August Kleinzahler’s fourteenth collection of poems, Snow Approaching on the Hudson, begins with the death of Elvis and ends with a recollection of his teacher, the great Northumberland poet Basil Bunting, whose long poem “Briggflatts” (1966) has proved a lasting influence on many writers. That is to say, the book begins in 1977 and circles back to the winter of 1971–1972, when Bunting was teaching at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and the younger poet happened to bounce there on an extended peripatetic jag. It also happened to be the winter that his beloved older brother, Harris, killed himself in New York City, three days before Kleinzahler’s twenty-second birthday. Recourse to numbers (an old word for verse, after all) comes readily to hand when death looms: the clock is ticking, and what’s approaching on “the lordly Hudson,” the famous phrase Kleinzahler borrows occasionally from Paul Goodman, is a bit more than snow. The book is dedicated “To Friends Departed—‘See you on the river.’”
The range—between a Croesus-like song-and-dance man and an obscure, impoverished poet—is crucial; traversing across contrasting modes is the driving force behind Kleinzahler’s work. As is the case with his most challenging poems, the opener, “30, Rue Duluth,” is a burlesque. (Kleinzahler has written that the purpose of art is entertainment, full stop.) “Elvis is dead, the radio said,” it begins, recalling the story in Plutarch’s The Obsolescence of Oracles in which a Greek sailor hears a divine voice proclaim, “The great god Pan is dead.” Kleinzahler lets the allusion echo lightly without comment, instead having his narrator dive into the description of a sausage: “I read that piece of meat as if I were Chaim Soutine,/with its capillaries and tiny kernels of fat,/bound up in its burnt-sienna casing.” It’s not long before we realize that the “meat” he is reading is that of the singer found dead of a heart attack on the bathroom floor:
They say he existed on Tuinal and cheddar,
his blood turned to sludge,
odds & ends from this snack or that buried deep inside him,
dating all the way back to Blue Hawaii,
the fat around his neck like a collar of boudin blanc.
“Now, that’s what I call a showman,” the narrator exclaims, the near-homophone shaman echoing in the word. Of course, there’s showmanship in Kleinzahler’s language too: he’s going toe to toe with the diamond-suited, caped king, wielding language with insolence to match the bombast of late-stage rock and roll. There’s a sleight of hand at work in the suggestion that the speaker is other than Kleinzahler—a composer, as it happens, who himself has a slight air of ridiculousness (he alights on his motif for “my early masterwork, Opus 113,” while the news of Elvis’s death is being broadcast). A lineup of unreliable narrators is part of the entertainment. So is the effect of dainty diction set in opposition to grotesque vocabulary or to the profanity of the whole mise-en-scène (the “broken link of kolbasz/fetched only lately from Boucherie Hongroise”). And so is the little ironic diminuendo at the end: the day the King of Rock and Roll dies, Satie’s delicate Gymnopédies play on the radio as evening falls.
In sharp contrast to those buffo ironies, however, Kleinzahler is also a writer of elegies; his tribute to Bunting couldn’t be more direct and heartfelt: “I watched you carefully that year,/and listened./It was good to be around a man like that.” The irreverent, egregiously inappropriate Bunting scandalized his university colleagues, and students dropped his course en masse; Kleinzahler and a few others stayed on to read verse (not their own), listen to music, drink wine, and hear stories:
That bungalow we’d meet at, the few of us,
rain pouring down outside,
listening to Scarlatti, Dowland, Byrd,
or you reading aloud to us, Wordsworth, Wyatt—
just back there across the road,
torn down, a gruesome condo complex now.
Bunting was a Poundian who had sat at the master’s feet in Rapallo; he had also served in the RAF and as a military intelligence officer in Persia during World War II. His relation to employment was tenuous, but he was a fund of poetic knowledge from ancient Persians to the Celts to the Elizabethans. For the young Kleinzahler, who was already well on his way to a similarly precarious lifestyle (he even, like Bunting, supported himself writing a music column at one point), this was a stroke of unbelievable luck.
