Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzhaler

All reviews are a reckoning of expectations. In this case, my expectations were perhaps too high for The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by San Francisco poet August Kleinzhaler.

One, there’s Kleinzhaler, who was awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for Sleeping it Off in Rapid City—a must-read book for me after reading the reviews.

Then there’s his tantalizing title for the collection, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, that promises a skewed, evanescent, shady vision of our lives in motion and a probing of what travel means.

And finally, and most importantly, there’s the gripping first poem that’s eponymous with the title of the collection.

The markets never rest

Always they are somewhere in agitation

Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat

Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons

Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes

Across the firmament

Soundlessly among the thunderheads and passenger jets

As they make their nightlong journeys

Across the oceans and steppes

I might venture to say that this short stanza defines the movements and machinations of the world as accurately and evocatively as any 50 words could.

Kleinzhaler combines the words of commerce, capitalism, technology, and nature in such a criss-cross of restless movement that it makes me feel life as a strange force—both mechanistic and natural—beyond our understanding (and this was before the economic crisis of the last year—he easily could have sprinkled in “mortgage derivatives,” etc. to signal another wild weave of the pattern).

The poem goes on to relate the life of our strivings, our production, to nature itself in its metaphors— “Nebulae, incandescent frog spawn of information,” and “Like an enormous cloud of starlings”—while still evincing the essential loneliness one can experience in such a world through a simple image: “The lights of the airport pulse in the morning darkness.”

I wanted every poem in the collection to riff on these themes, to rise in a crescendo—or perhaps a swarm—of similar startling and telling images. Alas, I don’t think any of the rest of the poems in the collection are nearly as good, which isn’t to say that they aren’t good.

“The Old Poet, Dying,” touches on a different kind of travel—the fadings in and out of one leaning toward the grave. Fragments. Memories. Bodily functions. Strange TV shows. Stories and nurses.

Kleinzhaler is best when he’s focused as a witness, either to another’s story or as an observer of the world; his poems become less compelling the more personal they are.

In “Citronella and Yellow Wasps,” he’s fortunately on the road again, much as he is in “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep,” and he patches together images of I-35, Austin into a fragmented blur of the crazy yet sometimes disturbing beauty of the American road, whether it’s methamphetamine, NASCAR, or Jesus.

Before the heat and after

The little pink beeper ship and the flamingo

In the logo

Same color as the icing on the cookies inside

And the votive candles that heal bad sprains

Also, the billboards overhead

Through the dusty branches

Big square decals mounted against sky

A bit of nose here, some lettering

Jesus or barbecue

Exit 205

Cobalt blue background cut out of sky

Kleinzhaler writes without judgment; his poems are at once critique and appreciation. America’s kooky, yet sometimes menacing road images become totems of a traveler’s appreciation in “An Englishman Abroad.” Our talk radio hosts go with “coral pink” sunsets in a way that no other country can match.

In such travels, a placelessness can ensue. As he says in “On Waking in a Room and Not Knowing Where One Is,”

Cities each have a kind of light,

a color even,

or set of undertones

determined by the river or hills

as well as by the stone

of their countless buildings.

I cannot yet recall what city this is I’m in.

It must be close to dawn.

The book closes with a bang—or more than a bang actually. The definition of travel shifts to those marauding bands of yesteryear, “attached to their ponies like centaurs,” and the strange hours they keep are spent in a similar pattern as the opening poem, except they’re pillaging places, destroying buildings they never aspire to live in. It’s a vicious poem, full of “Ripping the ears off of hussars and pissing in the wounds.”

We’re born with an urge to pillage, to travel. Creative destruction. Destructive creation.

Perhaps I liked the book more than I thought I did.

Watch video of Kleinzhaler reading:

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