Flirting with Dissolution

Mark Ford

  • Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club: Poems 1975-90 by August Kleinzahler
    Faber, 82 pp, £8.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 571 20428 7

The poems in Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club are taken from August Kleinzahler’s first six publications. All were small press books with relatively limited circulations – the first, The Sausage Master of Minsk (1977), was hand-set by the publishers and the poet himself on a platen press in Montreal. Until the early 1990s, when he was taken on by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US and Faber in Britain, Kleinzahler’s work was not much known beyond the alternative poetry world, and in a postscript to this selection, written at an airport hotel in Phoenix, he ponders his transition from the shadows to the bright lights of the professional poetry scene:

I am on my way back from a writers’ festival in the hills, en route to a semester-long job teaching poetry in a graduate writing programme. From the deeply silly to the sillier still. It is only very recently that I’ve begun participating in these sorts of things. Even a couple of years ago it would never have occurred to anyone to invite me. I was not of that world, nor would I have chosen to be. If there was a world I identified with, however marginally, or at least had some association with while writing these poems, it would probably have been the small-press world and its fugitive publications … The audience was only a handful, mostly other writers. There would be no reviews or prizes or job offers. No agents ringing up. No photo on the dust-jacket looking earnest or seductive. There was no dust-jacket. I did it because I had to. It’s all more complicated than that, but there you have it. I had no idea of the consequences of the decision I had made.

Kleinzahler was born in 1949 and grew up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across from the George Washington Bridge. He went to college in Wisconsin, but dropped out and drifted a while, before enrolling at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where his favourite 20th-century poet, Basil Bunting, happened to be teaching that year. Afterwards he worked at a variety of jobs (cab-driver, lumberjack, locksmith) in a variety of places (Alaska, Montreal, Portugal) but in 1981 settled in San Francisco, where he met Thom Gunn, to whom his most recent book, Green Sees Things in Waves (1998), is dedicated.

Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club is divided into two sections, ‘East’ and ‘West’, though a number of poems also cross-cut from coast to coast. The air outside Shop-Rite Liquor, on a gritty Jersey strip, is better, on summer evenings, than the ‘Marin hills at dusk/lavender and gold/stretching miles to the sea’. ‘Indian Summer Night: The Haight’ juxtaposes various distant street noises – a growling bus, a stand-up comic performing in a nearby café, gusts of laughter – with a childhood memory from Fort Lee:

The summer my sister worked at Palisades

Park

I’d stay awake till midnight,

listening.

When the breeze in the maples was right

you could hear her

my sister,

over the loudspeaker a quarter mile away

telling barkers, patrons and freaks,

everybody,

the last voice before the lights went out,

Thank you. Good night.

Gunn has said of this poem that it exhibits a trust in the concrete which is characteristic of Kleinzahler’s work. The structure is deliberately rudimentary – this reminds me of that – because the poem’s ‘power has to rise from the vividness of the performance’. It is the particularity of the details, he argues, which is made to matter above all: he commends Kleinzahler for ignoring theoretical issues – ‘fashionable worries about the reliability of his perceptions’ – and for allowing his poems to stand or fall on the accuracy and resonance of scenes evoked purely for their own sake.

This returns us to Kleinzahler’s New Jersey precursor, William Carlos Williams, and his deceptively simple rallying cry, ‘no ideas but in things’. Of course the things that get thrown up by the New Jersey landscape are rarely conventionally beautiful, yet many of Kleinzahler’s most compelling poems work by splicing together enchanted glimpses of his scruffy, polluted home state. In a poem like ‘Before Dawn on Bluff Road’, from Green Sees Things in Waves, he seems almost hypnotised by the disjunct, mutually indifferent industrial and natural activities taking place in the same New Jersey moment:

The crow’s raw hectoring cry

scoops clean an oval divot

of sky, its fading echo

among the oaks and poplars swallowed

first by a jet banking west

then the Erie-Lackawanna

sounding its horn as it comes through the

tunnel

through the cliffs to the river

and around the bend of King’s Cove Bluff

full of timber, Ford chassis, rock salt.

Kleinzahler may here seem to assume the all-registering consciousness of the Williams of Paterson, but Williams felt compelled to develop some kind of representative – even epic – meaning out of Paterson’s history, while Kleinzahler is at leisure to savour the rank effluents contaminating the river as evocations of his own childhood:

a soup of polymers, oxides,

tailings fifty years old

seeping through the mud, the aroma

almost comforting by now, like food,

wafting into my childhood room

with its fevers and dreams.

My old parents asleep,

only a few yards across the hall,

door open – lest I cry?

Kleinzahler’s work has been praised for its ‘funky syntax’, but it is the delicacy and unobtrusiveness of the transitions achieved in these lines that seem to me crucial to many of his best effects: indeed, it is the virtual absence of syntax that allows him to lay the filthy river, his memories of childhood, and his now ageing parents so lightly side by side.

‘One perception,’ Charles Olson decreed in ‘Projective Verse’ in 1950, ‘must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.’ Kleinzahler’s poetry abides by this tenet, but he softens and smoothes the connections so that we hardly notice them being made. Olson, like Williams, hoped in the end that the total of projected perceptions would be considerably greater than the sum of their parts – would even come to embody the national consciousness – while Kleinzahler deliberately avoids grand systems of thought and history.

The opening poem in Live at the Hong Kong Nile Club, ‘Where Souls Go’ (first published in 1985), might be taken as his ars poetica: he nonchalantly dismisses metaphysical and epistemological anxieties, and coolly celebrates our power to be involved in whatever happens to be happening. There is ‘no telling’ where souls go: out of sight, out of mind. ‘Don’t bother,’ he counsels,

to resurrect them

unless some old newsreel clip

catches them shocked

with a butter knife in the toaster.

