraph for “Self-Storage,” goes: “Little soul little stray/little drifter/now where will you stay/all pale and alone/after the way/you used to make fun of things.”

Conservative Romans deplored homosexuality, especially the man-boy love of the Greeks. Even in Greece, a man who fell in love with another grown man was an object of pity, if not scorn. Maybe this explains why, on a cruise up the Nile with Hadrian, Antinous, nearing adulthood, drowned. He may have jumped overboard. He may have been thrown off the boat.

Soon thereafter Hadrian built his villa as a monument to the world he ruled. On nearly two square miles of hillside overlooking Rome, he recreated architecture and natural landscapes from all around the Empire, focusing particular interest on Greece and Egypt. He diverted a river to feed his water features. He built a complex network of subterranean tunnels—like at Disneyland—to hide an army of servants from his guests. He dined in a half-domed, open-air triclinium, so it looked as if he ate inside a wide open scallop shell, rising out of his recreation of the Nile, which was flanked by caryatids, and crocodiles spitting water from their toothy smiles.

As Hoogs sits by the remains of Hadrian’s simulacrum of the Nile, she notes the “concrete and rebar” crocodiles, imitations of the emperor’s originals, which were marble imitations of “ones once flesh.” Her mind drifts back across heavy loss. But like the emperor, she keeps her own council, even as she maps the central metaphor of her book:

It’s all too real how I keep myself
to myself. I have rented a self-storage unit

on the edge of a natural depression. I am
the stuff I store.

Hadrian tried to contain himself in his villa, but it’s difficult to feel his presence in the ruins today, even in the personal study he built on an island separated from the rest of the complex by a drawbridge and a mote. Maybe that’s because he put so much of his energy into traveling all over the Empire, renaming cities after Antinous, dedicating statues to the new boy god.

In Self-Storage, Hoogs roams between America and Rome, seeking compartments for former lovers, for the past, and, above all, for herself. She wants the perfect embodiment for her voice. “Look at/this fine example of compartmentalization,” she writes at the end of the title poem, capturing an image of the poet’s art,

paper wasps making a living in the mouth
of a crocodile, twice removed.


As a bearded lover of the Greeks, Hadrian would have known Socrates said you couldn’t put yourself into words. Spoken language poorly represents what’s on your mind. Written words poorly represent spoken language. Images triggered in the minds of readers are fractured, corrupted versions of a truth that’s thrice removed from the writer’s mind.

It’s telling that Hoogs voices Platonic thought through Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, who finishes the inventive poem, “The Muses Narrate a Slideshow,” with the couplet,

Here I am a copy of a copy
of an original feeling now lost.

I love how you can’t tell if “original” is a noun or an adjective modifying “feeling.” These lines highlight the sharp intelligence of Hoogs, and they echo the primary problem of Self-Storage, which must be her desire to find containment in forms that ultimately prove incapable of holding her. Maybe this is why she writes in “Laboratory,” part of a trilogy called “Three States,”

We’re studying mind over matter—
a glass half full, half shatter.

Maybe this is why one of her best-known poems can be read as an ecstatic argument against the possibility of containing yourself in anything like a poem.

In “Another Plot Cliché,” Hoogs imagines a love affair between a “high-speed car chase” and a “sheet of glass.” Once you’ve read the first two lines you know how the poem ends. But you can’t stop reading. Hoogs holds the dramatic tension across 30 lines, not breaking until the finale, in which the speaker—the “sheet of glass”—simply says:

I’ve got a thousand places to be.


For three summers Hoogs and I have co-directed the University of Washington’s summer creative writing program in Rome, but this summer, family obligations kept her home, while I led the program alone, so when we met at La Spiga, an Italian restaurant on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, to drink wine and reminisce about the old country, it felt a little like meeting with an X after the break-up.

“Is it true that Seattle has seven hills like Rome?” I ask.

“That’s what Kevin [Craft] says,” Hoogs replies. Craft, the editor of Poetry Northwest, and recently a judge for the Washington State Book Awards, where Self-Storage was a finalist, describes Hoogs as an acrobat, straddling “multiple tones and perspectives with a single poem.”

I wonder if travel helps her develop this agility. Like Hoogs and the emperor Hadrian, I’m a wandering soul, and I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to see places in other places. Of course, in Rome, one sees so much that looks familiar because the city still stands as a blueprint for Western Culture. But Rome isn’t like other cities in the West. Other cities are like Rome.

“One thing I really miss about Rome,” Hoogs says, “is the strangeness of the winding streets, that feeling when you get lost and pass an open door and the space inside what appears to be a narrow passage opens into a whole world.”

One uncharacteristically raw poem in Self-Storage feels like the product of getting lost like this, and suddenly finding yourself in a place that feels so much like the threshold of a portal. I’ll quote the whole narrative, “Come Here,” here:

When, in a sprawling subterranean housewares shop
of Rome, I asked the price of some wine glasses,
and the salesman told me and then told me
to veni qui, come here, I went.
He showed me some other glasses.
Do you like these? he asked. I don’t speak
much Italian so said only, sí, mi piace,
yes, I like. Crystale, he said, and pinged the glass
with a fingernail. Yes, I repeated, crystale.
And then he touched my arm saying veni qui,
veni qui, and so we went to another part
of the breakable underworld where real
about-to-be-married Italians were filling
their bridal registry and so like me
did not yet have all their words for negativity
and he stopped before another set of glasses
and said, you like? And again, yes, I liked.
And again he rang the tiny bell of what he was
trying to sell me. And then, arm touch, come here,
and then yes, I like. This went on for some time
until I’d liked it all. I liked and was like every glass
he held. All I was was touched. All I could say was yes
to everything but bought just two small glasses
from which you and I have yet to drink.

