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In the moment, ever so jarringly

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep Poems August Kleinzahler Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 98 pp., $22

February 15, 2004|John Palattella | John Palattella writes about poetry for the Nation and the Boston Review.

One of the many pleasures of August Kleinzahler's new book of poems is the poet's puckish spirit. Typical is "An Englishman Abroad," which begins by detailing an English writer's hectic waking moments in a nondescript American town: "The talk-radio host is trying to shake the wacko / with only a minute left / to get in the finance and boner-pill spots / before signing off." A few lines later the drowsy Englishman's gaze moves outdoors to take in the sunrise: "Fair skies, high cumulus cloud -- / the birds are in full throat as dawn ignites / in the east, rinsing the heavens with a coral pink."

In gliding from pitches for Viagra to coral pinks, Kleinzahler isn't pretending to discard the ridiculous for the sublime. Instead, he is simply attending to the jarring, unrelated activities that occur within any moment, and he filters that moment through a foreigner's groggy perspective to accent the comic unity in its discord. "Rosy-fingered dawn, my ass," the Englishman mutters to himself, recalling a well-known conceit from the "Odyssey," "This show's in Technicolor." In this poem, as throughout most of "The Strange Hours Travelers Keep," Kleinzahler mixes the pungent and the delicate, the literary and the colloquial, to create a fine, technicolor-like excess.

Kleinzahler has long been fascinated by jarring experiences that defy curiosity as much as they demand it. It's a fascination he first defined clearly and forcefully in "Where Souls Go," which is the opening poem of both "Storm Over Hackensack" (1985) and "Live From the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems: 1975-1990" (2000). After offering a few mild answers to the rhetorical question implied by the title, Kleinzahler focuses on the present moment, a street scene in Brooklyn on a summer night. "We are walking past the liquor store to visit our love," he notes, and then brings the poem to a swift close: "She waits, trying / to have the best song on as we arrive. / The moon is blurred. / Our helicopters are shooting at fieldworkers. / The Mets are down 3-1 in the 6th." What's intriguing about these lines is not their quiet insistence that atrocious and banal events occur simultaneously, but rather their refusal to extract a symbolic meaning from the juxtaposition of murderous military operations and a baseball team's two-run deficit. The most the poem can do, Kleinzahler seems to suggest, is honestly acknowledge the moment's contradictions and tensions.

What's changed over the years is the way Kleinzahler has used comedy to explore such discord. Early on he cultivated a deadpan voice by using a short, supple free-verse line to create seamless transitions between incongruous images and phrases. That voice figures prominently in "The Strange Hours Travelers Keep," but, as in Kleinzahler's previous book, "Green Sees Things in Waves," it now shares the stage with an antic narrative voice. Some of the best poems in both books are character studies and monologues whose subjects suffer from an imperishable burden or affliction. The drama and comedy of these poems arise from people reflecting on their off-kilter place in the world, and to accommodate the chatty rhythms of his characters' thoughts, Kleinzahler has lengthened his free-verse line and let it edge toward something like meter.

"Frankly, I'm nauseated by these bucolic rhapsodies / you and your kind indulge yourselves with and the public eats up," he writes in "Epistle VIII," in which Augie, a poet from ancient Rome, argues with Maecenas, the influential literary patron who favored poems that served the interests of the state. To avoid being drafted into an enterprise he thinks is meretricious, or perhaps to be dragged into Maecenas' circle kicking and screaming, Augie tries to disabuse Maecenas of his lofty notions. "Exactly who do you think you're fooling? You're city boys, / one and all, and with your apartments still in town, as well, / so you can slip back in for a secret shag and a proper meal after."

If there is a false note in "The Strange Hours Travelers Keep," it's when Kleinzahler resorts to obvious high jinks. In "Pulp 'N' Gumbo Sonnet," he yokes together ridiculous phrases culled from newspapers and roadside signs:

PRISON SEX VIDEO STARS DEAD SICKO

RUNAWAY OSTRICH PANICS LAS VEGAS

SGT. BILKO MISTAKEN FOR DALAI LAMA

STRANGE TRIUMPHS IN SUDDEN DEATH

I hate to step on the joke, but I seem to remember seeing that last headline when Curtis Strange won the U.S. Open golf tournament in 1988 after defeating Nick Faldo in an 18-hole playoff. Is the headline's unintentional pun, which depends on "triumphs" being a noun instead of a verb, still funny if you know its source? The hitch in "Pulp 'N' Gumbo Sonnet" is that while the puns seem rich, the humor arising from their linguistic defects is slight. Here Kleinzahler is like the diva in "A History of Western Music: Chapter 11," who peeks from behind her extravagant manner "to check if her act was really coming off."

Though Kleinzahler's occasional fondness for such jokey moments may remind some readers of Billy Collins, the two poets have nothing in common. Unlike Collins, whose poems are a one-ring circus where a trainer uses the lash of humor to lead Pegasus through a whimsical trot, Kleinzahler doesn't use comedy to belittle a poem's tension and complexity. And while Kleinzahler's blend of the demotic and the sentimental may call to mind James Tate, Kleinzahler's diction is much more supple. For Kleinzahler, a comic spirit is not a poem's subject but the basis of a delicate, affectionate relationship between the poem and its subject. "It is an agony to be here / Terrible, one can hardly breathe / But so frozen in wonderment," Kleinzahler says in "The Installation" as he stands before an art installation depicting a club scene from the 1950s. It's just such a fusion of agony and wonderment that his poems so often achieve. *

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