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Travelling Man

Ross Moore

Snow Approaching On The Hudson, by August Kleinzahler, Faber & Faber, 96 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0571363339

Snow Approaching On The Hudson is August Kleinzahler’s first new collection since the publication of The Hotel Oneira in 2013. In between came the selection Before Dawn on Bluff Road: Selected New Jersey Poems / Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected San Francisco Poems (2018). This selection, published by Faber & Faber in 2018, is worth a mention. The cover is the usual pristine job from Faber with its classy font and muted colours, slightly warm, slightly industrial, providing an appropriate backdrop to the New Jersey poems. Then flip the book over: this time an equally classy, muted pink background appears as the cover of the San Francisco poems. Two front covers instead of a back: read them separately or read them together but how to read Kleinzahler couldn’t have been made clearer. He’s a poet of place and of places, his New Jersey formation and ethos, and his long-standing West Coast residency jostling each other, sitting side by side, travelled between, as the reader might flip and flick between the two volumes in one Selected. Many of Kleinzahler’s poems concern travel (and his journeys range much further than that from San Francisco to New Jersey). Often the poems are set at points of arrival, or departure, or other places in-between. But the New Jersey/San Francisco axis remains crucial, probably because, over the years, it has allowed him to do a lot of arriving and departing. In his wonderful collection of reminiscences, Cutty, One Rock, Kleinzahler writes:

There’s a window, thirty-six hours or so, not even, when travelling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. After you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening – then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyperawake. I’m talking about light, scale, smell … what have you, become almost stereoscopic, carrying a taste of the unreal – as if the world had been passed through a solution, cleansed.

All these arrivals and departures allow for a better, stranger, way of looking. A way of seeing things differently and more clearly.

In “Traveler’s Tales: Chapter 90”, from Snow Approaching on the Hudson, Kleinzahler quotes Matisse: “ – When I realised each / morning I would see this / light again I could not believe my luck, wrote Matisse. / Though Mlle. Couldn’t be / bothered, with that light or any particular light to speak of / or any artist’s / rendering.” Kleinzahler has a finely tuned sense of the texture of places, an eye and ear for the tone of a place, made up of things such as the way light falls, or the way snow lies. Take his poem from the mid-nineties “Snow in North Jersey” where: “Snow is falling along the Boulevard / and its little cemeteries hugged by transmission shops / and on the stone bear in the park / and the WWI monument, making a crust / on the soldier with his chinstrap and bayonet.” Or “Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow” (from the 1995 collection of the same name) where the place is captured, as is so often the case with Kleinzahler, by its sound. Here, and it’s a common motif throughout his work, the sounds are those of planes overhead:

The suave bite of oak, an unfastening, a small dull tap at the base
   of the skull
The slow release of sibilants, Os and Is
Then thunder, muffled, snow thunder, no
A big jet passing by low, hidden in cloud

Kleinzahler has an eye for sudden bursts of the lyrical in unlikely settings and is always quick to note a patch of easily missed sunlight, “Late Winter Morning On The Palisades” (from Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow) found, “Candle in the throat of maple / alive in wet bark / like a soldering flame as the sun lifts / over Manhattan’s shoulder,” amidst the general clamour of “ … car doors, / jets, and the brutal slaying in Queens …”. Kleinzahler in “Late Autumn Afternoons” (from 1998’s Green Sees Things in Waves) writes that “Red pear leaves take the light at four” while in the background there is “ … always the Interstate out there, like surf, / running up to Boston or South to New York.”

Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine recalls how “The silvered boiler rivets and the blazing Polish geraniums” affected Humboldt and mused: “I too am sentimental about urban ugliness.” Kleinzahler, like Bellow’s characters, is alert to geraniums among boiler rivets, but the impulse goes further: Kleinzahler doesn’t privilege the natural over the industrial, the pastoral over the urban; for him it’s all part of the same eco-system, all raw observable material to be drawn on. He set out his stall in his early poem “Poetics”: “I have loved the air above ShopRite Liquors / on summer evenings / better than the Marin hills at dusk / lavender and gold / stretching miles to the sea.” The final stanza ends with imagery which synthesises the natural and manufactured, the benign and the toxic. Everything here hangs on a thread, but the interdependency of each of these parts comprises a world of wonderful fragility:

Air full of living dust:
bus exhaust, airborne grains of pizza crust
wounded crystals
appearing, disappearing
among streetlights and unsuccessful neon.

The poem “La Belle Ville” from Snow Approaching On The Hudson recalls “Poetics” in its concerns, but it ends on altogether darker imagery. We’re at Kleinzahler’s home in San Francisco this time where (again) “Passenger jets float silently across the thunderheads”, the traffic above is mirrored by the traffic below, the commute of tech industry employees “bicycling from point A to point B, a box lunch of Brie and / ham on a kaiser roll, twelve grapes, a Fanta, attached to the / rear rack”. The cycle is endless:

and the first snow arrives, but much the same, different
  footwear.
Off they go to the groovy software design studio and
  columbarium,
enorbed by their things-to-do lists and amorous set-backs.
It’s all enough to drive one to a dusty cubicle, chanting
Sutras …

The tone of this, with the jaded New Jersey eye cast over Californian tech culture, takes us back to “Hollyhocks in the Fog”, from Kleinzahler’s previous collection, where: “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 …” Just that “fog”, along with that “islanded”, gives us Kleinzahler’s resigned take on the whole industry and culture. The poem considers the overwhelming, useless, information that the industry traffics in (“spidering the endless key words, web pages …”) before ending with the San Franciscan fog envisaged “ … like that animate nothingness / of Lao-Tzu’s sacred Tao”, it “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.”

“La Belle Ville” ends on a note far closer to “Hollyhocks in the Fog” than to the butterfly dance which closed “Poetics”:

I am the Body of the World, pinioned like poor Gulliver in
  Lilliput.
Semi-trailers and tank cars filled with ethanol course
  through me.
I cannot move. A plaque from their exhaust accumulates in
  my arteries,
the particulate matter taking on the viscosity of despair.

Kleinzahler’s New Jersey/San Francisco axis provides a very real base for the way he looks on the world, and even provides the spaces necessary for the heightened way of looking that forms his poetry. But while Kleinzahler is pre-eminently a poet of place, to limit him to just two places would be an injustice to the dazzling, often dream-tinged peregrinations of his work and of a life that has ranged widely and has travelled outside of what the expected contours of a contemporary American writer’s life might be.

After initially dropping out of college in Wisconsin, Kleinzahler eventually attended the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He travelled widely, ending up in places as far-flung as Alaska, Portugal and Montreal, though he has lived in San Francisco since 1981. The Poetry Archive notes that “Kleinzahler has spent most of his life in blue collar jobs. He has worked as a locksmith, cab driver, lumberjack, music critic and building manager.” No bad thing according to Kleinzahler, who is quoted as saying that “[these jobs] kept me out of the academy, which saved me”. Speaking to The New York Times in 2005, the then fifty-five-year-old stated: “I’ve avoided the structures of conventional work and marriage … I like to make myself available to chance.” For decades he also remained outside the mainstream poetry scene, with his work mainly published by small presses until the early 1990s. Today though, he is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US and Faber & Faber in London. He has won numerous awards, including the Griffin Prize, the Lannan Literary Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems and prose appear regularly on this side of the Atlantic in the London Review of Books. He has even taught in creative writing programmes and stated in 2009 that he would again “if the money was right”. Kleinzahler doesn’t hesitate to bite the hand that feeds him, having dismissed the creative writing industry in the US as “multi-million-dollar Ponzi schemes”. In case there’s any doubt, he stated to Cordite Poetry Review in 2016: “The creative writing industry is really quite recent. And like Dutch elm disease, devastating.” Maybe not completely assimilated into the academy quite yet. “Pugilistic” is a term commonly applied to Kleinzahler, and while he doesn’t shy from a literary brawl, his combativeness isn’t necessarily as gratuitous as it is sometimes portrayed as being. Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems anthology might have been an easy target for Kleinzahler in his infamous review of it for Poetry in 2004 (“Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales,” wrote Kleinzahler, “I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire [poetry], and for his trespass must be burned.”) Reading this now, Kleinzahler’s real and very apparent target is the state of poetry, as it is consumed into the “poetry industry” (“Cultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture, along with the prospects of the very, very few – it is always only a very few – poets who will matter down the road.”) Even in the review, Kleinzahler recognises that the bulk of his ire is aimed at an irrelevancy (“the better animals in the jungle aren’t drawn to poetry anymore, and they’re certainly not tuned in to Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac”). Still, no harm in piling on some well-deserved vitriol, particularly in furtherance of a greater cause.

