Sunday Poetry: Belly Dancer at the Hotel Jerome, by Stephen Dunn

Belly Dancer at the Hotel Jerome

Disguised as an Arab, the bouzouki player
introduces her as Fatima, but she’s blond,
midwestern, learned to move we suspect
in Continuing Education, Tuesdays, some hip
college town.
We’re ready to laugh,
this is Aspen,
Colorado, cocaine and blue valium
the local hard liquor, and we
with snifters of Metaxa in our hands,
part of the incongruous
that passes for harmony here.
But she’s good. When she lets her hair loose,
beautiful. So we revise:
summer vacations, perhaps, in Morocco
or an Egyptian lover, or both.
This much we know:
no Protestant has moved like this
since the flames stopped licking their ankles.
Men rise from dinner tables
to stick dollar bills where their eyes
have been. One slips a five
in her cleavage. When she gets to us
she’s dangling money
with a carelessness so vast
it’s art, something perfected, all her bones
floating in milk.
The fake Arabs on bongos and bouzouki are real
musicians, urging her, whispering
“ Fatima, Fatima,” into the mike
and it’s true, she has danced the mockery out
of that wrong name in this unlikely place,
she’s Fatima and the cheap, conspicuous dreams
are ours, rising now, as bravos.

    – by Stephen Dunn

The Hotel Jerome is in Aspen – I’ve never stayed there, but the J-Bar is simply a classic bar that may be the epitome of old school. We’ve happened upon it a couple times, and enjoyed it for what it is.

Last night, I found this poem in the Night Out poetry anthology I mentioned buying when I wrote about Laure-Anne Bosselaar’s Stillbirth. It’s funny to read poetry about a place you have visited – it adds importance to a place that was completely fine as it was. Then I looked up the Hotel Jerome on Wikipedia, and learned about the wild times of cocaine and celebrities at the J-Bar. Yes, there once was belly-dancing in the room downstairs.

Imaginary gardens with real toads, indeed.

All that aside, I really enjoyed this poem. There’s so much reality in it – it’s kind of awful. Belly dancing is not stripping, and Fatima is a name common among the Shia. Some midwestern blond is misappropriating culture in the basement of a cocaine and valium-fueled hotel. The spectators are prepared to laugh, though a more politically correct response would be to be appalled.

But then it turns human. She’s a good dancer, and she lifts the crowd above the mockery and to a point of appreciation. The speaker in the poem shifts his assumptions about her talent’s provenance from a Continuing Education class to travel and love. Something good happens in that sordid, wrong location, so full of wrong cultural impulses.

3 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: Belly Dancer at the Hotel Jerome, by Stephen Dunn”

  1. Nick says:

    There were more realities in the Hotel Jerome, Dan, than were ever dreamt of in your endless plains…

    The original party hotel. During the mid-90s the spirit of the place dissipated somewhat, though you could still occasionally run across Thompson at the bar. Friends say the hotel just completed a thorough makeover. No worries: the bar still offers those great booze milkshakes.

  2. gonemild says:

    Were you there in the day?

  3. Nick says:

    Not the original day; that would have been in the early ’70s and I was still wearing Uncle Sam’s O.D. back then. But from ‘78 though ‘89 I roamed a number of Front Range and beyond lil’ mountain towns: Boulder, Leadville, Carbondale, Nederland, Paonia, Hotchkiss and for a while Aspen. (Vail was always too hoity-toity). But that bar, and to a lesser extent the hotel, was (in)famous throughout the mountain communities…not to say anythingwent, but it was damned close. Well, at least after John Denver’s influence waned…

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