Vanitas Motel with a bad cold

Had a bad cold this week, so I reread Jon Loomis’ 1998 collection Vanitas Motel since it contains “Watching Wings of Desire With a Bad Cold,” one of those awesome you’ll-always-remember (and wish you wrote!) titles. And poem, for that matter. (Quick definition of vanitas painting, as I know not everyone’s parents were art history majors.)

Loomis’ poetry is tough, its situations blunt.

From “Divorce”:

Half-moon. Squidlight. Fog hung like a bedsheet
20 yards out. It’s a long walk across the breakwater—
gulls doze on the flats, hoping you’ll die. […]

From “Illness”:

Late December, dawn spreads like a rash
above the parking lot. Venus smokes itself down,
stubs itself out. The house is a whistle only I can hear—

From “Aubade at Your Hospital Window,” “Tuesday’s snow still with us, old pair/of underpants.”

Not tough-guy tough or down-and-out tough. Sure, there’s swearing, and balls and breasts, and a “girlfriend who could only/come in motel beds” and adultery and so forth (who was it who said everyone should have a book of Bukowski on their shelf, but it doesn’t matter which one?). But with Loomis the toughness is more that what comes at these poems — illness, insomnia, slow death, divorce (and art) — is tackled (“We slam/each door in the house before it rains.”) even as it’s painted with beautiful lyricism.

The middle of “Watching Wings of Desire with a Bad Cold”:

We’re all ghosts, more grudge than memory,
thin complaints crowding a blue-tiled cafe

(stink of onions, stink of eels and black bread).
It’s a long movie. Everybody wears a hat.

The beginning of “Common Prayer”:

The rain fell green.
I read a poem about art.
Then we stood

around the grave, uncertain
where we’d sent him,
to which afterlife.

Lightning branched across
the clouds. A watershed.
Bright veins, stripped

from Orion’s leg.

Though a few poems do feel more minor in their execution than others, it’s a consistently strong collection. His control of the line is also impressive, and his line breaks draw me back to these poems as much as the imagery. The line breaks here do everything they’re supposed to — tighten the line just past, heighten the action or image with that extra pause, and make the whole thing feel simultaneously well-crafted and natural.

You can read a few more Jon Loomis poems online in their entirety, from his second book of poetry, The Pleasure Principle. “Deer Hit” with its younger speaker and different context and choices makes an obvious and interesting contrast with Stafford’s famous “Traveling Through the Dark” (though I can’t say I think the very last line in “Deer Hit” works). But I do like the how the whimsy and the unexpected event in “On the First Tee with Charles Wright” is good fun that turns (in mid-air?) to something more melancholy.

p.s. The poem works I think even if you haven’t seen Wings of Desire, but if you haven’t you should.

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