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Keeping Verse Alive

August Kleinzahler
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

An exhaustion lately creeps over American readers of contemporary lyric poetry. Jerked for decades between stylistic poles of experimental and workshop/confessional verse, we persevere, keeping a sharp ear tuned for the real sound of our language, for the beat. The former style, with its deracinated gimmickry, asks us to respond to its surface obsessions with text as a fetishized medium—such poems feel, generally within a line or two, like a kind of pornography, interesting if you must know how other people screw, but not exactly worth the effort. The latter influence, with its solipsism of The Poem as a kind of pill you take to flip your wig, submit to the Artist’s emotional state, and say “a-ha, I feel your pain,” has led far too many folks, I suspect, to hate poetry (and perhaps Poets) as much as they hate going to the dentist.

Thank the muses, then, for August Kleinzahler’s steady output over the last twenty years. Since 1985's Storm Over Hackensack, Kleinzahler has consistently worked more of our American life and tongue into his verses, with all of its exciting pastiche of high-tone and plain-song dictions, the rhythms of contemporary English as we find it—sometimes swinging, sometimes cracked up by a mischievous, fractious beat. His poems are simultaneously experimental and accessible—that is to say, possessed of clarity—a rare feat, and they often capture the sensibility of a modernized Sidney or Jonson, connecting with tradition, while suggesting that there might be way out of the trap of being an American poet. His voice is that of the regular Joe, but wised-up, never trying to kid us with unearned feelings or sentimental dodges.

Kleinzahler’s work has long been suffused with music—jazz especially, but Schubert also, and the urbanist’s score of traffic, human voices, strange accents, chatter in the street. Kleinzahler writes a music column for the San Diego Reader, and his new collection of poems moves the subject front and center, with a loose-jointed series of “chapters” called “The History of Western Music.” Each of the six installments sketch the historical-emotional force of music over temporal and cultural distances. In the first installment Sinatra and Ava Gardner rub up against Mahler, and the poet travels through “famously tragic” and “haunted” lands, with various places and persons described in the adjectives of newspaper reviewing. Birdsong in an Irish countryside leads, slantwise, to Liberace, sequined before a casino audience:

as he smiles coquettishly to the Vegas crowd then turns to deliver the first
in a series of thunderous glissandos,
somehow finding his way back
to a climactic, magnificently rousing chorus
of that million seller
and timeless classic,
“Moon River.”

In another chapter, a crowd of American orchestra musicians carouse in the Italian apartment of “the Maestro,” in a stew of sexual tension, social jockeying and cultural anxiety, a brash people engaged with Old World tradition, ending with “the mezzo from Winston-Salem” silencing the jaded crowd in the street with an aria from Monteverdi. “Chapter 13” gives us Thelonious Monk onstage in Paris in the ’50s, doing a sort of soft-shoe minstrelsy for a baffled audience that has come to hear the new American music. The poem offers the same stanza five or six times, the beat modulating slightly, as if a small combo were running the changes to a tune:

The large black man, the large Black man is dancing
And the Parisians are watching
Nervously. But the drummer, Pierre
That is, and Claude on bass
Are beginning to get it
They are watching the black man’s dance
And think they’ve found it
Relax, mes chers
We are nearing the end of the tune

Many of the rhythmic innovations of Monk—suspension, broken meter, the isolated note—have been hallmarks of Kleinzahler’s metrics. His technique is often comic in its effect, as in “A Beautiful Mind,” where the poet-as-amateur-brain-surgeon relates the result of trying to rewire the brain for a new poetics, “What you might call synergy enhancement surgery/one language center communing with another”:

Never seen anything like it, I tell you what. Press down there, the eyes start tearing;
down back in there, the willie jumps up and you turn beet red.
Messing about, you can imagine what happens next:

Your blistering corolla’s ventriloquisms

Sepulveda, der phu-duh-duh
Knell, wet stencil
Ocarina thirst

All of that digging only to arrive in Hell:
an endless tape-loop of the aphasic’s broken rant,
Friday night forever in the Indeterminists’ Revival Tent.