With a confessional tone, Hoogs draws us into the story of the beckoning shop clerk. Speaking little of his language, she’s aware of herself as foreign. Her vulnerability’s heightened by his touchiness. But as we follow Hoogs into this “breakable underworld” we watch her transform. As she becomes like “real/about to be married Italians,” her discomfort moves from within to without, fixing on the idea of marriage.

Kevin Craft says switching between two languages in the poem creates “a dialogue of intimacy with mythic undertones.” To me, the dialogue feels very much like the call and response one associates with mass or casting spells, the repetition of words being a catalyst for transformation.

“The speaker becomes what she observes,” Craft says, “and there’s great poignancy in being held in that moment by a kind old Italian gentleman, who is (presumably) beyond the turmoil of marriage and “negativity” and is as transparent as kindness (with salesman’s edge) itself.”

The poem’s jarring finale makes me question the transparence of the shopkeeper, and the mythic undertones plus the mention of marriage puts me in mind of Proserpina in hell. Unsettled, I ask Hoogs about the ending.

“I think it’s unresolved with its own resolution,” she tells me. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who says yes to everything, but I’m truly wary. There’s this tension in me between saying yes and saying no. If you never say yes you miss out on so much of life. But if you go too far there’s the risk you won’t come back to yourself.”

Self-Storage is a collection in which the author sometimes fails to get lost in her poems. As much as she wants to practice the “negative capability” of John Keats, a vanishing act where the artist disappears in her art, where the self dissolves in observations, Hoogs finds it difficult to escape herself.

And yet, in “Come Here,” she does lose herself, momentarily becoming as transparent as the crystal glass the shopkeeper rings like a “tiny bell.” But it’s the sudden turnaround in the ending that holds me; the way the poem catches me in the act of enjoying intimacy between strangers—and suddenly pushes me away—makes me squirm in my seat, questioning my motives as a reader.

“Rome,” Hoogs says, “forces you to be with your sweaty, uncomfortable self.”


When Hoogs says “Rome brings the awkward out in all of us,” I imagine Rome exorcising awkwardness, not a ridiculous notion considering the elegance with which Roman women float over cobbles in high heels, or the reality in Rome that you’re not unlikely to meet an actual exorcist.

In Seattle we have therapy; we have yoga; both probably watered-down modern versions of intense cleansing rituals practiced by ancient ancestors. We have the smallest church-going population in the United States, but if you go to church here you’re likely to imbibe in communion, a highly sanitized version of the ritual sacrifices in which our forebears drank the blood of slaughtered animals.

Socrates may have been onto something when he said the written word diminishes reality, but he assumed the goal of writing was to tell the truth, to reproduce our minds in words. Poetry isn’t always about that. Sometimes it’s about losing your mind in words.

Imagine the bourgeois gentility of modern poets all you want, but poetry’s also a tradition of divine possession, of men and women listening to voices, struggling to speak for forces beyond understanding or control. Every poem, Robert Graves wrote, begins with the poet’s severe emotional trauma.

“I don’t want to say poetry is like yoga anymore than it’s like therapy,” Hoogs says, “but there is this sense sometimes that poems help us work something out for ourselves that we didn’t know we needed worked out.”

Whether that thing is emotional trauma, the voice of a muse, or the writer’s ego hardly matters to the functioning poet who sees herself in the world she observes. Hoogs performs a representational art, and as such it aspires to be that which it represents, but she also performs a creative art, which alters the world she observes.

“I’m so over myself,” she writes in the penultimate poem of Self-Storage, fixing her hair in a mirror behind the bust of an anonymous Caesar, whom she seems to peer through. Here’s the self in one statement seeing its reflection and retreating from the vision. Kevin Craft calls that vision “poignantly wry.”

In the book’s last vision we see Hoogs sitting in a museum gallery, it’s walls covered by the wraparound fresco of a garden that once decorated a subterranean dining room in the summerhouse of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. Their dining room was a microcosm of the Western World, which they’d made their garden. Had you dined with them you would have seen fig and lemon trees, their leaves stirred by the breeze. You’d have seen a sky filled with more than a dozen species of birds. Had Horace recited his ode on a nightingale you would have seen one. Would it matter if it were on the wall or in the woods?

In World War II, when American planes bombed an observation post built on top of Livia’s buried summerhouse, a gang of Germans shimmied down a hole in the ground. Imagine you go to light a cigarette with your Zippo and you see quince looking ripe enough to eat.

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats says, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter,” which strikes me as an argument for the superiority of art. “If only//I were a little more chimerical—half woman,/half myth—” Hoogs writes, expressing her desire to step out of herself and into the trompe l’oeil garden on the wall.

In Self-Storage, Hoogs does sometimes escape herself, speaking from the point of view of an old house, a fixer upper that’s “bride-new for you,” and from that of a porcupine, whose words “are points/you never even made.” She speaks for silence, for sound, for muses, and for suckers, but the most poignant voice in the whole collection is the one that approximates her own. It’s a human voice, unbroken, even as it struggles against the body that gives it shape.


John Wesley Horton is one of several directors of the University of Washington's summer creative writing program in Rome. He's been the recipient of a Washington Artist Trust GAP grant and several residency fellowships. He's recently published poems in The Los Angeles Review, CutBank, Golden Handcuffs Review, Poetry Northwest, Notre Dame Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pageboy, and The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney