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By (May 1, 2008) One Comment

Sleeping it off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected

By August Kleinzahler
FSG, 2008

…it is difficult not to watch
the movie on TV at the foot of his bed.
40” color screen,
a jailhouse dolly psychodrama;
truncheons and dirty shower scenes.
I recognize one of the actresses …

Here is the interior of “The Old Poet, Dying,” by August Kleinzahler. The vigil Kleinzahler keeps beside the dying man’s bed is a modern one, too infrequently expressed in poetry, perhaps. Anne Heche makes an appearance, though Kleinzahler declines to have her named (the movie he describes can only be 1994’s “Girls in Prison”). This, like most of Kleinzahler’s asides, may not be an aside at all. For another writer, this poem might be “about” the dying poet. “He looks eerily young, / what’s left of him, / purged, somehow, back to boyhood.” For Kleinzahler, though, the poem is as much about the prison flick as it is about death. One is significant to the poet and the other is not, but what does that matter? The poem is about significance itself, and much of its detail signifies nothing.  

Has Kleinzahler met “the bigshot,” the poet wants to know:

You know that poem of his?
Everyone knows that poem
where he’s sitting indoors by the fire
and it’s snowing outside
and he suddenly feels a snowflake
on his wrist?

The joke is that in Kleinzahler’s own poetry, although a random snowflake may well represent a glimmer of the universal mystery, it would never be expected to power a whole poem, or even more than a line. Within a moment or two of its appearance, a “good pee,” a “night train to Milan,” and “kinetic snapshots of trees and light” appear and disappear. The poem may return to that snowflake or it may not. The world spends all day hurling discordant details at its residents, and Kleinzahler’s poetical mission is the re-stitching of those fragments into something musical, intriguing, and occasionally moving. His poems often return (in the way haiku return) to their themes only after some divergence in the world of particulars. We stop thinking about what a Kleinzahler poem is about soon after we begin to read it, in the same way we quit thinking about whatever errand we’re be running on a crowded street. We just get caught up.

In “The Old Poet, Dying,” that snowflake does reappear, and ends up standing for—of all things—the very notion of contrived significance. The old poet has drifted off, and Kleinzahler has become arrested from his thoughts of Cherwell River running through Oxford by:

… a fiercesome catfight
on the TV, with blondie catching hell
from the chicana.
He comes round again and turns to me,
Leaning close,
Well, of course, he says
taking my hand,
his eyes narrowing with malice and delight:
That’s not gong to be just any old snowflake,
now, is it?

Lost in the accumulation of insignificant details, the suddenly meaningful stuff takes us by surprise. In this way, Kleinzahler manages to strike at more effects, and in more registers than the single-effect, single-mood poem of Mark Strand’s he’s poking fun at (“A Piece of the Storm,” from the Pulitzer-winning collection “Blizzard of One,” I think).

Whereas a poet like Strand uses archetypical objects to gesture toward a larger immanence, (“A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room”), Kleinzahler typically passes him in the other direction, moving from larger, more generalized emotion toward particulars. Mood colors landscape, as opposed to the other way around, as in “San Francisco / New York”:

How utterly provincial and doomed we feel
tonight with the streetcar appearing over the rise

and at our backs the moon full in the east,
lighting the slopes of Mount Diablo
and the charred eucalyptus in the Oakland hills.

This is an epistolary poem, and Kleinzahler closes it by asking his correspondent if she’s bothered to look up at the moon in New York. In San Francisco, “It fairly booms down on us tonight / with the sky so clear, // and through us // as if these were ruins, as if we were ghosts.” The easy profundity of this last bit represents a trap Kleinzahler lands in from time to time: writing against his strength. More successful is his signature poem, “Where Souls Go,” in which the fate of departed souls is pondered, and the poem moves from the metaphysical clouds of its title down to a recognizable, particular-filled life on Earth. Should we imagine the fate of souls as walking ghosts, as the sheet-shrouded creatures of Hollywood? No:

Rather, imagine them in the eaves

among pigeons
or clustered round the D train’s fan
as we cross the bridge to Brooklyn.
And make that a Friday night
July say. We are walking past
the liquor store to visit our love.
Two black boys are eating Corn Doodles
in the most flamboyant manner possible.
She waits, trying
to have the best song on as we arrive.
The moon is blurred.
Our helicopters are shooting at field-workers.
The Mets are down 3-1 in the 6th.