He enjambs sparingly, and his lines often encompass a full unit of breath, with slow pacing and attention to the spaces between the beats—steady and mostly iambic.

Kleinzahler’s eye roams widely for subject matter, dragging in bits of advertising slogans, unique odors, painting, newspaper headlines, truckers and movie stars, barflies, acid-casualties, wiseacres, flora and fauna, and so on, without ever really being about any one of these things, as if the reader were walking through a regional art museum’s uneven collection of bric-a-brac, whose purpose is partly display, partly preservation. “Pulp & Gumbo Sonnet” is a wonder-wall of impossibly strange headlines, found poetry. In the title poem, “Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat” agitate with “Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes.”

Some of his best poems in the collection function implicitly as vehicles for expressing an ars poetica. “Sleeping Dog” places the poet’s praxis in a retriever’s twitchy dreaming:

Willie, jump. No, there, there, Willie, in the rushes.
A terrible exchange.
Stout Willie.
Willie the Brave.
Your back, Willie.
Willie, five o’clock high.

“Epistle VII,” meanwhile, affirms an urbane sensibility as the poet chides a pastorally-inclined friend:

Accident, contingency: it’s city nature, Maecenas, that’s for me,
not those endless manured fields, lowing
cattle and whatever sheep do.
I’d like to once walk through those hills
you go on about
without getting shit all over my shoes. You leave
that part out.

In past collections, Kleinzahler has often sent up the aching vagaries of love with a sweet, gentle touch—here, “The Tunnel of Love” wistfully renders the erotic anticipations of a hot date:

Leg-weary, only half-awake, stunned by the game-booths, barkers and speed,

the time has come,
we have finally arrived
for what you and I knew all along
would be the day’s last ride.

The poem can be read at face-value, without any flashy insistence on metaphor: the physical details are fully realized, and thereby more potent in their effect.

“The Tartars Swept” closes the collection, and is perhaps its singular set-piece—a menacing, nasty iambic fest which must be heard a viva voce, in the poet’s broad New Jersey vowels and clipped diction, to be appreciated fully. Rapid images of a marauding horde trigger an almost racial response in Western listeners, sending a chill through the reader today, after two long years of war in Central Asia:

From the Don to the Dniester The Black Sea to the Pripet Marshes
Laying waste the Ostrogoth villages
Taking with them every last cookie
Then dicking the help
These wanton boys of nature
Who shot forward like a bolt from on high
Routing with great slaughter
All that they could come to grips with
In their wild career
Their beautiful shifting formations
Thousands advancing at the wave of a scarf
Then doubling back or making a turn
With their diabolical sallies and feints
Remorseless and in poor humor
So they arrived at the gates of Christendom

Muscular and precise, the poem works through the dread accumulation of detail, sweeping the reader along with it.

If there is any problem with Kleinzahler, it may be that great success seems long due him, which in the shotgun shack of Poetry means a tenured spot in a paneled office on a well-groomed campus somewhere—a likely shame, in any event. His voice, so richly demotic, is continually nourished by his wandering temperament, as witness the book’s title theme, and does not suffer gladly the hothouse foolishness of the academic setting. Kleinzahler’s hilariously mordant take on the artists’ colony (and by self-implication, the poet’s particular economic situation) in “The Ant Farm,” is already a classic, describing its summer writing retreat closing up shop:

Fructified: yes, that would be the word, exactly.
Reluctantly, one returns to the world
and all its quotidian bother, fructified.

Let’s all wish on him, then, troubles and vexations most bothersome, something to keep the moss off him—so that we might look forward to more of his fine poems.


Peter Spagnuolo

Peter Spagnuolo is a poet and writer based in Greenpoint. He is the poetry editor of Booklyn (, an artists' book publisher.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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