The mind, he insists, is forever ‘cleansing itself like a great salt sea’, and imagining the afterlife of the dead leads him to a commitment to the random and particular, to a street scene on an ordinary evening in Brooklyn. Consider these souls

clustered round the D train’s fan

as we cross the bridge to Brooklyn.

And make that a Friday night

July say. We are walking past

the liquor store to visit our love.

Two black boys are eating Corn Doodles

in the most flamboyant manner possible.

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.

There is much information here, economically conveyed: the Corn Doodle eaters, the waiting woman, the distant and ruthless war, the ball-game appear connected simply because they are presented as happening simultaneously. It is poetry’s duty, Kleinzahler implies, to acknowledge the multiple, often contradictory varieties of experience that lay claim to our attention. Like so many of his poems, ‘Where Souls Go’ represents its imagined moment as a tangled involute that resists any single, meaningful perspective.

One of the epigraphs to this selection comes from Miles Davis. ‘If you’re not nervous, you’re not paying attention.’ It was Frank O’Hara, in his pseudo-manifesto ‘Personism’ (1959), who first advised poets just to run on their nerve, and in recent years, alas, the sub-O’Hara poem has become commonplace – a dash of surrealism, a dash of mock-bravado, a dash of whimsy, a dash of erotics, light punctuation or none, all urgently shaken and served with an insouciant smile. The blurb suggests Kleinzahler is original in being ‘the edgy trickster of the city’s inner and outer weather’, but the same could be said of a vast tribe of American poets. However, Kleinzahler – who writes a weekly jazz column – has thought long and hard about the virtues and dangers of improvisation. In ‘Like Cities, like Storms’ a jazz soloist plays ‘cool legato or a rope of cries/against a world pouring down/so hard and fast’. The poem’s rhythms mime the fluidity of a jazz band, working the separate strands of the scene (‘the owner counting heads/and the kid/down from Yale working his way up/ his girlfriend’s thigh’) into tense alignment with the musicians, who ‘keep holding on// a foot off the ground,/but holding’. Yet how long, the poem also asks, can this ‘rope of cries’ take the strain?

the bass and drums are about to fly

off the beat

and lose the soloist orbiting

round it

but don’t, somehow

For the Beats, in their search for an untrammelled ‘spontaneous bop prosody’, jazz became an all-licensing ideal, a means of liberating the imagination from conscious restraints. ‘That was the first time,’ Allen Ginsberg told Kerouac on completing Howl, ‘that I really sat down to blow.’ Kleinzahler, on the other hand, points up the disciplined nature of the relationships underlying jazz. The bass and drums are not about to fly (as the line break initially suggests) into some sublime paradise of self-expression, but are threatening to lose the beat, which would strand the soloist in musical outer space. Somehow this doesn’t happen, but the energy of the music – and of much of Kleinzahler’s poetry – derives from a calculated flirtation with fragmentation and dissolution.

The final poem of his 1995 volume, Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow, is an elegy for New York in the 1950s, and in particular for the two artists who most dangerously and dramatically espoused an aesthetic of improvisation. In ‘Green River Cemetery: Springs’ – O’Hara and Pollock are buried there – Kleinzahler wanders among the dead until he feels he can almost hear ‘the rages, dishing and whispered come-ons,/the posturing and retort/at that murderous cocktail party, the Fifties’. But he also interprets the careers of both men as something of a cautionary tale:

Speed and Nerve presiding

right before it blew into a camp B-movie

cavalcade of car wrecks, lithium

and broken hearts

In the final lines their legacy is presented equivocally as ‘celluloid in flames,/the fried image and random splice,/wild parabolas, butchery’.

While this poem betrays more than a trace of anxiety about his indebtedness to O’Hara, it also keeps its distance from Pollock and O’Hara’s melodramatic ‘culte de soi’. In their differing ways, both men tried to erode the boundaries between their lives and their work; Kleinzahler is more likely to remind us of the gap that separates them. In ‘Art & Life’, for instance, he cuts from a discursive, rather Ashberian description of a piece of writing (‘several morphemes/arrayed so that when taken up by the mind/they deploy into a kind of umbrella’) to a woman and baby walking down an evil-smelling alley below Mission. Many of the poems collected in this volume might be described as genre scenes: ‘Lock Shop’ offers a Carveresque glimpse into the lives of a couple of key-makers, presumably Kleinzahler’s colleagues during his spell as a locksmith, one of whom once met Charles Manson (‘Was he crazy?’ the narrator asks. ‘Crazy? John says and gives me this look.// Crazy?//– Hell yes, he was crazy’); ‘Trolley’ describes a day in the life of a San Francisco trolley-car, like a Thomas the Tank Engine story for grown-ups; ‘Meat’ is a meditation on the daily delivery of carcasses into the city, and might be said to update the tradition of the nature morte.

In his postscript Kleinzahler admits to feeling ‘remote’ from much of his earlier work, though he also suggests his younger self might have cast a cold eye on his current eminence in American poetry circles. The gap between the poems of the 1970s and 1980s and those of the 1990s is not, perhaps, as great as this suggests, but certainly in his two most recent collections, the narratives get longer and loopier, the effects are more varied, and there is much more humour. The poems in this book also lack the subdued elegiac note one finds in, say, ‘Before Dawn on Bluff Road’. What they reveal is a writer alert both to his surroundings and his own capabilities, writing because he had to, and slowly fashioning a poetic idiom that has come to resemble a new way of paying attention.