Three Collections in Two Volumes by August Kleinzahler
Steve Winn, in his lovely San Francisco Chronicle piece about two recent books by August Kleinzahler, spent much more space on Kleinzahler’s essay collection, Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose 2000-2016 (FSG, 2017), than on Before Dawn on Bluff Road/Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected New Jersey Poems/Selected San Francisco Poems (FSG, 2017). The poems in the latter make up Kleinzahler’s twelfth volume of verse, two brief volumes under one cover.
Kleinzahler has won a Griffin Poetry Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a California Book Award. He’s on my short list for San Francisco Poet Laureate, California Poet Laureate, and, if Americans again elect an honest president who reads, US Poet Laureate. He has always had a gift for the place where the gritty meets tenderness, and almost every poem in this book goes to that place with arresting visuals and music. Here he is near New Jersey’s Palisades, in “Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow”:
Ingots of cinnabar and gold
Under a window of snow
Snow-sky, ganglia of dark branches clawing at it.
Snow along the Hudson, fastening to bluestone the length of the
Falling on valleys and abandoned pavilions at the river’s northern reaches
The kitchen light almost amber, Dutch interior light
It’s’s a long, unhurried piece that allows you to settle in with that stone, that light and the connection to Dutch colonial history in the Hudson Valley, before returning to the inescapably industrial present of the last two lines :
Then thunder, muffled, snow thunder, no
A big jet passing by low, hidden in cloud
“Poetics” quoted below in its entirety, serves as manifesto:
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.
At the junction, up from the synagogue
a weeknight, necessarily
and with my father—
a sale on German beer.
Air full of living dust:
bus exhaust, grains of pizza crust
among streetlights and unsuccessful neon.
Note that he doesn’t say he loved that Jersey air instead of Marin’s. What he’s saying here, especially with the unforgettable “airborne grains of pizza crust,” “wounded crystals,” and “unsuccessful neon,” is that this very particular “living dust” is valid. There is just one word missing after “neon,” a word that doesn’t need to be said by Kleinzahler, but which readers can say to themselves: Amen.
“Late Indian Summer” is another beauty:
The rains hold off another week,
and the midday heat,
long after the wine grapes are in, has the cat
sprawled flat under the jade plant.
Nights already belong to winter.
You know by that tuning fork in its jacket
broadcasting to the body’s far ports.
Days like this so late in the year
inflame desire, perturb
the ground of dreams, and roust us from sleep,
exhausted and stunned.
Note that Kleinzahler chose the word “rousted” as opposed to “roused,” which would have been a cliché. The physicality of poetry is so rightfully present here and on many pages in this volume. Be stunned by Kleinzahler’s poetry in the far ports of your body.
Kleinzahler delivers poignant wisdom without a whiff of nostalgia in “Watching Young Couples with an Old Girlfriend on Sunday Morning”:
How mild these young men seen to me now
with their baggy shorts and clouds of musk,
as if younger brothers of the women they escort
in tight black leather, bangs and tatoos,
cute little toughies, so Louise Brooks annealed
in MTV, headed off for huevos Rancheros
and the Sunday Times at some chic, crowded dive.
I don’t recall it at all this way, do you?
How sweetly complected and confident they look,
their faces unclouded by the rages
and abandoned, tearful couplings of the night before,
the drunkenness, beast savor, and remorse.
Or do I recoil from their youthfulness and health?
Oh, not recoil, just fail to see ourselves.
And yet, this tenderness between us that remains
was mortared first with a darkness that got loose, a frenzy,
we still, we still refuse to name.
The piece is set in San Francisco, but if we are strong enough and open enough, we will experience the frenzy and the tenderness, and see these young toughies for what they are—complicated kids who, like the rest of us, should be so lucky as to have someone in Kleinzahler’s league paying attention and taking notes.
Most of the essays in Sallies Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs first appeared in the London Review of Books, and they’re well thought-out, entertaining, and humane. Kleinzahler was a close friend of Thom Gunn because they accepted each other, gave each other room to be very different in their habits, and had a bedrock, mutual admiration for each other’s intellect and work. Gunn was brilliant, and gay, with habits that courted danger. Kleinzahler is straight, and though not one to turn down a drink or indulge in the occasional mind-bending substance, his life away from his desk is more subdued than Gunn’s life was in San Francisco, where they were neighbors. Here’s Kleinzahler explaining, with perfect pitch, how he and Gunn set the terms :
The first time he had me over to his place he sat awfully close to me on his sofa in his tight jeans, sleeveless undershirt and revolting tattoos, plying me with pot and wine. It was a bit of a worry for a moment or two. But I was, finally, not his type… So all of that got sorted out from the get-go, and Thom was wonderfully kind to the women in my life, one after the other, and all of them adored him.
Here are some graceful, intelligent lines on some other poets he explores. In his review of James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hamme, Kleinzahler gets off to a crisp start:
James Merrill has in Langdon Hammer the biographer he would have wished for: intelligent, appreciative, sympathetic, thorough, a first rate reader of the poems, and an excellent writer to boot.
This prompts me to write that in August Kleinzahler readers have a poet and critic our best selves should wish for: intelligent, appreciative, sympathetic… you see where I’m going.