There are some echoes between the styles of the two poets, one an Englishman with a northern burr and one a guy from Fort Lee, New Jersey, with a twang. For all the aural density of Bunting’s poetry, Kleinzahler discovered, it didn’t depart significantly from how Bunting actually talked. And so how a guy from Jersey talks became a baseline for a Kleinzahler poem—its tone can veer unexpectedly up or down, or leap into the hinterlands of vocabulary, as in the comic poem “A Baroque Scot’s Excess”:
Chivvied by creditors, pilloried by malison of every kind,
his noddle much modified by the liquor of grape,
he gan to unleash his word-hoard
and visit upon the worst his fullest measure of clapperclaw;…
followed hard by sulfurous hail of scorn:
slabberdegullion druggels, freckled bittors, drawlatch hoydons,
ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, blockish grutnols…
The distance, then, between the artist as Elvis and the artist as Bunting is like the span in linguistic registers, writ large. It’s also correlated with an emotional range—from the farcical to the tender.
Thus it is one of the more unusual bodies of work in contemporary poetry. How many readers would stop short at the rude description of Elvis’s flesh? It’s far from the only time Kleinzahler has compressed descriptions of food and the body. In an early poem, “Going,” elderly gents from the hood are “talking tumor,/they’re talking colon and biopsy/over biscuit tortoni and tea.” In another, “The Old Schoolyard in August,” a Little League ballpark brings back memories “of fire trucks, galoshes,/the taste of pencils and Louis Bocco’s ear//torn off by the fence in a game of salugi.” Here the lack of a serial comma makes all the difference, as well as the obscure game whose name sounds like a deli meat.
A girl who works in a butcher’s shop is a “sopressata fée outside of Calfasso’s/with the swept-back ’do and blood on her smock.” In another highly descriptive, highly atmospheric poem, a creepy apartment-dweller puts Chinese takeout on the floor as ant bait, then poisons the ants. These are just some examples of Kleinzahler’s wide sensorium, a feature of his poems that can provoke either glee or disgust. He seems to be saying that if we can speak of the music of language (and music, as we know, is also tactile), then we should be able to speak of its taste and smell. He quotes the English critic Kenneth Cox in one of his epigraphs: “I would go round savouring a phrase to test it, taste it, till I could decide if it was ‘good’ or had to be spat out. That word taste is not a metaphor.”
The range in Kleinzahler is also geographic, and his poems, a fair number of which fall under one series called “A History of Western Music” and another called “Traveler’s Tales,” roam all over the globe before coming to land in one of two places: the New Jersey palisades or the hills of San Francisco. Much has been made of the fact that he was born in Fort Lee (where a local hot dog stand has a photo of him hanging on the wall) and has lived in the Bay Area since 1981. The 1970s were a restless decade he spent mostly in Canada, where he published his first book with Coach House Press; it put the seal on his extraterritorial poetics.
This air of cosmopolitanism contrasts with the cozy provincialism of Fort Lee, Hackensack, Hoboken, Weehawken, where the cultural references are firmly rooted in his childhood and youth: Gunga Din, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond; baseball, bocce, boxing. In 2017 his publisher issued a double-barreled selected poems; it was devised like a Möbius strip, collecting his Jersey poems under one cover and his San Francisco poems under the other. You had to flip the book to bridge the two halves.
Snow Approaching on the Hudson, as the title suggests, wears its preoccupation with homecoming on its book sleeve—but even then, not without a nod to other times, other places: the title poem shades into a Chinese scroll painting as the air is leached of its colors by winter weather:
The giant HD plasma screen atop Chelsea Piers
flashing red and green—
stamped seal in a Sesshu broken ink scroll
A tug pushes the garbage scow, left to right, toward the sea
passing in and out of the Void—
vaporizing gray, temporal to timeless
Clouds wait, brooding for snow
and hang heavily over the earth—
Kleinzahler was an East Asian studies major before dropping out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; one of his earliest influences was a selection of Chinese and Japanese poetry translated by Kenneth Rexroth. The fog and the river crossing are, of course, allusions to the ghosts of the dearly departed, and a foreshadowing of the fate that awaits him.