The current collection, Snow Approaching On The Hudson, could hardly seem a more grounded one, to go by its title, but the poems take in Montreal, Lisbon, Istanbul and Ireland. Indeed, even the collection’s title poem gives us a version of the Hudson that might have been filtered through the Northern Sung dynasty:

Passenger ferries emerge from the mist

   river and sky, seamless, as one-
     watered ink on silk …

It ends:

The wind invisible
  spume blown horizontal in the ferry’s wake ‑
   wind atmosphere, river silk

Kleinzahler’s life between New Jersey and San Francisco gives his poetry a particular attentiveness to the nostalgia for places, a sense that there’s always somewhere else at the back of wherever you are now. This means that his poetry is always on the move but also that it remains particularly responsive to the tones and timbres of a place. Kleinzahler’s 2003 collection was entitled The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, paraphrasing “January Morning” by the preeminent New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams. Kleinzahler’s poems, befitting the traveller, are used to taking in the weather. Often, the light can be best caught when it glances off somewhere else. Here’s Kleinzahler’s narrator taking in the light, by the Hudson still, in “‘Coming on the Hudson’: Weehawken” from the recent collection:

He watches as the lights begin to switch on across the river
   come end of day,
the skyline and clouds above going electric with pinks and
   reds
as the sun goes down behind him over the Meadowlands in the
   west.
Sometimes at night, looking across, he feels a twinge, the
   throb and pull of it.
But it don’t pull all that hard, and it’s too damn much of a

   bother anyhow.

The mix of registers never jars; the effect can be funny, it can be melancholy or can bring you up short or, like the example above, it can be all of this at once: Kleinzahler’s lines move between voices and registers without missing a beat. His casual, off-hand, conversational voice can ground his more lyrical moments to great effect. These lines incorporate high culture while taking in the demotic and ranging the streets – a given in much contemporary poetry though there aren’t many poets who can achieve this while keeping the narrative ticking along as flawlessly, as seemingly effortlessly, as Kleinzahler does. The success of this is due in no small part to his control of his often long poetic lines and the forward momentum they maintain. He appears capable of incorporating almost any material while maintaining his line’s energy and casual ease. The poem “Murph and Me”, from the new collection, has the car-obsessed Murph, who’d “try to best 28 minutes” crossing that “bottle-necked death trap” of the Pulaski, unexpectedly reciting Hart Crane as he cruises along:

Then, in that old-timey, low-rent Flatbush accent, starts
  declaiming:
Through the bound cable strands, the arching path /
  Upward, veering with light …
I’m talking the first three stanzas … The loft of vision,
  palladium helm of stars.
I could never figure out how he pulled that one out of the air,
  to this very day.
The Lions Gate, the Seven Mile Bridge across the Keys, and
  even farther afield …

