Review: August Kleinzahler’s ‘Sleeping It Off in Rapid City’
by Sean O’Brien
Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Kleinzahler
Kleinzahler manages a convincing, grimly comic synthesis of materials in this collection of new and selected poems
August Kleinzahler holds firm opinions. In his fine book of essays and autobiographical writings, Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained (2004), he records in irritable, hilarious detail a “lost evening” spent watching the Oscar-winning movie, Leaving Las Vegas where Nicolas Cage drinks himself to death. Kleinzahler objects to the lack of bleeding at the hero’s mouth and anus, and to Cage’s slowness to make love to Elisabeth Shue. But what he most resents is the soundtrack, “which consists of someone called Sting butchering beautiful old torch songs”. Everybody hates Sting, you might say (except for the millions of people who buy his stuff), but the point is that Kleinzahler almost declines to acknowledge his existence. The sense of proportion is refreshing.
One of the ways this decidedness makes itself felt in Kleinzahler’s poems is their lack of interest in decorum. He can write a grand set-piece when he wants to (see the history poem “The Tartar Swept”) but his inclination is to write the work that interests him rather than the kind required or suggested by tradition, even by the vestigial, faintly Beat tradition from which he seems to come. A Beat, or a Black Mountaineer, might have undertaken the title poem, “Sleeping it Off in Rapid City”, but Kleinzahler manages a convincing, grimly comic synthesis of materials where many others would get lost – geology, a “closed dinosaur shop”, Native American history, pro-life Christianity, disused missile silos, Mount Rushmore, the endlessness of commerce by road and rail, George Armstrong Custer’s fleeting visit, the poet’s shoe lying under a motel bed, all of it “Here, yes, here / The dead solid centre of the universe / At the heart of the heart of America”. Amid the geological terms – “Cretaceous hogback, / Hundred million year old Lakota sandstone, clays, shale, gypsum” – America sounds like science fiction.
This is very different from the self-regarding religiosity which sometimes leads poets to stand on their porches at dusk nursing the comforts of sorrow and noticing yet again how sensitive they are despite the corrupting inducements of Kapital. Kleinzahler fulfils the requirements of Louis Simpson’s poem “American Poetry“: “Whatever it is, it must have / A stomach that can digest / Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems. // Like the shark it contains a shoe. / It must swim for miles through the desert / Uttering cries that are almost human.”
The adjacent poem, “September”, seems to take its cue from Simpson’s contemporary James Wright (1927-80), whose little masterpiece “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry Ohio” opens with pre-season college football training. Kleinzahler expands the frame of reference, incorporating lines from Gottfried Benn’s “September” about “summer’s fool” before ascending to this astonishing stanza: “the sun next day pours down / with such intent as if it could surpass / what only it might emulate, / its counterfeit betrayed / by the very merest wash of bronze”. To write two poems so different and so assured is to be more than merely eclectic.
It was not always so. There are stretches of the earlier work that it’s hard to get excited about. It seems to have been with Green Sees Things in Waves (1999) that Kleinzahler really found his range. The title poem is a horrifying piece about an acid casualty, but the book’s finest piece is the famous “Snow in North Jersey”. This is a long tracking shot that surveys a battered working-class town in the poet’s home state. The place’s time is gone but the citizens still grant the past the authority to condemn the present – “in the old days it would have been a disgrace”. Drawing on various speakers, keeping a close eye on the incoming weather and showing at every turn that relish of American names to which Stephen Vincent Benet first wrote a love poem, Kleinzahler also tacitly invokes the people of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River anthology and the fiction of Sinclair Lewis. At the close he frames a damning, poignant image of a larger house undergoing renovation by “a young lawyer couple”. Here, “for no special reason in back of a closet / a thick dusty volume from the Thirties sits open / with a broken spine and smelling of mildew / to a chapter titled Social Realism“. History is being un-written by oblivion.
Kleinzahler, it becomes clear, has a voice – laconic, abrasive, hilarious, suddenly tender – but not a manner. The poetry has to be new-made for its particular occasions, an approach that yields some bold successes, where at times satire is hard to distinguish from affection. As though out of nowhere, on a Long Island pier, we encounter “A cluster of hip-hop Lubavitch punks, shirttails out, talking tough You shoot him / he don’t shoot back“, when who should arrive on the sands, surrounded by a camera crew, “a black goddess on his arm, like an older version of that chick / on Miles’ Sorcerer album, wow” but P Diddy? Well, no, in fact it’s Neil Diamond who transports the onlooking gang to ecstasy, looking “Like a god with that hair” and “120 million records sold worldwide”. Even Louis Simpson probably hadn’t imagined that the heirs to Whitman would have to include this among the amazing multitude.
This review was originally published on 19th March 2011.
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The original review at The Guardian online.
Sean O Brien on the British Council’s literature site.
August Kleinzahler at the Poetry Archive.