Michael Klein’s then, we were still living is a thoughtful, emotional book that treats death in a fresh, even endearing way.
Michael Klein’s then, we were still living is a masterful book full of melancholy’s dark colors, but painted-over with bright exuberance. His book is politically engaged, sensitive, and topical, but I think misses when it lacks authority on some of its subject matter. Klein writes lyrical poems in a subtle and sophisticated way—most of the poems include the first-person singular in the first line, an indication that the reader moves closely to a deeply felt human voice speaking. In many poems, the voice is a 21st century man, a lot like Michael Klein. His themes range from the death of a twin brother to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars.
When Klein writes his most personal poems, those with an insouciant, bittersweet edge, full of affection, he writes memorable poems. When Klein is more detached—his poems about the war, for example—he still writes nonconformist poems with a bounding intelligence, but they’re an inch deep. The tour-de-force poem in this book is in its middle, “Five Places for Sex”, and it’s more surprising and complicated than what Thom Gunn had to say about sex in The Man With Night Sweats and it’s several notches above anything Allen Ginsberg wrote.
I frequently complain about too many adjectives and adverbs in poems weighing down good writing, but in this case, Klein is an expert at how to write them correctly. Like his metaphors, the adjectives are employed to heighten the imaginative leaps the lines are taking. For example, in “Five Places for Sex,” his metaphor for the orgasm and its inevitable denouement is: “until the panther rested—down so much—in the springy hills.” A different creature than Rilke’s panther in the zoo, this one conveys the ferocity and wildness of something now resting. The adjective “springy” has an organic, yet mechanical palpitation to it; that it modifies the location is even more surprising. The first section of the poem takes place on a train. The hills must be out the window; Klein therefore uses cues from a pastoral to make an evocative connection between something local and personal into a vast metaphor. Likewise, later in the poem, when there is another sexual encounter in a porno theater, the speaker describes what he sees as “squinting to a very basic music.” This could mean “important” or “essential”, but also the sense of “nothing added.” Amid the frenzy of a kind of sleazy eroticism, tinged with fear of AIDS (the poem is set in the 1980s), the boys “up on the screen” squint to the music. Klein’s subtle word choice makes something banal seething with pathos.
When Klein’s attentions are focused on something with which the speaker has authority, the reader believes the details. Those poems are not so much elegiac, but they still address grief. Rather, his poems seem to delicately conflate issues of love and death, but also social justice and unfairness, and sexuality. For example, in “Vaudeville,” he starts with something more general about the entertainment industry, then moves the camera eye closer to his own family history. We find out later that his grandparents were alcoholic vaudevillians. By the poem’s final stanza, the voice becomes raw and plaintive, which resembles wisdom:
It was what the doctor tells the patient: life is
your funny story and to live
above and below the story
you have to hear it singing only to you, away from the other singing.
Klein frequently uses repetitions of words and italics as a tool to indicate shifts in tone, in mood, and even emotional volume. It is admirable and a little unnerving just how unembarrassed he is to allow his poems to both conceal and reveal. In the poem “The mirror,” the speaker sees his lost twin brother in his own image, and using a repeated image of a shoulder bag, he is able to allow life and death—one brother to another—to commingle with anonymity and intimacy:
I know my brother in the mirror because of the way I have my shoulder bag
hanging off my shoulder—the way he would have it—not the way I would have it.
I’m not a shoulder bag kind of person.
So, it is him.
And then, of course, just as fast—it’s me
as I am in life with him, and as he is in death with me.
The poem’s long lines also mimic the thinking-through of the identity issue the speaker is experiencing, and since long lines slow a poem’s pacing, it forces the reader to take in the data more slowly and to be contemplative. This poem has some allusions to C.P. Cavafy’s poem “The Mirror in the Front Hall” in which an old mirror is “proud to have embraced total beauty for a few moments” when it “sees” a boy waiting for a receipt for a delivered package.
Klein’s métier is the elegy, the dominant form for poems written about 9/11, and the powerful image of the twin reappears, but sometimes in what I think are less successful ways. The obvious metaphor of the brother as twin and the Twin Towers as twins is little bit adolescent and disappointing. When, in “2001”, the speaker says: “In America, we make movies / before anything really happens,” the poet wrangles with the surreal horror of September 11, but not in an original or useful way. I advise all writers to eliminate “we” and “everybody.” Given the results of the midterm elections, I do not appreciate being lumped in the same “we” as the people who voted for Sharon Angle or Rand Paul. If Klein writes “we Americans,” the statement includes the millions who are repulsed. The writer should instead name the guilty parties rather than lump the guilty and innocent together in the same rubber bag. This flaw in a piece of writing is a misreading of Freudian projection, or attributing one’s faults and desires onto others.
Likewise, in Klein’s poems about the war, he writes about the fall of Kabul in the same way; the pronoun is meant to suggest unity and empathy, but actually does the opposite. Since the speaker lacks authority, he teams up with others to make the voice plural, as if that will boost its authority: “Almost free? / Almost enough horses? / Peace passeth not their understanding, but ours.” The problem is that, unlike his other work, Klein has no real authority about the subject and the poems feel disingenuous, no matter how interesting the writing is. If you read a book like Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, by a person with dust on his eyelids, you realize a piece of writing that seems too psychically distant from the war do not suffice. Perhaps this is a question of sentimentality, relying on the subject matter of the poem to carry its emotional weight while the writing—which is tantamount to thinking—stays small.
Nevertheless, Klein’s then, we were still living is a thoughtful, emotional book that treats death in a fresh, even endearing way. The personality of the writer overflows in the best poems; it shows vulnerability and nothing here is overwritten. The tone is exactly right. Serious readers of poetry should get this book and absorb its message.