“Merrill would have hated to be the subject of a lumbering, ill-written biography: he was all about stylishness and elegance, in poetry and in life.” Kleinzahler has earned the right to say this because his own prose and poetry never plods. There is, understandably, much biographical information in this piece, but by the end, in a cosmic and utterly unforced loop, Kleinzahler quotes a Merrill poem that reaches the essence of what he, Merrill, sought: “The more I struggled to be plain, the more / Mannerism hobbled me. What for?”
Merrill was famously cheerful, but he, like the rest of us, had artistic issues to settle as he refined and expanded his vocation. Most people who are serious about poetry remember, or wish they remembered, their first deep dives into work by big guns or poets who affected them in special ways. E. E. Cummings was a big gun in his day, and I hope I never forget Martin Meszaros, son of a coal miner, booming out the words MUD LUSCIOUS from “in just spring” as if the words really were in capital letters, when I was sixteen. On the other hand, Kleinzahler, in his opening salvo, goes right to the center of Cummings’s ultimate inadequacy: “E. E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at seventeen and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult.” By making some useful, neatly expressed, scholarly nods, he slices down to the central fact that Cummings was “in thrall to the notion of the child’s capacity for wonder,” a state handled better by Ferlinghetti at the beginning of his career than by Cummings. “In much of his poetry,” Kleinzahler writes, “he is seeking to tap the child’s freshness in seeing the world around him.” This is Kleinzahler on Cummings but can act as stand in for many Beats.
i like kissing this and that of you
i like, slowly stroking the shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and
with the last words saying it all:
of under me you quite so new.
Cummings had a long list of artistic imitators, so what often gets lost or downplayed is an aspect of his character that was very troubling and now very timely. Kleinzahler calls Cummings out on his anti-Semitism and his literary mean streak in attacking, in a poem, W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, two “gentlemen poets,” who quietly did a lot for the least in their day. Kleinzahler himself is stern but never mean and in discussing Cummings anti-Semitism; he makes it clear that it was more than Susan Cheever’s biography suggests. Cheever attributed it to “a sociological phenomenon endemic to the era and his social circle, like smoking, drinking, and lack of exercise.” But with Cummings it was more.
Penciled at the top of a page of a document by Cummings which was found by his 2004 biographer, Christopher Sawye-Lucanno, Kleinzahler notes that the poet declared, “how well I understand the hater of the Jews.” So we have, from Kleinzahler, a fascinating, complex lecture that is never pompous. “Bumps along the way” is Kleinzahler‘s seriously casual clause that begins a sentence noting the “charmed life” of a man who had William James as a godfather. We also have an example of Kleinzahler‘s self imposed rigor.
That’s pretty much the case in every examination of work here, and with every call he makes he shares his personal recollections. That’s right: it’s not just about poetry in these pages of Kleinzahler’s prose. Kleinzahler lives in San Francisco, and loves it with a multifaceted clarity. “Two San Francisco Feuilletons” is the title of his love note to a city he observes and experiences with particular, solitary delight. On Christmas Day he opens his eyes before dawn, on the only day of the year when he will not hear,
…the streetcar rattle and squeal as it emerged from the Sunset Tunnel, only about thirty yards away, the first of the day, round about 4:30 or 5:00, making sure the track is clear all the way to the ocean.
He is in late middle-age, asking the question those of us who live here never tire of asking:
In how many cities this size on earth can you go out to the ocean late on a beautiful winter’s day and enjoy the sunset nearly all by yourself?
This is a nod to the Mamas and the Papas hit “California Dreamin’” and its “winter’s day” has to be deliberate, because Kleinzahler is of the generation that often heard that song on the radio, even on obscure FM stations.
On this Christmas Day he crosses Golden Gate Park on foot to a Hakka Chinese restaurant, the Dragon River, having reminded himself of H. L. Mencken’s take on this city: “What fetched me instantly,” Mencken said in the 1920s, “was the subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States.” Looking out my dining room window in 1990, my mother, who’d visited the Bay Area many times, faced the pale apricot and white mass of St. Anne of the Sunset Catholic Church and said, “This really is a handsome European city.”
Except, as Kleinzahler knows so well, our pockets of Chinese culture, and Russian and Irish and Latino culture, are deeper than in many cities. In other words, if you’re going to write a love letter to a city you’ve called home for a while, you’d best go beyond what travel editors seek. And he does, calling the Inner Richmond neighborhood on Christmas day “downtown Canton on a Saturday.”
The last piece in Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs is called “Closing it Down on the Palisades,” and is about closing his parents’ house in North Jersey:
That Saturday morning, as I lay there waiting, the house was empty, and had been for a while, apart from my inflato-mattress and the furniture the buyers had bought. I rather liked it. It made me feel monkish. I live in such a clutter of things in San Francisco. I would be pleased to live like this here, simply. Or not simply. No one need know I’m here. I’d keep the lights off but for a small reading lamp. I could slip out to the twenty-four hour A & P up by the high school in the middle of the night. I like twenty- four hour supermarkets at 3 a.m. I like them more than museums. America is very good at that sort of thing.
Kleinzahler is superb at the sorts of tasks he has taken on in these two volumes. These pages are great company, thanks to the quality of the writing, the erudition that never feels piled on, and the pleasures that are keenly engaging, making rituals and places long familiar seem, as Charlotte Brontë put it, “new dyed,” and making the unfamiliar a place that’s really worth seeking.
Photograph of August Kleinzahler © Mark Savage.