The epigraph to Snow Approaching on The Hudson reads “To friends departed – See you on the river” and a number of poems here, particularly towards the end of the volume, are either elegies or elegiac in tone. “So” is in memory of the New York poet Michael O’Brien. Writing in February 2017, shortly after O’Brien’s death, Kleinzahler noted “his poetry was all about paying attention, in his case to the smallest, most fleeting details in the world at hand”. Kleinzahler could, of course, be describing his own brand of attentiveness. “So” begins:

So, my friend is gone,
whose counsel I depended on,
not in how I lived my life,
but in matters to do with language, …

Writing that his friend was “sensitive enough to register the slightest tremor / or shift in wind …”, he asks rhetorically “To whom do I turn for tuning now?” Kleinzahler then delicately aligns this loss with the memory of the kindness of a neighbour during his childhood, realising at the poems end:

It only comes to me as I write this down,
and for the first time:
She must have had no children of her own.

The collection’s penultimate poem, “Driving by Bluff Road Just After Dusk in Late Autumn”, also concerns Kleinzahler’s childhoodhe poem feels oneiric, almost elegiac. But for what? For the child that was or for paths not taken? Maybe for something in-between the two:

It seems that you, even with all your outward journeying,
  now find yourself lost,
while here the boy remains, attending to the work you long
  ago abandoned.

The final poem in the collection, “The Bench”, is an understated (also an unstated) elegy for the Northumberland poet Basil Bunting whose classes Kleinzahler attended at the University of Victoria in British Columbia in 1971-1972 and who was a lasting influence on his  work. Indeed another major influence, and a long-standing friend, was the Anglo-American, San Francisco-based poet Thom Gunn. Surely there’s an elegy of sorts, or at least a connection made, in Snow Approaching On The Hudson’s opening poem “30, Rue Duluth” which opens “‑ Elvis is dead, the radio said,”? The poem takes in where Kleinzahler was when he heard the news of Presley’s death and ponders the late Elvis with “the fat around his neck like a collar of boudin blanc”. Gunn too had dwelt on Elvis’s last days in the poem “Painkillers” in his 1982 collection Passages of Joy – not to mention his 1957 poem “Elvis Presley”. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Kleinzahler ruminating on Presley without thinking of Gunn. Also, does “30, Rue Duluth” ‑ with its full rhymes and half-rhymes, its conditionals (“as if I were”, “She would have bought for me”), the shifting tense that is hard to pin down – have shades of Paul Muldoon?

Back to where the present collection ends: “The Bench” is a gorgeous poem, elegiac and ruminative, but one which seems to see everything, including its own nostalgia, with a wonderful clarity. “What can a young man – a boy, really –”, Kleinzahler writes:

know of what runs through an old man’s mind?
But I wondered then, and wonder still,
no longer young, sitting here,
gazing as you once gazed at the patch of sea,
ever the same, ever changing,
the gulls and crows busily at work, hovering.

The melancholic, nostalgic undertow evidenced here is present throughout Kleinzahler’s work, as is his facility for moments of luminous stillness that appear more frequently in his poems than might be suggested by the bustle, talk and asperities his lines accommodate. Kleinzahler wrote in 1999 that Bunting’s “Briggflatts” was “among the very best poems anyone has done this century”. He has frequently acknowledged the influence of Bunting and Thom Gunn on his work, both in terms of the range of what a poem could contain as well as their formal examples. Kleinzahler’s poetry is remarkable for its ease of movement between all the different particulars it contains, all the different registers (among them the braggadocio, which Kleinzahler can, at times, ladle on a bit too heavily but of which there’s less in the current collection). His pared-back syntax and compulsive voice can be a joy, taking the reader through a range of unlikely and increasingly dreamlike associations: often not noticing the breadth of ground covered before subtleties of memory or observations are evoked. The sheer attention Kleinzahler’s poetry pays to the world remains matchless and its way of looking is all his own.

1/3/2021

Ross Moore completed his PhD at N.U.I., Galway.  He writes occasional articles and reviews on contemporary literature. He lives in Belfast.

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