A couple of years ago, writing in Poetry magazine, August Kleinzahler lighted a string of firecrackers under Garrison Keillor and his “Writer’s Almanac” segments on National Public Radio.
Mr. Kleinzahler criticized the “anecdotal, wistful” poems Mr. Keillor often chooses to read — poems he summarized as “middle-aged creative writing instructor catching whiff of mortality in the countryside.” Mr. Kleinzahler wasn’t very nice about Mr. Keillor’s “treacly baritone” either.
Ultimately Mr. Kleinzahler boiled his case against Mr. Keillor down to these three-and-a-half sentences: “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.”
It makes a certain kind of sense, then, that Mr. Kleinzahler’s career-spanning new book of poems, “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City,” features on its cover a nighttime photograph of a White Castle hamburger franchise. Like White Castle’s pint-size hamburgers, Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems are of uncertain if not dubious nutritional value. And while there is nothing made-to-order about them, his poems arrive salty and hot; you’ll want to devour them on your lap, with a stack of napkins to mop up the grease.
Mr. Kleinzahler is an American eccentric, a hard man to pin down. Born in New Jersey, he writes poems that have a pushy exuberance and an expert recall of that state’s tougher schoolyards — of bullies with names like Stinky Phil and of “fire trucks and galoshes,/the taste of pencils and Louis Bocca’s ear.” And he writes with elegiac insight about life’s losers, the people he calls “strange rangers,” the addicted, insane or destitute.
Yet for all his gruffness and love of dive bars, he is no Bukowski. Mr. Kleinzahler, who has lived for several decades in San Francisco, writes most often in a strongly accented free verse that is among the most articulate and alive sounds American poetry is currently making. He plays effortlessly with forms, voices, registers. And his range of cultural reference — from Catullus to Custer, from Lorca to Eric Dolphy — is wide and artfully deployed. Rarely does high, learned poetic art sound this casual.
As “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City” demonstrates, you can find in Mr. Kleinzahler’s verse echoes of poets as disparate as Frank O’Hara (the appraising eye and metropolitan ease), Jim Harrison (the life-affirming appetites), Tony Hoagland (the deft grasp of high culture and low) and Charles Simic (a certain satirical angularity, and attention paid to food and drink and their sorrows and delights).
It’s easy to troll through any of Mr. Kleinzahler’s books and pick out fresh, alert observations. (Flipping almost at random through this one I find: “Say, who among us does not care to be undressed?” and “If butter can’t cure what ails you,/no cure is there to be found.”) But beneath their surface charms, the reverberating subjects of nearly all of Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems, particularly his later ones, are brute human longing and loneliness.
He writes often about travel, of people in transit, and in a poem called “San Francisco/New York,” he suggests:
What is more touching
than a used-book store on Saturday night,
dowdy clientele haunting the aisles:
the girl with bad skin, the man with a tic,
some chronic ass at the counter giving his art speech?
In another poem a man in an airplane drops “down through the clouds,/into the rain and old quarrels.”
Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems find their center of gravity at gut level, and often enough the longing in them is for a place at the table — any table. His hungry-man poems (about everything from steam-table Chinese food to good marinara sauce) can leave you famished. Others may make you a bit queasy. In a poem titled “Meat,” he wonders:
How much meat moves
Into the city each night
The decks of its bridges tremble
In the liquefaction of sodium light
And the moon a chemical orange
Sometimes the longing is comically sexual. Mr. Kleinzahler observes, in a poem called “Tanka-Toys: A Memoir”:
The wet stain her bathing suit left
on the bench
the shape of Bolivia,
drying, drying into atolls
Ursa Minor, a thumbprint.
Mr. Kleinzahler is no admirer of poets who write in “Nobel-ese” — that is, poets who specialize in delivering important-sounding poems about important-sounding themes. He rarely has this problem, although once in a while he has its opposite. When a Kleinzahler poem fails to lift off, it’s usually because he is casual to a fault; his lesser work feels thin and adrift, wandering far from any distinct path. Still, his misses have more wit and feeling in them than many other poets’ hits.
There’s a moment in a poem called “Where Souls Go” in which a woman waits for the narrator and another man, and she is “trying/to have the best song on as we arrive.” In “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City” the best song always seems to be on the turntable, with the D.J. shouting — as Mr. Kleinzahler does in one poem collected here — “Those aren’t stars, darling/That’s your nervous system.”
-New York Times