There are two poems in this new collection with Weehawken in the title: it is his Briggflatts, a resonant place-name that stands in for lost time. Bunting’s poem, too, was a reckoning written on the cusp of old age. In “Driving by Bluff Road Just After Dusk in Late Autumn,” Kleinzahler stalks his childhood home and envisions a light bulb on in his old bedroom, with a boy still riffling through an old atlas:
He calls up great cities: Montevideos and Maharashtras,
entering through their gates at will, visiting their alleyways and boulevards,
the apothecaries, joss houses, and mills, unnoticed, as if a phantom,
drinking in every particular. To what end?
“There’s a sort of residual force field that stretches me this way and that, like an astronaut going through the g-force,” Kleinzahler remarked about New Jersey. Surely most poets—most people—have a bittersweet attraction to their childhood terroir, but in Kleinzahler’s case it is bound up with his brother’s suicide, a story told in harrowing detail in his essay “Cutty, One Rock.”1
“I loved my brother, more than anyone in the world.” Harris was six and a half years older, handsome, a street fighter and gambler who happened to have gone to Wharton. He led a double—or triple—life as a financial analyst in New York, poker player, and sybarite of the gay nightlife. “High-low was his action,” Kleinzahler writes, a hat-tip toward his own poetic tendencies. In Chandleresque sentences, he takes what could have been a novel and kilns it into thirty-five pages.
So often we experience noir style as pastiche, a pose, a badge of the underdog’s masculine resilience. Kleinzahler treats it as a style devised to keep murderous fury clamped down. When his brother swallowed fifty barbiturate pills, he had lost his job, acquired a felony rap, and was being tailed by both the FBI and the mob. He sent a suicide note (including where to find a key to his apartment) to Kleinzahler in Vancouver, but the poet was delayed and got the letter too late to carry out its instructions before their father found the body first. There are details he doesn’t spare the reader. The emotional tenor is also ruthless:
The rabbi was a loathsomely unctuous character, most of them are…. You know how they have big get-togethers after, all of these ugly old dirtbags shaking their heads, tsk, tsk, tsk, drinking Scotch and stuffing their faces with corned-beef sandwiches. That didn’t sit well with me either.
A man with a “tentative, shaky voice” calls the house; it turns out to be a great love of his brother’s. Kleinzahler takes the phone and comforts him. He tells the reader, “Most of the people who really loved my brother didn’t come to the funeral because they didn’t want to upset and embarrass everyone: you know, a bunch of weeping queers ruining it for everyone else.” The bereaved brother’s contempt for the complacent men who survive their passions erupts in defiance at the end of the essay: “I never begrudged him what he did. He was in a lot of pain…. If you ask me, it took guts. Most people simply hold on to life and rot.” That run of mostly monosyllables chews up the mouth like an olive pit in a muffuletta sandwich.
Reading “Cutty, One Rock” sheds some further light on “30, Rue Duluth” and its contemplation of Elvis’s sausage-corpse. But there is yet another key to the poem. Shortly after Kleinzahler moved to San Francisco, he attended a lecture on Bunting given by Thom Gunn, the English poet, born in 1929, who ascended to the top rank of his generation only to give up his place in the London literary world in 1960 and move to Haight-Ashbury, where drugs and gay liberation promised a greater blossoming. Thus began a twenty-three-year friendship. (Kleinzahler is, along with Clive Wilmer, Gunn’s literary executor; they just published a volume of letters.2)
Each wrote about the other; both of them viewed their attachment to San Francisco as a happy exile from murky places of origin and Procrustean literary networks. But there must also have been a bond forged over the dark currents that flowed through their lives. Gunn’s mother, whom he was close to, killed herself and left her sons to find her body when Gunn was fifteen years old. (His sole piece of writing on the subject, “The Gas Poker,” did not appear until his final collection of poems.) And that Gunn was a handsome gay man with libertine habits, which finally cost him his life when he died of a drug-related heart attack at age seventy-four in 2004, must recall Harris. Kleinzahler sounds like nothing if not a kid brother, writing about Gunn’s encouragement:
My writing has had no greater or more steadfast champion, but if he detected mannerism, slackness, want of real subject matter or its honest treatment, he let me have it with both barrels, sometimes firing below the belt. I didn’t like it at the time, but it was a gift, really.
