by GEOVANI RAMÍREZ
Ian Felice, Hotel Swampland (Publication Studio Hudson, 2017), pp. 72
Ian Felice, like William Faulkner, has created in Hotel Swampland his own Yoknapatawpha County with equally bizarre, troubled, and heartbreaking characters. Unlike Yoknapatawpha County, Felice’s Hotel Swampland expands beyond the American South into vast supernatural, spiritual, psychological, and cosmological realms. Hotel Swampland stretches our imagination and revises our notions about what stories are worth telling: the paranoid child devoured by a black bear in her sleep, “Doomsters” who “debate love in the final century,” “Blue ghosts / That flit among the trees,” “stray cats / Housed among the tombs,” “The embryo and war,” “The sun in a golden straitjacket,” and a lady who “remained / For seven years” “Afloat in her red umbrella.”
Ian Felice is best known as the lead singer of The Felice Brothers, an American folk band from the Catskills of New York. In a tribute he offers on the back cover of the band’s album Tonight at the Arizona (2007), Gabe Soria describes The Felice Brothers as “a harvest festival, a late-night meal of greasy roast chicken and a stolen bottle of red wine shared with friends, and a woozy summer night filled with the promise of love, danger, barbecue and fireworks, all rolled into one.” Ian Felice’s mischievous smile, mad-man eyes, and his simultaneous salty-sweet-bitter playfulness and somberness are at the heart of the exciting and eclectic character that defines the dynamic Felice Brothers.
Felice’s voice can be most accurately described as vintage with a mug of black coffee to go along with it. At first blush, Felice’s voice seems reminiscent of Bob Dylan and yet, if you listen carefully, you realize he is simply and perfectly Ian Felice, a cat with the voice of an old timer who, whether you are ready for it or not, will transport you to different times and many other realms. He similarly transports us to the strange and varied landscape of Hotel Swampland in his collection of poems, where we can expect to find ourselves in “Graves on graves on graves,” “swamps of heaven,” empty churchyards, paper villages, and swan marshes. There, we see a “lunar suburb,” “Radioactive cattle,” a “space age condominium,” and “brick houses on the moon”; we can climb Candy Mountain and check into the “Moonscape Motel” and find ourselves at the “Gates of time.”
Felice is also a visual artist—he was a painter before he became a singer. His background as a visual artist has informed his music and, by extension, his literary productions. Felice painted the covers for some of the Felice Brothers’ albums, including their Christmas album on vinyl Country Ham and Murder by Mistletoe (2016), Favorite Waitress (2014), and Undress, their most recent album released in May of 2019. The importance of visual representations for Felice’s artistic vision cannot be overstated, and we see how Felice uses visual art to add layers of meaning to his lyrics in the Felice Brothers’ accompanying video to the tracks from the album Life in the Dark (2016). The Life in the Dark videos are whimsical, bazaar, disturbing, playful, and tragic. These palimpsestic videos are formed from different clips of throwback advertisements, television shows, cartoons, movies, and newsreels among a plethora of other scenes that represent the seedy, sometimes absurd, and often insane side of life. Some of the clips are layered with bright captions and overlaid with translucent kaleidoscopes, turning globes, circulating skulls, exploding fireworks, war footage, and images of asylum patients in straitjackets, the Atomic bomb, and spewing volcanoes.
The Life in the Dark videos reflect Felice’s knowledge of old popular culture, history, and television and demonstrate Felice’s experimentation with artistic mediums. As a singer/songwriter, visual artist, and poet, Felice mixes these mediums to tell, show, and sing these stories to us, to disorient readers in order to re-orient us for a particular artistic and/or existential vision. Felice’s artistic productions remind us to consider the symbiotic relationship between auditory, visual, and written symbols as he works toward helping us question our existence. His work begs us to examine what we normalize—suburbia, success, war, pageantry, consumption, jingoism, and even literary and artistic genres. In an interview with Thom Williams for Sonic PR, Felice explains that Hotel Swampland was born out of “the things that . . . didn’t work as songs.” His adaptation of these writings into poems reflects his conviction that mediums are fluid and that the subject matter of art is equally malleable. Hotel Swampland is the embodiment of Felice’s multiple artistic talents and his experimentation with mixing mediums.
Through his painting of two dancers on the front cover of Hotel Swampland, Felice offers us a glimpse into what lies ahead within the pages of Hotel Swampland. The darkly humorous image reflects Felice’s tendency to see the complexities of human experience, his tender recognition of the simultaneity of beauty, art, and horror, of his familiarity with the easy coalescence of dreams and nightmares. The two dancers on the book’s cover, as so much of Felice’s work tends to do, echo the ironies and contradictions that define human experiences. At first glance, we see that dancers or ice skaters are in motion, poised to dazzle us with their elegant moves. But on closer examination, however, we see that this dance is graceless and undefined. The performers are blurry and the head on the figure of the left seems grotesquely limp with the left leg likewise lifeless. The dancer looks unconscious or, worse, dead.
