Sunday Sep 22

klein-front-3d Book Review - then, we were still living
by Michael Klein
68 Pages
GenPop Books, 2010.
ISBN: 9780982359419   $15.00
Reviewed by Monica Mankin
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Over the years I have grown wary of book jacket praise for contemporary poetry because too often its writers tend to exaggerate the book’s significance, feeling obligated perhaps to preserve the value of the under-read genre to which they have dedicated their lives. Too often the praise tries hard to convince us that this is going to be the book of poems that changes poetry and consequently our stagnant, consumer-driven, technologically numbed lives. Granted, book jacket praise is crafted to sell books. Who would buy a book of poetry (of all things) that didn’t come with the promise of a spiritual transformation that, as Bruce Smith writes of Klein’s book, leaves us feeling “more in the world”? In addition to Smith’s praise of Michael Klein’s then, we were still living, Lynn Emanuel and Liz Rosenberg claim it’s an “essential book.” Emanuel takes her praise a step further, adding “wholly original” to her assessment of the way that Klein gets “to the heart of the new, changed world.” Rosenberg unflinchingly declares that Klein’s “poem ‘The Twin’ is the best poem ever written on the subject of twinship.” Really? The best? What does it mean to say a poem is “the best” poem on a subject? Likewise, what makes a book of poems “wholly original”? What makes it “essential,” and essential to whom?

While I remain skeptical of overtly subjective declarations such as Rosenberg’s, I began to see as I read these poems what Emanuel might mean by that phrase “wholly original.” I began to understand why some people might consider this “an essential book.”

Dedicated to Adrienne Rich, Michael Klein’s then, we were still living begins with bread, ends with light, and bleeds a little in between. With poems that derive their power from grief–grief over the deaths of people this speaker has loved, who loved this speaker (even if imperfectly); grief over the death of a country once familiar and ideally invincible but now foreign and irreparably fragmented–Klein lights a stage whereupon figures of the speaker’s personal loss of his mother and twin brother stand next to those of America’s expiry post 9/11. At times, Klein leaves us alone in that darkened theater; the poems, like grief, are “private and unjoinable” (“Her death, later, and his”). At other times, Klein floods the stage with light and we are privy to a clearing of thought wherein this speaker cultivates ideas about the state of our nation, the reality of death, love, and uncertainty, the unreality of the metaphorical movie that currently defines our lives, and the ways in which human nature transcends nationality as well as all the other names we utter to distinguish ourselves from others.

The opening lines of the book call our attention to reality. Spare and brief, “Bread,” places us in time and space:

As real as, as real
as, as real as N.Y.C.
this law: The beggars ask
for food.
 
You can keep your shining
money–worthless, hidden,
unreachable. Dear Lord,
unlit, we’re made of bread.

Much like the rest of the poems in this book, “Bread” makes no attempt to embellish the reality of our current world. Our world values money; but, money does not sate our souls, so where does that leave us? In our world, the Lord is “unlit,” or perhaps we are, but there’s no question that our world has darkened. Klein never lets us forget this, even when we “register a light” as in his poem “Living”:

Some of the living have unpopular thoughts.
One of the living says: it isn’t
all dangerous life inside the mind of the terrorist.
Thought’s policy can still register a light called childhood.
 
Oh! childhood, where each little king
Sings to the off-key world before joining.

Klein excels at asking questions. In “You,” the speaker’s ruminations on a near-death experience lead us almost seamlessly to complex metaphysical questions, but they do so in an understated manner. Klein writes:

I almost died last night in my sleep – choking, or drowning –
something stalled, then moved, then mixed with the paleness of sleep again.
 
I wondered if it was important
to tell people about it.
And then: how strange it was not to
tell people about it – the living list of characters
in the play about my life as it was being lived.
 
Is near-death allied death’s first blossom,
or a sign to the soul to refuse?
 

“The world is the same” poses the seemingly unanswerable questions of this particular time, while at the same time wonders whether the world has really changed at all:

Someone – the no one I ever see –
dropped something into
the alleyway last night. And I wondered, while is this the same world? actually flooded me –
if there’s a difference between
dropping the thing or letting the thing go?
Which one lets you be the more free?

I want to digress a moment and consider the word “something,” which appears in the second line of both aforementioned poems. This word does not appear in these poems alone. The word “something” appears in this book so many times that I was tempted to count the number. Such repetition invites us to consider the word as a figure in and of itself. For instance, in the poem “Happiness” Klein writes, “Andrew darkens from something – something, / I keep telling him in my absolutely unprofessional way…” Then again in “Looking for the body music” we encounter at the poem’s end “something called a youth.” Then again in “My brother’s suitcase” Klein exposes us to “that horrifyingly real smell of death and alcohol / and something else –” And in that same poem a couple of lines later, his brother “discover[s] / that his loneliness was also something that generated a sort of kindness.” The poem “Five Places for Sex” contains in its first part, The Train, the twice-repeated line, “I could say something now”; and, the speaker recalls in part two, The Theater, that “This was 1980-something,” but he drank then “so it could be 1950-something.” Several lines later Klein writes, “I watched the movie a minute, before I left / looking for something about / what just happened….” In The Bathtub, the third place for sex, Klein explains, “…we moved on top of each other in the bathtub / to see if we could do everything we could do in the bed / on top of a little bit left of blood and between / something the cold white shell was giving us and something / the sex was giving us….” In “The series,” we encounter “proof / that something broke.” And in “Not light’s version,” the second to last poem in the book, Klein notes “Something leaking light. … Then, that after it touches something.”

