The Hotel Oneira, by August Kleinzahler.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24.00.
August Kleinzahler is a romantic bad boy, a Shelley with a chip on his shoulder. Such a hipster’s hipster has probably memorized long passages from On the Road and made pilgrimage to the Mexican railroad track where Neal Cassady fell into his fatal coma. In The Hotel Oneira, Kleinzahler’s slouchy, doomed demeanor infects a lot of poems about travel as he bangs up in the odd hotel with a volume of Kafka by his side.
That was heavy freight moved through last night,and has been moving through since I’m back,settled in again by the Hudson at the Hotel Oneira:maps on the walls, shelves of blue and white Pelicans,multiple editions of the one epistolary novel by K.,the curios — my sediment, you mighty say, my spattle trail.Look at them down there by the ferry slip,the bridal party, organza, chiffon and lace, beside themselves,being wonderful, desperately wonderful, a pastel foam.Behind them a tug pushes a rusted barge upriver.Helicopters, small planes, passenger jets above.They behave, these girls, as if this is their last chance to be thus.— From The Hotel Oneira
There’s much to admire in these stanzas: the slow tracking through the room’s flotsam and jetsam (“spattle” is a nonce word, presumably the things his life has spat forth), the little touch of the “blue and white Pelicans” (paperbacks, of course, but with the dreamlike suggestion of impossibly exotic plumage), even the bullying symbol of the “heavy freight,” and only then the closely managed scene of the bridal party, the girls — banally overdressed, silly in their silliness, yet revealing a profound loss. O tempora!
In his angsty self-regard, Kleinzahler often sounds like the narrator of a bad Chandler novel. This sort of thing plays well into your forties, but by the time you’re ready to draw Social Security it’s a bit much. If the opening is straight from the chapel of rawboned romantic gestures (patron saint, Tom Waits), the lines about the girls are full of rueful sympathy. You can tell the speaker doesn’t like such frippery (he juxtaposes the bridal party with that pushy barge, that empty busyness of air traffic), but he’s taken with them despite himself.
The moment might have dripped with sentiment, but Kleinzahler’s best poems risk overegging the emotion without quite making you cringe. Every page is a dangerous balancing act — the poems ramble from idea to idea, less an argument than a drunk man’s walk, incorporating humdrum details on the fly, as if that were a sign of being cool in the midst of romantic agony:
They follow you around the store, these power ballads,you and the women with their shopping carts filled with eggs,cookies, 90 fl. oz. containers of anti-bacterial dishwashing liquid,buffeting you sideways like a punishing wind.— From A History of Western Music: Chapter 63
The poem is about Whitney Houston. Though poems about pop stars are usually a disaster (we’re lucky Lowell didn’t write about the Beatles), Kleinzahler almost makes a case for the emotion pop songs embody. (The antibacterial dishwashing soap is just right for housewives a little too prim about dirt.) And yet. And yet. By the time he gets to the song that’s not being played in the supermarket aisle, the poem has collapsed into a crying jag. He manages not to mention Houston’s sordid death in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, he’s so busy comparing such songs to neurotoxin (“it wouldn’t be just you dying in aisle #5. / All the girls would be dropping like it was sarin gas”).
That’s the trouble with Kleinzahler. He has about all the talents the god of poetry could have bestowed upon him: a fine ear, the ability to launch into poems with deceptive suavity, oddly shaped perceptions, a surprising eye — and a heart of mush. He’s never afraid to let the poems unfold in unexpected ways, yet on page after page there’s cloying sentiment or an eye-rolling and affected delivery that makes even the best poems suspect in their touches of feeling. Such a poet suffers from mixed blessings — as well as mixed curses.
Too many of Kleinzahler’s poems embrace their slack winsomeness, and slacker wooziness, which would be fine if you liked your poems winsome or woozy. (The poet seems to moan, “Pity the poet! Pity the poor poet!”) Worse, the archness often dissolves into weary, jacked-up humor. There’s a poem about macaques that starts in what I take to be an Amos ’n’ Andy voice (“thass me, your jibber-jabbering Sulawesi booted macaque”) and quickly descends into the music-hall turn few but Eliot could pull off:
A-monk-a-monk-a-mee, a-monk-a-monk-a-yooI once knew a lady wot lived in a shoeHad so many laces she didn’t know wot to doSo many laces, faces, places ... Wot’s a girl to do?— From Tuq-Tuq
Perhaps Kleinzahler has been reading “Fragment of an Agon” like Scripture. As the younger poet says, “I jibber-jabber’d, jibber-jibber-jabber’d myself to a proper lather.”
These new poems sometimes toy with history, if a little fast and loosely. German exiles (Brecht, Mann, Oskar Homolka) live out World War II in California, but suddenly among them there’s the long-dead Nietzsche playing golf in Bel-Air. In another poem, Francis Ponge obsessively watches Looney Tunes. Throwing dead philosophers into our cartoonish culture doesn’t seem very fair to philosophers, though perhaps with the phenomenologist Kleinzahler is making a backdoor joke on the character known in France as Bob l’éponge.