There is nothing simple about how Felice sees and depicts the world. When I first stepped into Hotel Swampland, I found myself, paradoxically, in obscurity, temporarily blinded by all that Felice was showing at once. I was initially overwhelmed and frozen, apprehensive about moving past the threshold of the first pages for fear that I might get lost or fall into a chasm of my own incompetence. I walked through Hotel Swampland with the unreflective curiosity often associated with tourists. I stared at the interesting places and people and took pictures, and I left. When I returned, the strange land of Hotel Swampland seemed mildly more familiar, and though still disoriented, I found myself in a questioning stream of consciousness, posing a plethora of queries. As I read the “The Animal Extravaganza,” I wondered, How many speakers are there in the poem, and whose life should I focus on? Is the poem about celebrating life and love or about bemoaning loneliness and contemplating suicide? When I witness “windows lit by birthday candles” and “doves released into the night” and learn that “Under the new auroras now, / The wind moans inconsolably,” am I witnessing the promise of a bright future or the deterioration of life? What is life when “death, as you know, is a sinking net”?
Hotel Swampland is thematically, linguistically, formally, and conceptually sophisticated, and I will admit that its literary merit is also its one weakness if, in fact, we can hold a literary work’s sophistication against it. Felice makes his readers work for meaning, not because he’s playing games with us, but because that is required of us if we wish to take human experience seriously. Though he often leaves us with more questions than answers, there is a sense of exaltation in the state of lingering curiosity, confusion, and awe that he leaves us in. His art depicts the gritty, complex, and ugly underbelly of our lives, and his poems are the flesh of life in all of its stages. Felice’s speakers across his poems watch how as “The last contestant of the season / Lay unresponsive / (We all smiled at her glittering uniform)”; they see “the hotel carpet burns” and hear “our screams / Weaving around suburban fences”; and they notice that “The moon swayed like hanged meat / From the sky’s agonized ceiling.”
Hotel Swampland is divided into two parts. “Part I” is a contemplation of a more universal madness that defines human experience. It focuses on various characters such as Alice, who was “favored by the birds” and “Lived in a broom closet / For the better part of a decade”; Mr. Kleber whose disease was determined “incurable” and therefore was “burned on sticks / His image hung briefly in [the] sky like the descent of fireworks”; and, the self-exiled un-named figure in “Kicking an Old Can” whose dissatisfaction with “the fat houses that litter the valley” “imagined himself, among other things, / As a goose clapping in the thunder-charged air.” The second part of the book entitled “Part II: Visiting Hours” alternates between the experiences, thoughts, and struggles of Jack and Helen, two figures who experience the wide spectrum of mental health issues ranging from mania and depression to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
Mental illness is of primary concern for Felice, asking that we acknowledge those with mental illness and resist condemning them. In an epigraph to “Crowd Behavior,” a poem about a murderous schizophrenic, Felice quotes Saint Augustine: “Every disordered mind should be its own punishment.” This authorial move compels us to consider alternative epistemologies or think deeply about the causes for human errors and limitations. He reserves his judgment for systems and governments, for collective cruelties and barbarities, and, in fact, he resists social sanctimoniousness by using mental illness to question that which we take for granted in our daily lives, from our career choices, objects of consumption, embraced ideologies, and proclivity for war. He uses the framework of mental illness to help us see the madness of that which we deem normal. As Felice points out in a statement announcing the release of their new album Undress, “It isn’t hard to find worthwhile things to write about these days, there are a lot of storms blooming on the horizon and a lot of chaos that permeates our lives.”
Through Hotel Swampland, and his oeuvre more generally, we see life, our environment, consumption, childhood, values, and relationships (in the broadest sense of the term) through the critical eyes of those mad people we sideline. In Hotel Swampland we forget where we are or in some cases never really find out. The familiar confounds and frightens us and the peculiar offers reason, comfort, hope, and/or enlightenment. In “Dream Factory,” “A chain of rainbows accompanies the workers / Who bob up and down into the factory,” and “little children sit on the tops of fences / Or stroll through the saber-toothed shadows.” The chain that follows the workers and the menacing shadows the children venture through obscure the pleasant images of rainbows and children sitting atop fences. Chains and the saber-toothed shadows evoke the image of a chainsaw that symbolizes violent mechanical labor as well as the townspeople’s impending death at the river’s rise. Bobbing like wind-up toys, the workers, miserable with their hopeless lots and routine labor, have only the likeliness that as a “dreamy river ebbs,” it will “swallow the paper village” and provide a final escape. As the speaker repeatedly asks, “Can you see the river rising?” this frightening prospect of death bounds the town’s doom with its hope for transcendence, and this prophetic question becomes a celebratory chant of deliverance.
