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The Voice Literary Supplement
Offbeat, off hand, subtle, and unsettling . . . Longer acquaintance with Kleinzahler's verse brings greater admiration.
The first broad retrospective of August Kleinzahler's career, Sleeping It Ofƒ in Rapid City gathers poems from his major works along with a rich portion of new poems that visit different voice registers, experiment with form and length, and confirm Kleinzahler as among the most inventive and brilliant poets of our time. Travel--actual and imaginary--remains a passion and inspiration, and in these pages the poet also finds "This sanctified ground / Here, yes, here / The dead solid center of the universe / At the ...
The first broad retrospective of August Kleinzahler's career, Sleeping It Ofƒ in Rapid City gathers poems from his major works along with a rich portion of new poems that visit different voice registers, experiment with form and length, and confirm Kleinzahler as among the most inventive and brilliant poets of our time. Travel--actual and imaginary--remains a passion and inspiration, and in these pages the poet also finds "This sanctified ground / Here, yes, here / The dead solid center of the universe / At the heartof the heart of America."
The witty, gritty poet and memoirist Kleinzahler (The Strange Hours Travellers Keep) has produced chiseled, sometimes curt and finely observed free verse for decades. Kleinzahler has lived in Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Portugal and Berlin; his sketches of characters and places from at least four continents include affectionately cynical portraits of hoodlums, odes to the autumn failures of baseball teams and swiftly cinematic depictions of Tartar hordes in medieval Europe, "ripping the ears off hussars." Hackensack, N.J.; the foggy Bay Area with its foggier ex-hippies; and northern European lakes and mountains all receive their due in a poetry that aspires to the feel of bebop and the delight of travel writing, that never bores and rarely repeats itself. New poems add to, rather than swerve away from, Kleinzahler's strengths in close observation and all-over-the-map diction, from slang to technical terms. Overheard speech in "Above Gower Street," a poem about the loneliness of international travel, ranges from an answering machine's anodyne messages to an explicit sexual come-on; in "Vancouver," "the neon mermaid over the fish place/ looks best that way, in the rain." This ninth book of poems and first trade press new-and-selected should bring this master of free verse lines even more admirers. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kleinzahler's tone might be world-weary, his characters slightly frayed, but each poem in this retrospective collection is perfectly, breathtakingly balanced to deliver its own precise world-as it plunges, deceptively, into the deep heart of things. After decades, Kleinzahler got some deserved recognition with his NBCC win. (LJ5/15/08)
"[Kleinzahler's] scope is large, his diction wildly exact, his line inventive, his means varied, and he never condescends." —Maureen N. McLane, The New York Times Book Review
"Erudite, restless, intellectually curious, alert to what goes on around him from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning, [Kleinzahler] brings to mind Frank O'Hara . . . Wonderful." —Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books
"Kleinzahler mixes the pungent and the delicate, the literary and the colloquial, to create a fine, technicolor-like excess." —John Palattella, The Los Angeles Times
What follows from a dedication like this can only be a good time. Still, whimsy formalized into art is no longer whimsy -- it's a whimsical posture. It can have the right effect, though, especially if assembled slyly enough. P. G. Wodehouse worked like a factory, yet you didn't see the smokestacks or hear the conveyor belt in his books.
Kleinzahler is a similar creature in verse form. His poems beetle down the page, telling tales of barrooms and night flights, crummy days turning vaguely tolerable at dawn. Guiding our eye as it descends through the lines there is always Kleinzahler, the poet, out there pollinating pain with beauty, as he does in the opening of "Vancouver."
Black filthy rain it's raining like a grudge is out but the neon mermaid over the fish place looks best that way, in the rain.
Poets who care about beauty so often retreat to a world that no longer exists, but you won't have a hard time finding Kleinzahler's: airport lounges, dive bars, the view out a New York City apartment, "roofs with their old wooden storage tanks / and caps of louvered cowlings." It's a slightly scuzzy metropolis. If these poems had a soundtrack Tom Waits would certainly be on it. One poem describes the ants marching around his food at a Chinese restaurant; another muses on how much meat must be trucked in and out of Manhattan daily.
