August Kleinzahler’s mother

February 15, 2019 0 Comments

One of the benefits of being able to wander round a really big bookshop – I was in London, in the huge Waterstones in Piccadilly – is that you come across books that you’d be very unlikely to stumble across in a smaller shop – let alone on the imaginary shelves of the appalling Amazon.

Displayed in the poetry section was an unusual book I’d not seen before.  Physically unusual, in that it was in ‘head-to-tail’ format, what bibliographers call ‘tête bêche’: you read half the volume, then flip it vertically to read the other half.  Or vice versa.  It caught my eye and lifted my heart because its author was the American poet August Kleinzahler.  I know I’ve written about him before, but make no apology for celebrating him again.  This book, published in this country by Faber last year, is an ideal introduction to his work, because it’s a ‘selected poems’.

Bluff Road, Fort Lee: ex-home of Albert Anastasia

The book has two titles, one for each half.  One is Before dawn on Bluff Road: selected New Jersey poems, and the other Hollyhocks in the fog: selected San Francisco poems.  The tough town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, ‘a-beer-and-a-bump kind of place’, is where Kleinzahler was born and brought up – one of his babysitters was Albert Anastasia, the infamous mobster –  and where he started writing poetry, influenced by Frank O’Hara and Basil Bunting (whose classes he attended).  Family and family associations there have kept him tied to the state ever since.  He’s lived a travelling, blue-collar life, but in 1981 he settled in California, and the brighter sun of San Francisco shines through the Hollyhock poems.  The book’s two upside-down halves make for interesting comparisons.

Here are two short poems from the New Jersey part of the book. They give a flavour of Kleinzahler’s very special voice: a mix of colloquial, urban and savvy with a dose of learned wit and a dark, often melancholy underflow.  The first comes originally from the collection Red sauce, whiskey and snow (1995).

Watching dogwood blossoms fall in a parking lot off Route 46

Dogwood blossoms drift down at evening
as semis pound past Phoenix Seafood

and the Savarin plant, west to the Turnpike,
Paterson or hills beyond.

The adulterated, pearly light and bleak perfume
of benzene and exhaust

make this solitary tree and the last of its bloom
as stirring just now after another day

at the hospital with Mother and the ashen old ladies
lost to TV reruns flickering overhead

as that shower of peach blossoms Tu Fu watched
fall on the river bank

from the shadows of the Jade Pavilion,
while ghosts and the music

of yellow orioles found out the seam of him
and slowly cut along it.

Route 46 runs the length of New Jersey, west to east.  The poem’s precisely located, at one of the highway’s most urban, least ‘poetic’ spots, a place of factories and fast food.  Mention of the city of Paterson, though, should put us on alert: it recalls the poem of that name by William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey resident and another of Kleinzahler’s influences.  The poet conjures mystery from air pollution: ‘The adulterated, pearly light and bleak perfume / of benzene and exhaust’.  The Latinate ‘adulterated’ is at once technical and poetically loaded, while the other adjectives, ‘pearly’ and ‘bleak’ transport us back to the odes of Keats and Shelley.  From the Romantics we’re then shot much further back, to the Tang Dynasty poet Tu Fu (or Du Fu), pondering the fall of peach blossoms on a river bank.  Twice Kleinzahler locks his twin images, falling petals of dogwood peach , into their human analogues: first, the observed picture of his declining ‘Mother and the ashen old ladies / lost to TV reruns flickering overhead’, and then the internalised anguish of the Chinese poet: ‘ghosts and the music / of yellow orioles found out the seam of him / and slowly cut along it’.  ‘Seam’ in the last couplet might suggest a geological stratum, a seam of coal, for instance, but a more vivid and painful reading would be the kind of seam an anatomist’s knife might follow, to make a gash into the inner self of Tu Fu.

Portrait of my mother in January

There’s a second, shorter poem in which K’s mother appears.  I first found this in the brilliantly titled collection Sleeping it off in Rapid City (2008):

Mother dozes in her chair,
awakes a while 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 the 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.

Fort Lee, New Jersey

It’s a simple couple of verses, and Kleinzahler isn’t afraid to make the traditional poet’s paralleling of external natural events and human states.  Except that they don’t match: the wind’s marine violence and the voodoo of the trees find no echo in the stillness and emptiness of Mother – unless you feel that the ebbing tide is taken up by the physical shrinking in the sitting woman.  There’s no enjambment, except to mark the brief rush of the wind; the poem’s rhythm is downbeat and slow.  And the words are short and ordinary, with the exception of ‘sere’, a typically obscure borrowing from Shakespeare to combine ‘dry’ and ‘withered’, and ‘witchy’, another economical mix of enchantment and old age.  Seasons and times of day are important in Kleinzahler’s poetry.  He seems specially attracted to late autumn or winter, and late afternoon, and the two are combined here, in a poem that’s at once tender and removed.

The delight of this book is that, if you’ve had enough of the benzene and bleakness, you can flip it over and soak up some of the San Francisco sun.  Either way up, these are poems to read and re-read – slowly, because they’re finely crafted.

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