Felice’s poems help us pause to ask, what happens when we consider mental illness? What do we see when we take schizophrenia seriously? What happens when we consider the possibility that what we initially think is “A fish, / Lifeless and discolored. / Another false memory / To toss / Dough-faced in the boiling sea” is actually “The rainbow trout / Leaping in the emerald light”?
Felice takes us into the (un)familiar world of Hotel Swampland with its face turned toward the celestial to help us break away from our routines and see our worlds anew. He uses the symbolic power of natural light—representative of knowledge, happiness, kindness, and dreams—to mark the contrast between our more natural place in the universe and the oppressive state to which we collectively relegate ourselves. In “Consider This,” the subject of the poem finds herself “Daydreaming at the Xerox machine” and envisioning “Rainbows connecting realms” all while “Summer passes in an afternoon.” This scene is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” where “Good men” cry “how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay” and “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight / . . . learn, too late, they grieved it on its way.” The sense of time passing, and with it the opportunity for us to enjoy the fruits of our youth or confirm the worth of our lives, is prominent in both of these texts, but in Felice’s poem, the subject is trapped by, presumably, her economic circumstances rather than a blindness about the importance of living deliberately. The poem itself acknowledges the human will to survive our conditions and break from our shackles, but it refuses to idealize transcendence in the light of the subject’s reality. The poem concludes with the un-named visionary’s walk home in the dark during which “A malfunction in the moonlight / Reveal[s] again a world outside of this / But only for a split second / until / Reflected in the black glow of her shoes, / The red neon sign of the Moonscape Motel” shines on her. And yet, Felice does not lose hope. Though he recognizes the synthetic lights regulating our lives—both the light from the Xerox machine, which represents mechanization and our complicity in endless reproduction and wastefulness, and the neon light from the Moonscape Motel, a kitschy glow that evokes a bacchanalian urbanity and development (think Times Square)—Felice shows us, if only in glimpses, the pleasant bright light emanating from “Rainbows,” “Summer,” “Haley’s comet,” and the moon in this poem.
We likewise see Felice’s preoccupation with the dangers of harnessing destructive lights we have constructed for ourselves in “Daily Updates,” a poem that merges our distanced televised viewership and fondness of war with an injured soldier’s potentially final thoughts. Following the pattern of disorientation that defines Hotel Swampland, “Daily Updates” surprisingly, and ironically, stages war as a lovely performance. The speaker opens the poem with “Overhead, dive bombers / And other odd fields of entertainment / Bedazzle the sky.” The title of the poem alludes to the obsessive and superficial reporting on wars that creates a culture of voyeurism, desensitizes us to violence, and abstracts war from the festering field mice and the “Real . . . odor of burnt flesh” that characterizes war. The speaker’s reference to a bedazzled sky and “fields of entertainment” alludes to viewers’ distanced and unreflective consumption of war. It points to viewers’ distractions, at least those proponents of war, from the injured soldier wondering “Will I make it back to Illinois, . . . For this years [sic] book-of-the-month club party”? By focusing on the simple pleasure of reading and conversing over a text that, one would assume, would enable the soldier to reflect upon life and re-integrate the soldier into society, Felice privileges this soldier’s vulnerabilities and humanity over his courage. In doing so, Felice offers a Wilfred Owenesque warning about that “old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” Thus, for Felice, support for the troops, an appreciation for their lives and value, is intricately tied to peace and their well-being. It humanizes the soldiers through their vulnerability rather than abstract them into national heroes. Hearing Felice describe the bombs as a spectacle that bedazzles the sky gives new meaning to our celebration of “the Rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” during the national anthem. Felice illustrates in “Who Do You Think You Aren’t?” the hallucinatory character of war. In the poem, he juxtaposes children’s war games and their indoctrination into army mentality (“I thought, ‘Because I am a soldier, / I will not abandon my post’”) with glimpses of soldiers dying. In so doing, the speaker in the poem alludes to the physical and social death that soldiers experience during war and likens state deployment of soldiers to the unreflective act of children playing at war: “You placed one soldier on an abandoned ridge / Swinging over the chasm of our world, / Some were swallowed by the sofa, / Others discarded for defects.” The war games that we play in our celebration of inter-state violence neglect to take into account “A pilot madly singing through the mountains / Pummeling toward something further than heaven.” For Felice, “These kinds of dreams should stay in sleep.”
