MOTEL OF THE OPPOSABLE THUMBS by Stuart Ross
Review by Bill Neumire
A replete, grassroots career precedes Stuart Ross’ most recent book of poems, Motel of the Opposable Thumbs, out from Anvil Press. Ross, who first published at age sixteen, has been a player in the Canadian literary scene since the ‘70s. Set in five sections of meandering landscapes that recognize “[t]here are / no rules,” this new collection brims with Ross’ hallmark surreal comedy. The humour in these poems is persistent, and at one point Ross breaks into a poem made entirely of one-liner motel name jokes:
Motel Mat O’Door
Motel Sitting Shiva
A Higher Motelligence
GeSTOPo for the Night Inn
Motel of the Opposable Thumbs
Esteemed reader, none of these distinguished motels have paid me
a single goddamn penny to include them in my poem. For god’s
sake look after our people.
But for all the laughs, the poet never fails to remind us that “one stage of grief is laughter.” At first glance, the title of the book—a distinguishing feature of humanity—feels silly, throwaway, but like a Shakespearean Fool, there is sense and wisdom in the humour and the nonsense. Known as a torchbearer for Canadian surrealism, Ross’ brand doesn’t take long to spot. In “Efforts,” the speaker asks, “[h]ave you ever had your fingers surgically transformed into suction cups and then walked across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?” At other moments, it’s an abstract acid trip: “My sister insisted on rescuing ladybugs. / She drowned her nakedness, / melting the billowing snow with wine.” At times it is a stitched, staccato effect like a pile of one-liners, but when the poet really invests in one of these Dali-like worlds, it moves into poignancy, as here in “At Laundromats Here There Are No Dryers”:
yet mentioned the clouds here:
they sing these very personal songs
about wrongdoing and being
wronged. They smoke a lot
of cigarettes. You can hear it
and I sing along though I have
no voice. I sing with my eyes.
Ross’ speaker is notably nonchalant about the mundanity of the surreal, quipping mildly, “[e]verything gets smaller. / The world glows. / You grow an extra arm.” The poet moves through prose poem, light verse, and collections of lineated images leaving the reader, at times, searching for a throughline. Are these poems really tied together? Are they (we might ask as we read, for instance, “An egg gallops. It wears a ring, splashes into a pool of tangled syllables. The head of a sparrow replaces my own head, so we’ll have time to share a marble tomato and dance among the nubile chairs of elsewhere”) just nonsense for nonsense’s sake? When the speaker tells us that “[d]etritus / was celebrating its birthday,” might this book be just that celebration? Ross seems decidedly unconcerned with this or any other critique; however, a deciphering reader always appreciates a poem that intimates an ars poetica, and in “He: a Poetics” we get an overt statement on his priorities:
A lot of poets think it is
important to write poems that
are about ‘issues.’ They judge
poems by the stance the poem
takes on issues. Lily [Ross’ dog] and I decide
whether we like a poem just by its tone
and the words it uses, the images,
the juxtapositions; we don’t really
care what the poem ‘means.’
The titular motel is a community of passers-through, fellow poets, muses, old friends, deceased relatives. Not surprisingly, Ross’ notes section at the end of the book is immense and warmly personal with entries like, “It is essential that you read Charles North.” Indeed, community is integral to Ross and his poetics. He has a series of poems “beginning with a line by” and manages to make note by name of over 100 other poets and artists who’ve influenced him in some way. It’s more than simply name-dropping (which he claims is the best way to end a poem), of course; it’s a way to honor a life that has grown from, with, and through other writers. Afterall, Ross has worn many artistic hats—publisher, festival organizer, poet, fiction writer, editor—and the motel serves as a metaphor for the process of receiving each guest, though unlike conventional roadside motels that rot and break down over the years, Ross’ motel grows in warmth and mass from the layered presence of those who have touched his art.
One of the book’s most prominent motifs is the speaker’s knowledge, both explicit and implicit, that he is vanishing, that time is wielding its unstoppable scythe on the world around him. This imbues Ross’ otherwise silly poems with a surprising potency of nostalgia, sentiment, and memory. The speaker in many of these pages recalls, in elegiac fashion, his parents, such as in this moment from “Subtitles”:
Did I tell you about the time
my mother hunched over my
fever-dampened brow? She
drew the blankets to my pale neck
and murmured to me,
You will spend the rest of your life
trying to remember
what I murmured to you.
This happens, also, in the central poem, “Motel of the Opposable Thumbs,” in which the speaker’s father is alive again and driving them through the night. The speaker, as a child, sits with a bag of chips and watches the moon until “VACANCY ruptures the horizon” and the father stops at the motel for the night. Then there’s a shift as the speaker says, “I’m nearing sixty. He is long dead.” It’s a sublimely underspoken elegy, and indeed, we often find our speaker trying, in moments of supplication, “to stop / the earth’s rotations.” And it’s almost as if his scattershot poetic style—his forms range from time log journals to Dali-like images to kernels of personal essay to lists of motel names; the book even contains a poem of fake contributors’ notes—is an attempt to fit as many permutations of linguistic reality in as possible before time runs out. He laments that “[w]e shall build ourselves Gutenbergs / as our ancestors did, without knowing our guts, / and sail into the focus of an excited fire,” even as he is clearly “weighed down with / the message of the night.” Yet there is joy and contentment in the gathering toward last gestures. It’s a sentiment exquisitely expressed again in “Threefold,” as the fading speaker uses his remaining energy to “squeeze the earth” until it becomes a pebble on his chest: “This little pebble rocking on my chest, it will hold everything I’ve loved. (…) I will fling it into that which had surrounded it. Let it sail where it needs to. Watch it go.” Motel of the Opposable Thumbs is a bit like a food court in its variety of approaches, but Ross argues “all words are good, it doesn’t matter what / anyone says, so long as they say it, and you hear / something.” So what do we hear? We hear the speaker’s laughter at the darkening world around him; we hear the jokes of an elegist who can’t help but sing with a voice haunted by loss; we hear the palimpsest of friends chiming in the background chorus; and we hear, hopefully, our own community.
Bill Neumire’s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award and his second manuscript was recently a finalist for the Barrow Street prize. It will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.