Gunn’s reputation at the start of his career (in the mid-1950s) had been launched by such poems as “On the Move” and “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death,” both about leather-clad bikers; he also wrote a well-known poem titled “Elvis Presley.” It’s difficult for me not to read “30, Rue Duluth” as an invitation to the ghost of Kleinzahler’s friend to enter into his latest collection of poems through the front door, as their mutual forebear, Basil Bunting, slips out the back.
“I want to be an Elizabethan poet,” Gunn told Kleinzahler in an interview. “I want to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans.” Reading Kleinzahler, one gets the sense that he too wishes to be something closer to an Elizabethan, in contrast to the poet “coughing up his guts all over the page as is the custom in contemporary American poetry.”
There are other models of impersonality that Kleinzahler evokes—Rexroth’s Asian translations, William Carlos Williams’s verité—but there’s something too in his use of language that harks back to the Cavaliers: turns toward the courtly, the courteous, the curtsy; and an understanding that no matter how broad and wide your word-hoard, a great deal can be conveyed by a handful of very simple words with a long history of poetic use in English. “They Offtimes Choose,” a poem from mid-career, recalls Thomas Wyatt and Robert Herrick: “How well these ladies do contrive, how well,/to keep me in thrall with their sweet neglect.” “Land’s End” ends in “a strange, bare room.” “Self-Portrait” describes a dream “so eerily gentle and strange.” “A History of Western Music: Chapter 11” has a Monteverdi lullaby sung “with such tenderness, rinsed with an unearthly sweetness.”
Thus “wild,” “sweet,” “strange,” and “gentle” carefully counterpoint Kleinzahler’s more rumbustious efforts; they are intended to recall to us the Elizabethans and the Romantics—for instance, Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: “And her eyes were wild…/And made sweet moan…/And sure in language strange she said—/‘I love thee true.’” Just when you might think the vocabulary has gotten too outré, the narrators too wise-guyish, the dreamscapes and vignettes too manic, the poet pulls back and hits a tonic lyric chord.
I remember it very well, my disbelief. I was a callow twenty-six-year-old, an aficionado of “experimental poetry,” in Kleinzahler’s workshop at Brown, where he was visiting for a semester. Half the class had walked out after the very first meeting, in which he pooh-poohed workshops, mocked the creative writing industry, and suggested that very few, if any, of us in that room would end up a poet. Not, I think, because it was too high a calling for us, but the opposite—you needed a strong stomach for the humiliations it would make you suffer. I was one of the ones who stayed, because I liked a fight, and being from Philadelphia I wasn’t going to let some guy from Jersey argue me out of an education. I didn’t know at the time that he was imitating, consciously or not, his experience with Bunting’s tutelage: throwing down the gauntlet. (“I didn’t like it at the time, but it was a gift, really.”)
One of the things I’ve never forgotten from his course—besides the recommendations: Baudelaire, Pound (he thought it would be a great project to go through The Cantos and collect all the gorgeous bits and chuck the rest), Peter Whigham’s Catullus, Roy Fisher—was his insistence that words like wild or strange could be as potent as more original phrases. This was about the least avant-garde thing I had ever heard.
It was Rilke who said that “for the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things.” Rilke is not the likeliest comparison for Kleinzahler, but their dedication to the poem as a crystallization of worldly experience results in oddly visionary tendencies. In “The Bench,” his homage to Bunting, the pupil asks:
What passed through your mind, old man,
what passed through your mind back then…?
I would spot you often on this bench,
smoking your unfiltered Player’s, gazing into the distance,
reading the grain of the sea,
the currents and wind,
as if parsing the whorls of Eadfrith’s Gospels.
What can a young man—a boy, really—
know of what runs through an old man’s mind?
Writing “The Bench,” the same age now as his teacher was then, Kleinzahler has a pretty good idea of what passes through an old poet’s mind; his reticence on the subject speaks volumes. And there the book ends.
Published in his Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). ↩
The Letters of Thom Gunn, edited by August Kleinzahler, Michael Nott, and Clive Wilmer (London: Faber and Faber, 2021; to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May 2022). ↩