Curious Insulations

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    The Hotel Oneira, August Kleinzahler, Faber, 2013, 96pp, £12.99, (hardback)

    Nice Weather, Frederick Seidel, Faber, 2013, 112pp, £14.99, (hardback)

    Britain and Ireland are relatively well-served when it comes to contemporary American poetry. Carcanet Press have secured the experimental women poets Jorie Graham and Louise Gluck prominently amongst their list; moreover, they seem determined to re-present some of the more challenging work of previous generations of American poets through books such as their recent lavish ‘collecteds’ of Ed Dorn and George Oppen. Bloodaxe Books show a similar responsibility to the past through, for example, their anthology The Objectivists, or their book of Muriel Rukeyser’s work; Bloodaxe’s living U.S. poets include Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, C. K. Williams, and Mary Oliver. Cape have Sharon Olds, fearless explorer of women’s experience in award-winning collection after collection. Not all of these poets, of course, are equally innovative or authoritative but, in many ways, they present an important and various challenge to the current rather under-ambitious poetry ‘scene’ here, dominated as it is by a relatively narrow metropolitan elite.

    What, then, are we to make of these two volumes from last year by Kleinzahler and Seidel, published by Faber, surely still the primary house for twentieth-century U.S. poetry, with their backlist from Eliot and Pound, Stevens and Moore, through to Lowell, Berryman and Plath? How do these two collections by poets who are both relatively well known here through their previous selected poems from Faber, translate into the U.K. context? What possibilities might they present to poetry readers, and to poets as readers, who are open to confrontation with different ways of seeing, and to alternative traditions of writing?

    The short answer is that both books translate poorly. Kleinzahler and Seidel are extremely different poets, but they share certain traits (or mannerisms) which make their versions of America curiously remote and often opaque in purpose. Not the least of these traits is a shared sense that poetry offers a display of what Eliot himself, after Dr. Johnson, called ‘wit’. This is a poetry where ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.’ For Johnson, such ‘wit’ had an invariably negative aspect. Eliot sought to redeem the term as part of his wider quest for a ‘metaphysics’ of which poetry might form one major expression. For Frederick Seidel, the sense of the poetic space as one in which to show off variously unlikely concatenations of conceits carries a hopeful sense of ‘wit’ as comedy. For August Kleinzahler, a similar ‘wit’ serves an altogether more serious ambition, illustrating something of the hollowness and shallowness of U.S. consumerist ethics. This is, however, for Kleinzahler, an ethics of which the poetry is itself more than happy to partake knowingly, as a way of continuing and expanding its staged procedures.

    Seidel, whose publishing career now spans six decades, has lost, in Nice Weather, little of his Robert Bly- or James Dickey-style priapism. What, though, are we to make of a poem like ‘Victory Parade’, as a ‘take’ on recent history? The first stanza runs:

    My girlfriend is a miracle.
    She’s so young but she’s so beautiful.
    So is her new bikini trim,
    A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.

    After a pause to relish that final word (and a wry reference to James Joyce, ha!), we are then treated to an analogy between this ‘center strip’, and the burgeoning spring trees near the speaker’s local department stores. Hey ho; this, we are told, is an analogy so ‘distracting’ that the speaker consequently forgets that another fact occurring the same day is almost going unmentioned: ‘Osama bin Laden is dead!’. What links the two things ‘poetically’ though – here comes the ‘wit’ – is that the bullets which killed bin Laden are described as flying through the air ‘To above and below the beard of hair’! So, in the final turn of the poem, it is revealed that the title’s ‘victory parade’ is about celebrating that ‘lovely tiny lampshade’ the girlfriend wears, which is such a striking aide memoire at such moments, after all.

    Seidel’s unending need to provoke is here, as in many other of these poems (and as it had been across his whole career), seemingly the main driver of his ambition as poet. Casually, the poem’s heterogeneity simultaneously offends a whole spectrum of different readers: that’s one boon, presumably, of writing in this way. Defenders of such writing might conjure the shade of Sextus Propertius, and seek to place it within a tradition that derides military or political successes in the name of the poetic joys of love and sex. The poet is deliberately self-mocking, as in that relish of the word ‘quim’, and the way the mere mention of it allows him to hang out, or so he claims, with the likes of ‘Oirish’ Joyce.

    Yet it is the prolific casualness of these slights and irresponsibilities which ultimately limits Seidel’s effectiveness; Propertius would never so under-estimate ‘the opposition’ in such a way that the ‘witty’ attack dissolved into hollowness once the joke is first registered. Nice Weather, after all, has begun with ‘Night’, whose own opening lines run:

    The city sleeps with the lights on.
    The insomniac wants it to be morning.
    The quadruple amputee asks the night nurse what time it is.

