For my money the liveliest American poet at the present is August Kleinzahler. I first came across him in his collection Sleeping it off in Rapid City (2008), a title that says a lot about his themes and his expression. He’s quite well known on this side of the Atlantic – Faber now publishes him, and almost all the poems in his latest collection The Hotel Oneira (2013) were first published in the London Review of Books.
There’s a good reason for his ready transatlantic translation. Although his voice and his subjects are assertively, even pugnaciously American, his range of reference extends to Europe and beyond. His free verse flows with a cadence that’s demotic and learned at one and the same time. His language is precise, homing in on objects in a concrete way that he might have learned from his mentor, Basil Bunting. But flowing beneath the detail, much of it wittily treated, is a steady elegiac current. Kleinzahler is a restless man, always on the move, but he’s drawn back all the time to places and events that elicit the best and most affecting of his poetry: the rapid decline and early death of his loved brother, and the family’s home in New Jersey.
As the book’s title suggests, impermanence and dreams permeate The Hotel Oneira. The opening lines of the title poem, with their conversational register, modulating tenses and theme of return, are typical of Kleinzahler’s style:
That was heavy freight moved through last night,
and has been moving through since I’m back,
settled in again by the Hudson at the Hotel Oneira.
The trains have their counterpart in the disquiet of the speaker’s own mind:
There is going on just now a vast shifting of inventory
from the one place to another. I can feel it, inside my head.
They call to mind a childhood memory, of an uncle, and of a female visitor, whose leaving disturbs him: ‘There is a story there, but one I choose not to know’.
Knowledge, and the self-imposed limits to it, are a Kleinzahler theme.
The variety of the poems is astonishing. In subject: popular music (‘A history of western music: Chapter 63, Whitney Houston’), an Indonesian monkey (‘Tuq-tuq’), European exiles in America, return to the parental home, one’s own imagined funeral (‘Epistle xxxix’), the ‘walking poet’ Vachel Lindsay. In style: Chinese lyric, Roman satire, 18th century collage, a remarkable approximation in words to a Charlie Parker bebop (Kleinzahler is a long-time jazz critic). Vernacular American is punctuated by other languages, French, German, Spanish, Latin.
A poem that’s stayed with me, ‘Hollyhocks in the fog’, goes like this:
Every evening smoke blows in from the sea,
Sea smoke, ghost vapor
of lost frigates, sunken destroyers.
It hangs over the eucalyptus grove,
cancels the hills,
curls around garbage sacks outside the lesbian bar.
And every evening the black bus arrives,
the black Information bus from down the Peninsula,
unloading the workers at the foot of the block.
They wander off, this way and that, into the fog.
Young, impassive, islanded within their tunes:
Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire. . .
From this distance they seem almost suspended,
extirpated, floating creatures of exile,
as they walk past the Victorian facades
and hollyhocks in their fenced-in plots,
red purple apricot
solitary as widows or disgraced metaphysicians.
Perhaps they’re exhausted, overwhelmed by it all:
spidering the endless key words, web pages,
appetite feeding on itself:
frantic genealogists, like swarms of killer bees.
The countless, urgent inquiries:
the poor Cathars and the Siege of Carcassone –
what can these long-ago misfortunes tell us of ourselves, of life –
Ryne Duren + wild pitches + 1958 . . .
Knowledge a trembling Himalayas of rubble:
Huitzilopochtili, Chubby Checker. . .
But for now they are done, till the bus comes again tomorrow.
There is nothing further to be known.
The fog, like that animate nothingness
of Lao-Tzu’s sacred Tao,
has taken over the world, and with night settling in,
all that had been, has ever been, is gone,
gone but for the sound of the wind.
Kleinzahler has explained the genesis of this poem:
The first third or so of this poem was written 28 years ago, here in San Francisco, in the same apartment I’m in now. I was never quite happy with the rest of it and only recently figured out how I might complement those earlier lines. The “hook” or “event” precipitating the resurrection and completion of the poem was the – to me – strange phenomenon of the big black Google bus at the foot of the block every morning and evening, picking up Google employees, then dropping them off at night. The rest is, I hope, self-explanatory.
The opening lines have a Bleak House feel to them, combining sound meteorology – in the summer fog regularly rolls into San Francisco from the Pacific in the late afternoon, enveloping everything in a damp invisibility – and ominous echoes from the past, the ‘lost frigates, sunken destroyers’. Then, a new sinister note: the black bus, bringing workers back from the Googleplex, south of the city in Mountain View (‘the Peninsula’). In 2013 these private buses became the focus of popular protests, which objected to a number of things, including the gentrification of local neighbourhoods, an increase in house and rent prices, the privileged isolating of Google’s workers, and the use of public bus stops. Behind the specific objections lay resentment of the excessive and overpowering force that Google exerted, not just locally but all over the globe. Rebecca Solnit observed of the buses,
Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.
For the poet, though, they’re not the overlords, though, these bussed employees. They behave like zombies or the undead, wandering off ‘this way and that’ into the mist, each lost and imprisoned in his or her headphoned music (‘Death Cab for Cutie’). The epithet ‘suspended, / extirpated, floating creatures of exile’ deepens the alienation still further. The eponymous hollyhocks, conventional colourful beauties of a predigital, ‘Victorian’ age, have ceased to have any meaning, ‘solitary as widows or disgraced metaphysicians’. Grief, loneliness, thinking, like metaphysics, in colours other than binary black-and-white – all these go unrecognised or disdained by the Google crowd.
What’s defeated the ‘exhausted’ bussed workers, the poem suggests, is the enormity of their informational universe, the comprehensiveness of Google’s tools for mastering it, and numberless number of questions and answers. What is the point of this piling knowledge on knowledge? ‘What can those long-ago misfortunes tell us of ourselves, of life … Knowledge a trembling Himalayas of rubble’.
The mention of ‘Himalayas’ sends us on a long swerve east (or rather west, from California), to China and the very different approach to knowledge adopted by Taoism:
There is nothing further to be known.
The fog, like that animate nothingness of Lao-Tzu’s sacred Tao,
has taken over the world …
Fog is no longer a mark of aporia and confusion. The Tao’s ‘animate nothingness’ though it seems on the surface to be a final negation, a deletion of human knowledge, is a positive – not just an absence of the external world but a sign of self-knowledge. As Lao-Tzu said, ‘Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease. First realize that you are sick; then you can move toward health.’ In a long interview
with Ron Charles in 2014 for the Library of Congress Kleinzahler was asked whether he agreed that the last stanza of ‘Hollyhocks in the fog’ takes us ‘into a really dark place’. He replied ‘Not so much: that’s summer in San Francisco … I was thinking of the nothingness behind all material phenomena. … it’s actually rather comforting.’
In another poem in The Hotel Oneira, ‘Closing it down on The Pallisades’, the poet is putting up the shutters on the family home in New Jersey for the winter. Heaped knowledge, this time massed and organised in traditional print form rather than digital as in ‘Hollyhocks in the fog’, is shredded (and recycled?) without regret or mourning:
The garbage truck compactor is grinding
all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
1945 Edition, including Index and Atlas,
along with apple cores, bed linen, ashtrays
and all that remains of an ailing begonia.
Maybe knowledge, carried to excess, is over-rated. As Lao-Tsu has it, ‘Put an end to sagacity, discard knowledge. The people benefit a hundred times’.