Farrar Straus Giroux, 1998; paper: $12
quarrel in the streets is a thing to
while in the upstairs of a thousand duplexesLater we hear 'ho dear and "lordjesussaveus they're still making babies." Such plights and gripes are the one-off flakes of this snowfall.
There's something here also of the undiscriminating snow in Joyce's "The Dead," which, falling general all over Ireland, levels differences in social status as it mutes the landscape's contours. But Kleinzahler is not interested in allusion for its own sake (the title "On First Looking into Joseph Cornell's Diaries" being an exception) so much as in adapting what has been shown to work for new purposes. Moving on from the railyards and bus barns, his state-side flurries fall no less on the "big houses along the river bluff," but there the snippets of speech cease and the owners are called "swells"—as if empathic access were cut off with the weather- proofing. The poem's class-consciousness heightens and is formalized at the end.
It's snowing on us allPresumably the lawyer couple will eventually fix up their fix- up, and out will go the broken-spined reminder of all that the first five-sixths of the poem showed was worthy of attention. Kleinzahler fixes it there instead, against the amnesia of upward mobility.
Elsewhere he is similarly ill-at-ease, or maybe just watchful, about what happens when one shapes life with all its jagged edginess into an aesthetic object. It can be a lot like gentrification. That's not always a bad thing, but it's important to keep an eye on what's getting gutted or spackled over. When "Whole floors, / [are] broken up and carted off" in "Where Galluccio Lived" (Earthquake), there's a well-timed pause, then the lyric speaker reflects: "Memory stinks, like good marinara sauce. / You never get that garlic smell / out of the walls." The point being, I suppose, that whether memory stinks good or stinks bad, sometimes it's worth catching a whiff of, remembering. Poets who routinely opt for open, indeterminate structures or put a fine finish on everything thereby forfeit much of their chosen art's mnemonic advantage. In Green, "The Conversation" shifts the focus of such concerns from urban renewal to interpersonal relationships.
This then was the conversationif, as Kleinzahler posits, one
Put one's own armBy the end of this narrow, sparsely punctuated poem, having likened the conversation again to a whirlwind and upped the ante ("Why not") with a "biblical reek," he has nevertheless seen it scaled down into something "kept in the vestibule / An ornament / A kinetic sculpture / In the corner / On a stand / An objet d'art." Who has not had such a conversation? It seethes, a malignant presence, and yet too worked-at to part with or forget. Uncharacteristically, Kleinzahler offers not so much as a syllable of the conversation itself; instead, the relentless morphing involved in his attempts to contain it convey its menace.
Kleinzahler aims at keeping such tensions keen. Albeit somewhat up-the-establishment in demeanor, he is too wily a craftsman to go unheeded by academe. Alloyed of his own brand of social realism and eclectic scholarship, then refined with an ear tuned by Basil Bunting and Thelonious Monk, his poems help readers of all walks appreciate the rich store of rhythms, images, and emotions among the down-and-out without feeling patronized or preached to. The book's title poem exemplifies his talky affability. In the space of twenty or so breath-long lines the eponymous "Green"—whom I had taken to be a color with some abstract agency like that of Wallace Stevens' Phosphor "Reading by His Own Light"—has become "our boy," though we've since learned that he suffers from perceptual lag and hallucinated intimidation and will learn that these maladies result from an LSD overdose back when. If, thinking back to Joyce, the message Gabriel reads in the snow is for all your learned opinions and eloquence, you are no more elect or alive than . . . , Kleinzahler's cautionary message is more invitational: don't let creature comforts deprive you of the troves an eye and ear to the underside affords. Don't let your schooling narrow your bandwidth. Take time to smell the garlic.