    Later in the poem, ‘The prostitute suspects what her client might want her to do’. In succeeding poems, we are told that a hospital ultrasound technician is ‘very well endowed’, and that a Robert De Niroesque taxi-driver’s response to ‘the nicest possible spring day’ only serves to ‘ignite’ his ‘inner suicide-bomber jihad.’ These opening poems from the now ironically-titled Nice Weather, in other words, establish the method of the book as a whole, as they lurch from neat, unexpected perceptions, towards a wilful, disturbing grotesquery of imagery. The line-by-line capturing of each effect in the quotation from ‘Night’ also establishes a rhythm which veers towards prose, here, and across the collection; this is often (and monotonously) poetry as a correlation of successive statements, rather than as an exploration of vocal possibility.

    By page six of the collection, in other words, Seidel has already imported many of his shock-horror effects, and their repetition across the book is trying. A later poem has the hubris to have ‘Baudelaire’ cast himself as a ‘terrorist’, and it is difficult not to think that Seidel himself likes the role, forever blowing apart some values which are, let’s face it, held onto for good reason in difficult times by many of us. There is no doubting the sincerity of the politics (‘The tragedy of Kennedy/Decanted me’) or of the emotion in the elegies for Seidel’s peers which punctuate the book. But, ultimately, we are left glum by these poems, uncertain what they are for, and tired of their exhausted technique.

    August Kleinzahler’s sights are set altogether higher. The title poem of his previous Faber collection, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, had knowingly deployed that location ‘in the heart of the heart of America’ as a vortex into which the poem’s speaker, as well as much of U.S. history, and contemporary high and low culture, are drawn: ‘Kevin Costner stayed in this hotel/Babe Ruth and Calvin Coolidge too/This is a sacred place’. ‘Sacred’ because it has a Native American inheritance which can be paraded alongside political, sporting, and Hollywood glamour, a glamour which in turn shines upon the poem’s speaker also. The Hotel Oneira presents many of the same procedures. ‘Rose Exile’, for instance, casts history as a series of ‘parade floats’ which generate some rather fey questions about artistic ambition (‘And what are we now to think of Richard Strauss?’) as a way of regarding international trauma through local and domestic securities:

    At this moment bombers are assembling in their formations over Europe.
    Dishes on their rubber racks are almost now completely dry.

    As with Seidel’s collection, Kleinzahler’s is pitched in a world of transience and catastrophic upheaval, not least again around the ‘weather’. But the speaker of these poems is always well able to anticipate such issues and to hold them in firm place. In the title (and opening) poem of this book, as the speaker looks down late at night from ‘The Hotel Oneira’, his world of dreams, onto a rail track, we are told that ‘What is in those railcars is also inside my head…/How can one know such a thing with certainty? One knows.’ This is a poetry curiously insulated against the ‘outside’, one happy to move the pieces around its space in laconic fashion. Literally so, as we find continuations here of the episodic series of genre poems which have appeared in Kleinzahler’s previous books: ‘Epistle’, ‘Traveler’s Tales’, ‘A History of Western Music.’

    High cultural figures, nearly always from the Old World (Wagner, Nietzsche, Adorno, Ponge, Mompu) mingle here with the likes of Whitney Houston. In the process, the poet is cast in a curiously outsider-role. ‘A History of Western Music: Chapter 63 (Whitney Houston)’ even dares the notion that poetry has feminised the speaker as he looks at himself amongst the shopping aisles, since, ‘Because of your unconventional lifestyle/you have been shopping among women your entire life’. Such a lifestyle makes him, then, equally vulnerable to the sentimental disturbance wrought by the piped muzak of Houston and Dolly Parton blasted through the food store: ‘Perhaps it has to do with the “emotional nature” of women.’ It is an odd casting, including the knowing scare quotes, of the figure of the poet at this point in ‘western history’, one in which the poet’s voice is entangled with secret knowledges and self-regard, in a stance unable to interact seriously with the difficulties of contemporary event.

    Tellingly, a poem which seems to be about climate change (and which might also be read as sceptical of the idea) has been ‘Composed from entries in the 1703 weather diaries of Thomas Appletree’. As with Seidel’s approach, the resulting Kleinzahler poem, ‘The Exquisite Atmography of Thomas Appletree, Diarist of Edgiock’, is uneasily sexualised:

    …the Heavens, having discharg’d the ore-glutted Rain,
    Rain of the Gulf, bosom and vagina of the sea…

    As with Seidel also, even a poem which seems obviously remote from the poet’s own life indulges the possibility that this is all autobiography: ‘the Grand history/& Picture of mine own life,/which is same as the Sky over Edgiock.’ This is the poet writing a self into, and through, a history from which he is a wary and knowing exile. Once again, though, the perspective is the carefully, and tricksily proscribed, local America, one in which the poems’ heterogeneous games can be played out.

    Kleinzahler, perhaps because of his high-flown name-dropping and games-playing, is more familiar than Seidel to a British audience; as the acknowledgements here note, ‘all but a few’ of his poems have previously appeared in the London Review of Books. His is a neat, careful version of ‘postmodernism’ (a word chillingly mentioned too often in his regard), which might find a certain appeal amongst metropolitan literati. Ultimately, for all of its fakery, its random and raw sexism and racism, and for all of its wearyingly chaotic ‘naughtiness’, Seidel’s collection broadly displays the more poetic energy and inventiveness.