The fate of vanished souls, then, is woven into our everyday.

The early Kleinzahler was a man as much preoccupied with “ghosts left with the dust” as “the living dust.” In one of his early poems, “Ghosts,” (not included in the new Selected, although it should be):

they gambol
in our oats,
our marshdreams
move & move
and under us

who loved
in life.

The world is full of fragments and junk and the constant moment of its passing away is both pointless and painful. Dust, both living and dead, stirs and settles, and we are not too far ourselves from being a part of it, even as we wander through aubades, sunsets, days at the fair. Much inspired by Basil Bunting (a great objectivist, though no fun to read) and the Gregory Corso of Gasoline, Kleinzahler’s early work consisted mostly of this detail and that detail strung hauntingly together. A poem might be about nothing more than an old woman on her way to buy “a nice piece of fish and some soap,” or a punk practicing his flick knife and waiting for the phone to ring.

The new Selected presents the longer and more fleshed out of his early poems, but doesn’t make clear the extent of his early experiments. The first 20 years of his career are represented in fewer pages than any other period, and this necessarily limits the extent to which readers can trace his progress. Considering Kleinzahler’s publishing history, this is understandable. A poem like “Where Souls Go” has not only been reprinted in several anthologies, but in four different books of Kleinzahler’s, most recently FSG’s Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club. Kleinzahler has only recently become a “famous” poet, and his earliest work has been re-introduced to a listless public so frequently that he and his editors must have thought that there was not much reason to re-re-introduce it here. But by including only the longest and least idiosyncratic of his early poems (and lengthened versions of some), Kleinzahler has created a less representative progress – though this admittedly makes for a more consistent collection. There are poems in the newer selection that – though prolix and relaxed – read enough like earlier poems to make them of a piece. There are middle-period poems that might belong to either side of his career.

Since 1998’s Green Sees Things in Waves, Kleinzahler’s poems have explored more the world of the mind and proved less likely to be set on street corners or logging camps. He is as likely now to publish an inspired adaptation of Horace as he is a small, lyric poem in the current New Yorker mode, or a (largely unsuccessful) experiment in one-word lines as if copied from refrigerator magnets. New and Selected volumes are generally weakest in the newest work and this one is no exception. For the past few years, Kleinzahler has shown a tendency to surprise his reader not with inspired line breaks or unexpected juxtapositions but with too-clever vocabulary, as in the new poem, “Retard Spoilage,” which opens:

Animacules heave their tackling,
ladders of polysaccharides,
onto meatmilkshrimp&creamy emulsions,

sticking like putrefactive Velcro.
The refrigerator switches on in the darkness,
a murmuring, perfervid sadhu close at hand.


For those who like this sort of thing, there is plenty more (although you might prefer Geoff Hill or Paul Muldoon). For fans of Kleinzahler’s earlier work, there are “Anniversary” and “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City.”

  In the latter, the longest poem he has published, Kleinzahler finds himself in “the exact dead center of America,” “the exact center of the Oglala known universe,” “the dead solid center of the universe,” where “the Bible store respires in its sanctum” and “bison graze in the shadow of these hills.” Through who knows what thickness of ironic lens, Kleinzahler writes of Rapid City as a “holy place.” Bronze statues of former presidents dot the streets, “the eyes they gaze out of are holes.”

This is a fine poem to begin the collection and a fine poem with which to approach this poet. His old style is there in the semis “hauling toothpaste, wheels of Muenster, rapeseed oil,” but instead of a collection of city specifics it is the contradictions of the American experience he juxtaposes, the “hundred million year old Lakota sandstone, clays, shale, gypsum” at “the basins of ancient seabeds.” Over those seabeds once glided strange creatures, once stormed native warriors, now speed “98 foot long Titans and Minutemen / 150,000 pounds of thrust.”