Unlike Whitman, Kleinzahler is one of the roughs by his own choosing. This has been evident from the start but is foregrounded in new work like "What the Science of the Ancients Told," a sinuous long poem about the pulse diagnostics ("Sphygmology") practiced in medieval Cathay and by the 10th-century Arab physician-philosopher Avicenna. This poet indulgently flaunts a love of esoteric, often tongue-torquing words and phrases. "52 Pick-Up" (the title acknowledges the poem's let-the-cards-fall-where-they-may lack of ambition) consists solely of a dual-column list of 52 samples: "Suzerainty," Noam Chomsky's "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," "Huitzilopochtli," "Sforzato," "Korsakoff's Syndrome," "Guelph." When such roughage crops up in the course of a more narrative poem, you can tell the poet's feelin' his oats, and Kleinzahler feels his oats regularly. Thus, we get poems like "Glossalalia All the Way to Buffalo," featuring Colonel Vladimir Khotchokakov (schoolbus humor). But he restrains himself admirably when the mood or tone requires, stripping down his diction as for the black-and-white and eventually pictographic- seeming scene of "Silver Gelatin." From a high-rise window, a domestic is (optically) "caught through a net of griseous branches":
She leans forward now, pushing in haste.I love the austere delicacy of this poem. It is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" writ larger. Kleinzahler's one lexical luxury, "griseous" in lieu of "grey," is warranted, imbuing the scene with a granularity. With the same efficiency the lack of a like in that final would-be simile bespeaks the broken- off-ness. One sign of Kleinzahler's remarkable versatility is that despite his intense commitment to the urban preterite, he has a real knack for waxing urbane. For lyrics commemorating courtships of the not so distant past (his own), he will sometimes don the rhetorical flourish of courtly rhythms, diction, and syntax. In the second section of the charming "They Ofttimes Choose," his Corinnas, Megs, and Philomels, well-pleased,
Then take their leave but are not truly gone,Equal parts Wyatt and Herrick. You can almost hear the harpsichord plink-plinking in the background.
Of a piece, albeit less mannered, are the last five lines of "Watching Young Couples with an Old Girlfriend on Sunday Morning." Having made mention of MTV, tattoo ubiquity, and huevos rancheros, each anti-aesthetic and somewhat alienating, he asks, "Or do I recoil from their youthfulness and health?"
Oh, not recoil, just fail to see ourselves.Note how the same consonants recur, not to rhyme but to swarm, at the ends of those final lines: remains (/r/-/m/-/n/-/z/), frenzy (/f/-/r/-/n/-/z/), refuse to name (/r/- /f/-/z/ /n/-/m/). That's the kind of phonetic finesse almost anyone will appreciate on some level—probably unconsciously, grinning all the while—but too few poets aim for these days. The anti-eloquence set veer away with a theory-bound vengeance, while the New Formalists, who ostensibly strive for such effects, cheat themselves with rigidity. The same thing goes for metrics. Having laid down a perfect iambic pentameter line ("Oh, not recoil . . ."), Kleinzahler relies on his departure therefrom to register the pacing, the give-and-take, of cognitive pursuit and repression. Were "a frenzy" not held overtime in the penultimate line, the stymied caesura between "we still" and "we still" would dissolve; "a frenzy" would seem a glib denomination of that darkness, and the poem would end in oxymoron, the unnamed named.
Despite Kleinzahler's ranging, an elsewhere uncommon combination of brutish virility and empathic vulnerability ("tenderness . . . mortared first with a darkness") pervades. It was at the heart of "The Sausage-Master of Minsk" (Storm), whose hardy, pungent hero pursues a "half-formed" girl and ends up with mussed hair "interlaced with fine, pubescent yarn." One could hear it in that same early volume's "Vikings of the Air," whose speaker puts on a piratical swagger to bark orders—"Dump the goods, you scallywags, save this balloon"—but is inwardly an even-tempered optimist, reflecting, "Happily, […] we can buy air by dropping what we must." Red Sauce's epigraph, from "Louisiana blues man" Herman E. Johnson, speaks to the same mix: "So my life was just that way, to keep out of trouble, / drink my little whisky, an' go an' do little ugly things / like that, but in a cue-tee way." Finally, in Green, it is the conversant canine of "The Dog Stoltz," so modest in its fiction, that most poignantly perpetuates this signature motif. Kleinzahler demonstrates devotion more readily for animals than humans and when attending to humans is most alert to their animal instincts and needs. Stoltz, "part bull and something else," is something else indeed; he not only talks, he is planning an essay on the war poet Sassoon. Kleinzahler's human persona, the "I" of this poem, eulogizes the mongrel as "first beast, then scholar, then abject and adored." When he then asks parenthetically, "Say, who among us does not care to be undressed?" he is, I think, acknowledging, in the devious, sideways-glancing way of dreams, that Stoltz is a second version of himself in doggy dishabille. Allowing for some hyperbole, the brief pedigree suits Kleinzahler's poetic persona to a T, and could have served me as the title of this review. What's interesting, then, is the rhetorical, human dream-self's disowning of the seemingly more-at-home-with-himself animal scholar. He protests too much (twice) that Stoltz does not belong to him and significantly slips into the present tense even as he avows an over-and-done-with separation:
He was not my dog, you know. He simply followed me outI don't think Kleinzahler could abandon the dog Stoltz in him even if he truly wished to. I for one do not wish him to, for the pure products of Kleinzahler's own grace and recondite tastes, killer (prosodic) instinct, street-smart swagger, and tendresse are winning. Green Sees Things in Waves deserves readers in droves.