The most curious of these historical turns, seemingly cast in the baroque eighteenth-century style Pynchon pastiched in Mason & Dixon, in fact consists of passages from the 1703 weather diaries of Thomas Appletree:
And thus did the Atmospherical Theatre play out,with its transmutations & shifting of vapours,whether the rain-bearing clouds of Januaryriding over our heades like vast Carracksor Bulging, dull-swelling Bas-Relieve cloudsbloated & pendulous, ubera caeli fecunda.— From The Exquisite Atmography of Thomas Appletree, Diarist of Edgiock
“Milk-dripping breasts of the sky,” more or less. Ah, those wild Oxbridgians of the Stuart Age, always dropping into Latin for the salacious bits. The poem is a giddy romp, and giddily inane.
Kleinzahler is a man at ease in these poems, letting them fill up with the dreck of the day; but then he labors to make a point; or invents elaborate setups for clumsy jokes; or writes something as unbearably twee as “To My Cat William,” which is not a patch on Christopher Smart, or a long, gadabout study of Vachel Lindsay, whose naive, tom-tomming poems Kleinzahler does nothing to rescue. There are poems that seem mere jottings — like a writer’s summer journal, feisty-scrappy but also scrapbook-scrappy — and poems that live like remittance men on unearned pathos. You can have only so many apocalyptic visions about the Age of Trash. Yet when he juxtaposes Hitler’s invasion of Russia with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat, this fitful, posturing poet seems to harbor something greater inside him. He lets the details of war do the work, as Anthony Hecht did. The obvious message is that dictators never learn from history (not that anyone else does, either).
You never know quite what Kleinzahler will do next. Too many poems in this lively ragbag of a book are less than the sum of their parts, too many a train wreck; but in half a dozen places he finds access to feeling nervous in its despair. The reader has to put up with a lot of sketchy thought, hipper-than-thou gestures, and gushing
romanticism (Hotel Oneira? Give me a break) to get to the deeply rendered meditations of place, full of Melvillean glamour and sadness.
It’s no use asking Kleinzahler to leave out the gruesome sentiment, it’s so mired in his manner, his conception of what it is to be a poet (he’s always ordering a handkerchief with sniffles to go). The poet should never take credit for being a poet.
Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, by William Stafford.
Graywolf Press. $16.00.
William Stafford was a minor figure in American poetry thirty or forty years ago, neither famous nor infamous, just a hardworking poet who wrote too much and had a poem in most anthologies — almost always “Traveling through the Dark,” which most readers remember as the dead deer poem. Stafford was like a lot of poets who never rise to the heights of the local Parnassus, an honest journeyman whose work rarely strayed beyond his forty acres. There’s never much room at the top — fame is not a zero-sum game, but it’s close.
Stafford was modest enough, and sensible enough, not to mind. He was unassuming in person and the poems were the model of the man, written in bark-plain prose, accidental, unpretentious — like Hardy’s without the shape of genius. He fared better than many poets: there was a National Book Award early on, and later the appointment as poet laureate (at that time, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). If there’s a case to be made for his poems, it’s that plain American is hard-wearing. Many poets of the postwar are almost unreadable now — they chose a literary language dripping with artifice or a vernacular dull as boiled cod. The difference between a Lowell and, say, a Nemerov or an Eberhart is the difference between a cheetah and a house cat.
The poems in Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems are drily written, conversational, without shape or tension — they just start, and just end, sometimes without much in between. Occasionally Stafford has an intriguing thought and just keeps pushing. A woman he knew named Lorene goes missing:
Usually, it wouldn’t happen, but sometimesthe neighbors notice your car is gone, thepatch of oil in the driveway, and it fades.They forget.In the Bible it happened — fishermen, Levites.They just went away and kept going. Thomas,away off in India, never came back.But Lorene — it was a stranger maybe, and hesaid, “Your life, I need it.” And nobody else did.— From Saint Matthew and All
The idea might have gone nowhere; but then he recalls the apostles, torn from their lives. And chillingly, almost an afterthought, a murderer, perhaps — though he doesn’t say murderer (Christ was a stranger, too). Stafford’s poems are never a tour de force, they’re a tour de réticence, their strength in what he doesn’t say. Kim Stafford, the poet’s son, who edited this volume, recalls that at a reading a stranger in the audience remarked, after his father finished a poem, “I could have written that.” Stafford replied, “But you didn’t.” A different poet might have left it there, yet after a pause he added, “But you could write your own.” Stafford was one of nature’s democrats.
That kindness and humility (there’s a brief flare of pride as well) was essential to the poetry; the better poems go a little further than you expect, and they take you unawares. In “Traveling through the Dark,” the speaker stops his car after finding a dead deer along a narrow river road. He says at the outset that to prevent an accident travelers normally rolled a carcass into the canyon. There’s a hitch, however. The deer was pregnant.