His interest in the political landscape is relatively new, and unsurprisingly horrified. In his last collection, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, he writes, “I myself have been thinking constantly of America,” its booming jets “going fucking nowhere / and noisily coming back.” Though invigorating, that poem, “Christmastime in Coronado,” closes loudly but emptily. A disgusted thumbs-down—though appropriate to the current political state of affairs—is somewhat less than we expect of a great poet. The same is true of the new long poem. Having established all of these sad and exhilarating contradictions, Kleinzahler steps away from them. It is almost as though “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City” were the first part of a longer poem, a poem which will develop and expand these details, and in the hands of a poet like the Evan Connell of Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, that sort of poem is precisely what it would be. But Kleinzahler is a miniaturist, and a variously inspired one, whose art consists of the rapid glance more than the long look. Viewed as an introduction to his Selected, part one of an ever-expanding, several-hundred-part poem, it serves well.

A perfect poem about his mother growing old is of real interest in the new collection, as is the miraculous nature poem, “Anniversary.” Kleinzahler continues to try new things, and whatever setbacks he finds come also with triumphs. He is not free of sentimentality, and the words he sometimes chooses (fatso, beanie, chump, dippy, doozie) can find themselves in hock to the cool of another time and place. That said, he is a poet who, once read, will not be forgotten, and who—without resorting to the ease of abstraction—has done as much to advance the language of poetry as anyone alive.

This is not a book to be read straight through. On the other hand, there are few Kleinzahler poems that don’t bear re-reading, and because they are so various, there are plenty which repeatedly surprise.

Kleinzahler is one of those writers, like Fitzgerald or Kafka, who describe a certain recurrent landscape so specifically and well that real-life situations can then occur which feel Kleinzahleresque. The first time I read him was like that. I was staying at a Wall Street hotel on a weekend, when that part of New York is eerily empty and the rooms are half-price. I’d been out late at a Bed-Stuy bar called Sputnik the night before, and it was no help to the hangover that I had such trouble working the tiny 2-cup coffeemaker in my room. The hotel was sumptuous and vacant. My girlfriend at the time was in town to give a poetry reading. Our relationship had been in trouble for a while. There didn’t seem to be any cups, so once she got the coffeemaker to work, we drank the coffee from a mouthwash cap, passing it back and forth. Somewhere outside, a couple of afternoon drunks had started a fight. They must have been in the middle of the street, because a bunch of cars had been honking for a long time.

Most of the poetry we’d been reading wasn’t inspiring us anymore. Both of us liked our friends’ poetry but we also thought our beloved friends were dishonest blowhards. Kleinzahler came at just the right time. We were uninspired about quite a lot, but we were also away on a relatively fun weekend in an invigorating city. I cracked open Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club, which I’d bought at the Strand the day before, and read the shortest poem, “Dispatch”:

Be still

Say nothing

Ask nothing of anyone

The ego is a ghost ship

Don’t hurt your bones trying

This is only the end of a long day in June

The picnickers head home, feverish and drunk.

We started passing the book back and forth, and before long I was jotting down some of my own lines on a little pad of Club Quarters stationery. We listened to old-fashioned nature poetry that evening, while sipping an algae-green concoction called an Olympic Cocktail, whose recipe had been given to us by the Irish sex shop clerk next door. If this was not a Kleinzahleresque experience I would be pressed to know what is. It wasn’t my first such experience, but it was the first time I knew what to call it.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City has lots to recommend it. For Kleinzahler’s most original and most surprising work, I’d still recommend Live at the Hong Kong Nile, or Earthquake Weather, or Cutty, One Rock, his remarkable collection of essays. But for a shot of that thrill my ex-girlfriend and I drank up along with coffee-flavored mouthwash on Wall Street, any of his books will do.

John Cotter’s short fiction has appeared most recently in Ghoti, and his poetry in Left-Facing Bird. He’s reachable online at johncotter.net.