My mind’s made sick by the plague of this vague word’s overuse within our language. Better words exist, I say. Honestly, I expect better words from poetry. I hope to find in poetry the lucidity that precise, distinct language can achieve, but maybe that’s too much to hope for in this world. In Klein’s poems we teeter on the brink of clarity, but something literally stands in the way. What for? I mean, here, among others, is this otherwise wonderfully honest erotic poem, “Five Places for Sex”–full of “thin, gluey” cum and “blood that tore loose”–and I’m hung up on that seemingly empty word “something.”

I revisited the “something” poems, looking for an explanation. After all, despite my irritation, I feel Klein has written precisely what he means to say. And, Emanuel made certain to remark in her praise that “there isn’t one syllable [in this book] that isn’t absolutely required by the times we live in.” Returning to “Happiness,” I found what could be an answer. Klein writes, “I thank God for the rational happiness: the steady, consistent, lucid, funny kind / of happiness that lets you into the light world of the nameless.” I imagine, then, that amid the dark certainties of loss and grief there is, for Klein, a light that shines through a thing unspecified or unknown.

Furthermore, these poems spring from the rough terrain of the mind; they are thoughts written as thoughts occur. I would not go so far as to say they employ stream of consciousness. After all, a stream connotes continuity, fluidity, flow. We encounter poems made from roughly joined fragments of thought as they assail the speaker. We see this in “The world is the same” when that “Someone – the no one [the speaker] ever [sees] – / dropped something into / the alleyway last night,” and the speaker is struck by questions, struck by thought. We witness this in “The massage” as well:

When you went into the neck, a tunnel happened
and I was crawling back to Uncle Ted and his prayer
to the butterflies – killed, framed, his.

Collection: what you borrow, in the order you took it, from the world.
The prayer I am hearing in your hand: lake, chimera, glow.
The prayer I am telling you: I feel the world as love
without the object.

But, in part, it’s the exposure of this rough, uncertain terrain that makes Klein's poems valuable. He's onto this word “something”; he's working through its overuse; he gleans meaning from it; and, he's able to make poems in spite of and because of it. By grappling with the language of uncertainty, Klein creates a space through this book where we are able to dwell simultaneously in the aftermath of loss and in the origin of something else we have yet to define.

It occurs to me that this could be what makes Klein’s book “wholly original” – not original in that it's the only one, but original as in closest to the source, or the first thought or attempt at something. The book grasps at making meaning in and defining a world where what used to be meaningful no longer is. And sometimes, as exemplified by the following poem, that grasping results in a full-fisted clutch of definition:

“Was America ever the world”

we grew up with? Didn’t it stop being that somewhere in the fifties – after Truman?
Hasn’t it stopped having the windy day idea, the refugee, the glamour girl, the gangster,
the whiskey-driven dice down the plains, the new deal, the public love, the
wheat, the music of wheat, Robert Flaherty, James Agee, Dorothea Lange?

Or just before: the American parades clashing down two avenues
when Charles Ives would stand somewhere in the middle so he could
listen to two different kinds of music steep into the same sky because they were both his life.

I won’t corroborate Bruce Smith’s statement that we feel “more in the world” after reading these poems because these poems make us acutely aware of our detachment from the world. Poems like “The Twin,” which recalls the death of the speaker’s twin, feel numb and distant. Klein recalls, “All this, I was thinking, still lying in my mother’s cocktail / only a light filling in a body / frail in the countermusic of my brother’s heart / who had another body but was in the same time of his body that mine was in.” Swiftly, Klein skips time. “Then, 48 years later,” he writes, “my brother died and dropped his body on the bed. // And I carried the effect of him afterwards down some coiling stairs / into the streets of Boston – music, garments, literature, some beauty stuff.” The speaker’s grief feels buried in the everydayness of picking up after and putting away what the dead leave behind. We sense the detachment, prevalent in these times, from our dead. I think part of what Klein’s getting at here is that it’s becoming harder to be in this world at all, let alone “more in it.”

Moreover, the last two poems of the book, which turn on the light full throttle, don’t permit us to forget the darkness. “Not Light’s Version” brings forth a menacing light that’s not really light at all:

A gun. A chemical. A bomb.
Something leaking light. Then, not light.
Then, not light’s version of everything.

Then,
that after it touches something.

And the book’s final poem, “More light,” ends with the speaker “thinking how / indiscriminate joy finds us / and enters us / how it however briefly / releases our whole pasts / as a swimmer / will handily surface from / a summer full of water / … ready to take the dark / as breath, as if to say / he’d seen the other world / less terrifying and with more light than this one.” So while we meet with a slight reprieve from the darkness, while we encounter a moment of “indiscriminate joy,” we are still here in this dim, terrifying world.

And perhaps this–Klein’s unrelenting and unapologetic attempt to capture this world as it is and not as we would like it to be or as we pretend it is–makes this book essential.

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Monica-Mankin Monica Mankin, M.F.A., currently serves as an associate poetry editor for Connotation Press. She lives in Southern California where she teaches writing for the University Writing Programs at UC Riverside and University of La Verne. She has published poems with Blood Orange Review and Claypalm Review, served as poetry editor for Fugue, written several reviews for The Literary Magazine Review, and written as a freelance correspondent for NOLAFugees.com.