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The Hotel Oneira by August Kleinzahler – review


Kleinzahler's work, dreamlike yet savvy, is among the most delightful flowerings of American poetry in our times

Few poets work the barometer harder than August Kleinzahler. In 1985 he published Storm Over Hackensack and in 1989 Earthquake Weather, and then in 1992 Like Cities, Like Storms. In his new collection, The Hotel Oneira, there is "a terrible storm" over the Pacific, "yet another storm cell from the west" and "Wrath of God thunder" in Texas. If not storms, it's fog: a "vast, bruise-coloured fogbank / sitting out there", "sea smoke, ghost vapor" as commuters wander off "this way and that, into the fog", or a poem titled "When the Fog".

The changeable weather is well matched to the transient surroundings. Nestling somewhere near the Hudson, the Hotel Oneira hosts a bridal party celebrating against the backdrop of a forlorn industrial landscape while freight trains rumble past carrying something that is "also inside my head". A Kleinzahler poem will often grapple with an internalised resistance to narration: "There is a story there, but one I choose not to know," ends the title poem, while in "Closing It Down on the Palisades" the aversion to knowledge takes the more dramatic form of a garbage truck compactor "grinding all 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica".

Kleinzahler was born in blue-collar New Jersey, a state (and state of mind) he has chronicled extensively. In a damning verdict on Robert Lowell, whose work "sinks like a breached tanker", Kleinzahler rejects the "notion of a cultural hierarchy" on which he feels that Boston Brahmin's work depends. In Lowell's "Skunk Hour", pop songs and mental distress are sombrely juxtaposed, but in Kleinzahler the would-be grandeur of the confessional usually dips not into distress but flippancy. "Dare I pretend to be worthy?" he asks in "My Life in Letters", before answering in the negative ("Please. I am too inconsequential … ").

Spoken by a "jibber-jabbering Sulawesi booted macaque", "Tuq-Tuq" is a delightful skit on the poet-reader relationship, and a vindication of the serious play that is Kleinzahler's natural mode. "Tell me, tell me, tell me some more!" clamours the human audience, but the macaque prefers the security of "braining rodents with fig buds from up high" and "hanging out with the flying squirrels". His "History of Western Music" has rumbled on over several collections now, and in the latest instalment Kleinzahler indulges in some jibber-jabbering of his own ("Bomba-Ga-Bonga-Ga-Bum-Gum-Ga-Hubble-Bubble-Samba"). Veering between apocalyptic rumbling and human beat-boxing, Kleinzahler's nonsense incantations sound like a "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata" for the baby-boomer generation.

It's rare to encounter an American poet showing signs of British influence, but Kleinzahler was a close friend of Thom Gunn's and studied with Basil Bunting. A poem on the 18th-century meteorologist Thomas Appletree echoes James Schuyler's passion for English diarists and gardeners, "To My Cat William" parades its debt to William Cowper, and the dedication of a poem to Lee Harwood offers another reminder of the British side to the New York school.

The highbrow whimsy of "Rain" and "Snow" recalls Mark Ford, and raises the question of whether these poems' globe-trotting is not without an element of self-conscious kitsch. The pull of seriousness, by contrast, will often involve trading the poems' gaudier landscapes for one of Kleinzahler's signature American anywherevilles:

While outside the streets were empty.
Who is to say where everyone has gone?
Only the occasional sound truck, its barked entreaties
Too garbled to make out.
Then quiet.
Two scrub jays making a racket in the honey locust.
Sky darkening as weather gathers off the coast.
Quiet as an abandoned summer playhouse.

Kleinzahler's title alone licenses us to brand him "oneiric", but this is dreamwork of a tough and streetwise hue. "Weeping among the avocados and citrus fruits", he is a sad soul in the supermarket, but he goes beyond wistfulness with the line, "It's good that your parents are no longer alive".Among the most satisfying dramatisations of the everyday tragic comes in "Rose Exile", which depicts Theodor Adorno in California, sitting at his desk and asking "Wo ist die Aura? Wo ist die Aura?" while enduring a performance by the iron-lunged songstress Ethel Merman. "Loosen up and live a little, Mr Big Shot Wisenheimer," she advises. Meanwhile, "The streets remain empty", as Kleinzahler drifts off into empty-lot epiphany mode again. Simultaneously across the Atlantic "bombers are assembling into their formations over Europe".

These issues are further explored in "The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay", a dramatisation of that poet's travels on foot across the US. In his rapture, we find Lindsay "barking canticles under the Church of Sky", but if Adorno's elitism fails to reach an accommodation with America, Lindsay's populism, too, is doomed to failure (he killed himself in 1931). By the end of the poem he seems as bewildered and alone as Weldon Kees's Robinson ("Poor little calf, good night.")

There may be lots of bad weather in these ambitious, erudite and encyclopedic poems, but by and large it falls into the category of what a meteorologist might call a "vigorous depression". "The Rapture of Vachel Lindsay" makes a passing reference to Wallace Stevens's "venereal soil", and The Hotel Oneira confirms Kleinzahler once again as among the most delightful flowerings of American poetry in our times.

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