“Daily Updates” more broadly underscores the privilege of viewing war through a television screen rather than participating within it or being victimized by it. The words describing war as entertainment are, of course, ironic and in their irony they critique our callousness and question our roles in war from a distance. His poem presses us to consider, at what point does our desire to be informed become voyeurism or an obsession? What right do we have to be informed, and what do we do with the information we get from news? Do we have the right to watch as, far away, soldiers die and people’s homes, families, lives, and nations are destroyed by the glowing light on the television, which from our view resembles the pleasant rise and fall of fireflies on a summer night? What place do these lights have in our lives? And, to quote the speaker from the poem, “Are the stars part of this world” any longer? Can we continue dreaming in the face of this destruction? We can find some clues in the last lines of the poem, which read “The moon, red as a circumcision / Has appeared above the shooting gallery.” The red moon sits as proof that we have stained our atmosphere with our destructive lights, an image that speaks to weapons of mass destruction and our devastation of the environment. Indeed, as Felice shows us in his song “Jack at the Asylum,” uncovering the violent history of the US involves recognizing the “dead fish,” “The air-conditioning,” the temperature of “130 in Death Valley” alongside “the lost Cherokee” and “Hiroshima and the lynching tree.” From Felice’s perspective, then, we must awaken to the synthetic and destructive lights we have created before we can envision “Rainbows connecting realms.” After all is said and done in “Jack at the Asylum,” “America!” gives the speaker nightmares but also “dreams to dream / Popcorn memories and love.” The image of “the shooting gallery” at the end of the poem brings together art, stars, and death. It is a symbol that continues to critique the consumption of wars as entertainment and emphasizes the dangers of weapons. And yet, in the context of a world where we can no longer distinguish between the glows of weapons and that of the natural universe, the shooting gallery might also evoke the image of falling stars.
Despite his unrelenting insistence on the despair around us, Felice doesn’t fully lose heart. In “Special Announcement” from The Felice Brothers’ latest album Undress, Felice playfully assumes the role of a presidential candidate and runs on a platform that allows him to celebrate simple pleasures. He assures us that “I’m saving up my money / To be president / I can promise more berries / On blueberry hill / I can promise you this / Charlie Parker on the ten dollar bill.” The song is critical of corporate money’s powerful influence over US politics, but the speaker remains free from capitalist greed and undaunted by his opponents, boasting of a resistance and countermovement that overpowers the hollowed out institutions and nameless, invisible political and corporate actors in the song. In fact, the irreverence the speaker displays as he saves his money “To be president” only to “Toss it to the birds” and “Burn down the Stock Exchange” offers some relief from the frustrations of being governed by politicians, including the president, who spend their time “Pleasing all the financiers” and “corporate goons.”
Moreover, the reference to blueberry hill reminds us of Felice’s expansive knowledge of music and literature and displays, again, his palimpsestic aesthetics. Blueberry hill references the song “Blueberry Hill,” popularized by Fats Domino, in which the speaker remembers having experienced love’s “thrill / On Blueberry Hill” and Blueberries for Sal, a children’s book that parallels the experience of two mothers—a human and a bear—and their children as they gather berries on Blueberry Hill. The intertextual references are quintessentially Felice. “Blueberry Hill” speaks of the thrill and disappointment of love and Blueberries for Sal points to the potentially deadly consequences that Sal and her mother could have experienced when during the berry picking the little bear and Sal inadvertently change places. However, the concluding words in “Blueberry Hill” (“Though we’re apart / You’re part of me still / For you were my thrill / On Blueberry Hill) ring of Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost / than never to have loved at all,” and the threat of death that Sal and her mother experience in Blueberries for Sal do not preclude the simple beauty of the moment and the pleasures of tasting nature’s fruits. The iconic Charlie Parker, also known as “Bird,” seems similarly an appropriate choice for Felice since though the brilliant and famous saxophonist suffered from alcoholism, heroin addiction, and depression, he nevertheless created music that we continue to cherish today. In all of these cases, Felice continues to embrace the grayness of existence, but he does so in a way that can be exalting.
In Hotel Swampland, Ian Felice channels pain and despair into art and gives us the space to mourn, fear, and regret. At times he depresses us, but he does so in a constructive way that, through our awakened-curious-confused state, buoys us into life. Time and again Felice shows us that darkness does not have to overshadow our lives and dark humor coupled with a bit of hope might just sustain us. He seems to say as much when in the song “Lion” he sings “There will always be / A little crumb for you and me.”