What's so amusing is how Kleinzahler brings such enormous formal gifts to describing and loving this universe. Like Lawrence Joseph and John Ashbery, he can compress poems into discrete shapes of sound -- force the reader to stop and pause and breathe exactly as he wants, all while keeping the imagination's eye fully engaged. "On Johnny's Time," "Goddess," and "Portrait of My Mother in January" are supreme examples of this enormous control.
Mother dozes in her chair,
awakes awhile and reads her book then dozes off again.
Wind makes a rush at the house And, like a tide, recedes. The trees are sere.
Afternoons are most difficult.
They seem to have no end,
no end and no one there.
Outside the trees do their witchy dance.
Mother grows smaller in her chair.
This is a tremendous poem, the first line lulling the reader into what appears to be a calm, quiet, domestic scene. Then the wind kicks up and there's a sense it's not nearly so serene, even if the trees are sere. The repetition of that "e," silent and not, appears all the way down, making it look like a poem shot full of holes, of absences. The lines grow shorter in the middle of the stanzas, like a mood shrinking down out of misery. At the end, the loneliness shouts off it -- all the more so because the dying mother seems so unaware she is being watched.
As you see in this poem, Kleinzahler can watch and write about pretty much anything he wishes -- static or frenetic, high up in the heavens or right here down on the streets. He loves characters, glimpses of kitsch, the mournful pathos of the overlooked. "Lots of taxis and brittle fun," he writes in "San Francisco/New York." "We pass the shop of used mystery books / with its ferrety customers and proprietress / behind her desk, a swollen arachnid / surrounded by murder and dried out glue / of old paperback bindings. / What is more touching / than a used-book store on Saturday night."
The mood, the rough glamour, the sense that his poems are records of a night that went nowhere good -- it all lends Kleinzahler's work the hard, endearing toughness of 1950s noir. Indeed, if Frank O'Hara had had a darker side, he may have sounded like this. But it's a different world now, 21st-century New York/San Francisco, and Kleinzahler is perfectly suited to urban life in the age of capital's supposed triumph -- at home in the margins, and just as tuned in to cities' constant mercantile buzz. "The markets never rest," he writes in "The Strange Hours That Travelers Keep," "Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat / Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons / Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes."
Kleinzahler is so good at O'Hara's type of omnivorous, roving poem it's easy to forget he can do so much more. In fact, his range could be even broader than the New York poet. He always seems to be working with a bigger palate of words. And he possesses a pastoral poet's love of painting the natural, no matter what urban wasteland it's traveling over. "Storm over Hackensack" begins with this colorful prediction. "This angry bruise about to burst / on City Hall / will spend itself fast / so fluid and heat may build again."
Occasionally, Kleinzahler's desire to depict and take snapshots pushes his lines closer to prose than poetry. This isn't such a bad thing, especially since Kleinzahler is such a good prose writer, but it highlights a recurring, if small weakness in his verse -- a flattening toward the prose poem, as in "Traveler's Tales: Chapter 18":
A southerly bluster off of Bass Strait was raising whitecaps in the Bay and jittering the flags out across the plaza.
We were sitting under the famous bare-ass portrait of Chloe.
You know the one, in the old upstairs hotel bar, posh.
Take out the line breaks and this easily becomes prose -- nicely written prose, still, but not poetry. And yet, as flat as these lines are, they have Kleinzahler's inimitable mixture of beauty and bare-ass, all while giving you a bit of a dirty wink. They're going somewhere -- probably fueled by Maker's Mark and a good, workable typewriter. Like every other piece of work in this book, they could be written by no one else. --John Freeman
John Freeman's work has appeared in the Guardian and The Wall Street Journal and on NPR. He is completing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.