August Kleinzahler is about as necessary as having regular bowel movements. Sleeping It Off in
gathers work from some of his previous collections to accompany the new
poems, but please note: this is not a greatest hits compilation with a couple
of exclusive singles. This is a text to be first marveled at, then studied
and finally incorporated into daily life.
Kleinzahler's restless narrator explains the situation in the opening,
This is a
I have come
here from far away
years of wandering
We depart from South Dakota and are shown Vancouver, San Francisco and
several other major North American cities filtered through Kleinzahler's
vision, which is sometimes sarcastic, but never unjustifiably judgmental. As
his narrators travel from place to place by foot, car, airplane, etc., it
becomes more difficult for them to relate to something, someone and
somewhere. The centerpiece, 'I Went to See McCarthy', takes this fluidity
furthest. Not only is it the standout piece in this collection, but it is
certainly one of the best American poems in recent years. It has the rare
advantage of being both entertaining and deeply thoughtful in its longevity,
forcing you to pick it up again, because you can't stop thinking about it.
Part dream, McCarthy's conversation with the narrator, whose name he keeps
changing at his leisure, turns into a condensed storytelling fiasco that
includes singing, ghosts and lots of good butter:
-- If butter can't
cure what ails you
is there to be found, ha ha,
no cure is
there to be found.
By the end of the poem, the entire episode is beginning to feel muddled,
although the narrator is quick to point out:
things I'll not forget;
planted in my mind will stay:
One is that
if something's worth saying,
good once it's said,
you may just
as well just say it twice,
it costs no
more or less;
better twice, go ahead.
Sagely advice. The second thing you'll have to find out yourself. I couldn't
help but think I had just finished reading one of those poems, such as
'Sailing to Byzantium' or 'Ode to a Nightingale', that you don't have to be
told is good or important. You just know.
The rest of the collection hardly misses a beat. Followers of Kleinzahler
will see most of their favorite work in the selected poems. A personal
favorite, 'Who Stole the Horses from the Indians?', shows how effortlessly
Kleinzahler shifts tones. From lighthearted humor:
was another game:
Where are you going?
To China, I'd announce,
Say hello to
Dorothy Lamour. Don't forget
And off I'd spring,
He'd catch me
by the arm and haul me in.
To sharp melancholia:
Where are you going?
and now he's old.
Vancouver, I tell him,
San Francisco, Idaho.
hardly anything at all.
At over 250 pages, it's both ridiculous and depressing to realize that every
page is at least worth reading. You won't want to leave Rapid City, but if you've learned
anything from it, you'll know that you have to.
Sheppard doesn't fare quite as well in his most recent collection, Berlin Bursts. I often find it difficult
getting into Sheppard's poems, and all but the stalwart poetry critics and
scholars will have to rely heavily on referencing Wikipedia to get the most
out of Berlin
This can't and shouldn't be seen as a fault on the author's part, though. I
simply hold accessibility as a major quality in poetry, and if I can't sit
down away from my laptop to read something, it's hard to avoid feeling stupid
and enjoy it.
These issues are only exacerbated by the fact that Sheppard is obviously a
major talent. At the core of Berlin
probably the most precise use of the couplet I've ever seen:
to split and
Spill but we
tremble as one
[from 'Erotic Elegy']
across a white
it's me again. You
ran away with
new self's forming. I am
that inhabits your zero.
[from 'The Hello Poem']
is thrown open like a circus,
of tubes coiled into stress.
[from 'On the Buses']
Now you sink,
I look at a blind eye.
back, tight with song.
Both tricky wordplay and concise storytelling are packed into Sheppard's
couplets, creating some unavoidably startling imagery. The wordplay is
sometimes over-the-top, bordering on unintentional humor, but it's mostly
intelligent and memorable.
Bursts are several
series of poem, the most notable of which are the ones that comprise the
title poem, 'Berlin Bursts', 'Six Poems Against Death' and entries from the
'Burnt Journals'. The latter of which begins with two poems dedicated to the
poet's mother and father and feel appropriately more personal than the other
series. But it's 'Berlin Bursts' which really shines. The eye of Sheppard's
narrator is pervasive, offering some of the best lines in the collection:
down basement chute no
tiled room preserved
chill of doctors
Too scared to
Though most Sheppard's poems in this collection don't offer a concrete view
of the cities they take place in, it's hard to ask for more when they enter
into the very air hanging on the streets to extract the stories they tell.
It's just a shame that it takes as much effort as it does to penetrate the
cores of some of these poems. The sparse use of punctuation and inclusion of
several meta-poems strip down a good portion of the fancy stuff, providing
great inlets. But I was ultimately left feeling lost amongst the syntax and
allusions. Not for everyone, but inarguably skillful enough to warrant a