Her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,alive, still, never to be born.Beside that mountain road I hesitated.The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;under the hood purred the steady engine.I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.I thought hard for us all — my only swerving — ,then pushed her over the edge into the river.
The poet never quite admits he could have saved the fawn, but his actions make clear he thought so. “My only swerving” is a touch of Frost; but Frost would have made the poem darker, morally tougher, perhaps less haunting. Some of the impact of Stafford’s poems come from their very quietness. It’s a pity that he felt it necessary to make the wilderness listen — surely the point of the poem is that in nature the death would have gone unnoticed.
Stafford’s best poems were often little parables or fables whose meaning remained undefined. He loved his moments of prairie wisdom, or mountain wisdom, or river wisdom — he was the sort of man who listened to what a place was trying to say. It was half crazy, but half touching, too.
Stafford possessed a sentimental streak broader than a barn door, and it spoiled a lot of poems. “Why I Am a Poet” starts ruefully (“My father’s gravestone said, ‘I knew it was time’”), then breaks into cheerful absurdity:
The singers back homeall stood in rows along the railroad line.When the wind came along the trackevery neighbor sang.
That beats anything in Oklahoma! If you write about your life in such a highly stylized manner, the way WPA painters portrayed America in post office murals, the style conceals all the suffering. The poem ends weakly, miserably:
I looked back where the sky came down.Some days no train would come.Some birds didn’t have a song.
That’s a Just So story for poets, and sappy at that.
On the other hand, Stafford may have written the only poems of the Vietnam War that can still be read without embarrassment. His political poems learned something from Auden, adding dashes of whimsy that made the politics more bearable — and more unbearable, too:
Remember that leader with the funny mustache? —liked flags and marching? — gave loyaltya bad name? Didn’t drink, they say,but liked music, and was jolly, sometimes.And then the one with the big mustacheand the wrinkled uniform, always jovialfor the camera but eliminated malcontentsby the millions. He was our friend, I think.— From Explaining the Big One
The reader thinks, plus ça change.
Stafford was born in 1914, the same year as Berryman and Jarrell and Dylan Thomas. His parents were not wealthy — like a lot of small timers before and during the Depression, they moved around trying to find work. Stafford hoed weeds in sugar beet fields, delivered newspapers, jobbed as an electrician’s mate. He was lucky to go to college, but while finishing his master’s he was drafted. He became a conscientious objector, like Lowell, and spent the war in work camps in California and Arkansas, where he wrote poetry. His first book was not published until he was forty-six.
There was something hardscrabble about the life and hardscrabble about the career. To say Stafford wrote too much might seem a critic’s exaggeration, but by his son’s count he wrote 20,000 poems. This isn’t a record (Lowell’s psychiatrist, Merrill Moore, wrote at least 25,000 sonnets, probably more); but it’s far over the border of graphomania, that peculiar country of the damned. “Scribble, scribble, scribble!” doesn’t begin to cover it. By comparison, Eliot wrote about seventy poems, Bishop one hundred, Larkin 120, Moore 250, Pound and Frost three hundred or so, Auden somewhat more, if you count the tiny ones. A poet who writes too much almost always has too little to say, and very few ways of saying it; but beyond the limitations of talent there’s something darkly psychological in Stafford, some desperate need that could be only temporarily assuaged by writing.
Stafford was so reserved (humility can be heroic, but also other things), it’s difficult to guess from the poems what that need was. He found his style early and stuck to it. When you read the poems, you feel you know the man (there were worse men to know — worse poets, too), but really you know only the voice. You can read all of Frost without getting more than a glimpse of the rage and desire lying below. If you published the poems Stafford left behind, a book a year and a hundred poems a book, you’d finish about the year 2200; but you probably wouldn’t find them much different from the poems we have.
It’s not clear what editorial principle his son used to gather these poems or organize them — he likes the political poems well enough, and the sentimental ones even better. You could probably get a selection almost as good by putting your hand in a grab bag of the throwaways. Out of the common sorrows of common life, Stafford made poems with modest ends, and modest means.
In scenery I like flat country.In life I don’t like much to happen.In personalities I like mild colorless people.And in colors I prefer gray and brown.— From Passing Remark
There was something a touch sad about the poems — yet Stafford manages to seem one of life’s optimists. He was one of the rare poets, in an art that favors the monk and the monster, whose salt-of-the-earth gentleness did not count against him. Poets often get by on personality — an authentic voice is more appealing than verbal pyrotechnics — but a poet of slender gifts could write a poem every day of his life and never write a great one. Writing poetry is not like standing in traffic until you get hit by a truck; it’s like standing in hell waiting to get knocked down by a snowball.
Poet and critic William Logan was born in Boston in 1950 and earned degrees from Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since 1975, his work—both poetry and criticism—has regularly appeared in major journals and publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and...