Sleeping It Off in Rapid City
Over the years, August Kleinzahler has established himself as a poet with an almost boundless curiosity for travel, for seeking greener pastures, for taking leaps into the unknown. Certain literary critics have noted that he is itching constantly for the “new,” the “different.” There certainly is a “restlessness” that pervades his poetry. For the poet, standing still can be “endured” at best. For decades, Kleinzahler has written concise observations of people and places from the far reaches of the world. He has spent time on a number of continents, and in each he has written with precision and with wit.
Kleinzahler is the author of several poetry collections. His first volume, A Calendar of Airs, was published in 1978. He is at his best when he is laudatory and critical in the same breath about a place to which he has traveled. Starting in New Jerseythe place of his birththe poet expanded his reach as his dreams grew larger. Poetry has allowed him to flex his muscles but not in a self-conscious way. He does not, however, blindly circumnavigate the wide landscape or reserve judgment; he allows himself to make harshand at times brutalpronouncements.
Kleinzahler’s new volume, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, is divided into five sections. There are new poems and various selected works from previous volumes. These distinctions are not made clear, so for the uninitiated reader all poems will be new. Kleinzahler studied with Basil Bunting, an English poet who must be categorized as a modernist and who had a major influence on his pupil. In later years, Kleinzahler was influenced by the poet Thom Gunn, from whom he learned the paramount importance of writing honestly about a subject. Whatever subject matter the poet chooses, it must be treated with respect and approached directly, without exaggeration and without flinching.
While the poet has felt driven to travel far and wide, Kleinzahler began in New Jersey. In the poem “Snow in North Jersey,” he presents rich details of a region that he knows well, opening with: “Snow is falling along the Boulevard/ and its little cemeteries hugged by transmission shops/ and on the stone bear in the park/ and the WWI monument making a crust/ on the soldier with his chin strap and bayonet.” As the poet observes, the snow plays no favorites, not sparing the people and places that are most vulnerable to the natural elements. The region also gets center stage in the poem “Gray Light in May,” in which it becomes obvious that although the elements can be gloomy, places and people can be transformed between the rains. A richness bursts forth, filling the poem with vivid images, as in: “The soft gray light/ The still moist air/ The azaleas in these yards/ Under the canopies of leaves/ Fiercely abloom in this gray light/ Between rains/ Almost stereoscopic/ The broad green leaves overhead as well/ Painters know it, photographers too.” Just as painters and photographers, poets also recognize the beauty. While William Carlos Williams is probably the most famous poet from New Jersey, Kleinzahler appreciates the Garden State, as his home is known, although he has written about it with brutal honesty, too. These poems take him back to his beginnings, so that the reader can see where the poet earned his toughness and built his masculine world from the ground up. Kleinzahler is the fly on the wall, the anonymous observer who just happens to be on the scene. He does not call attention to himself or take himself too seriously. He is a record keeper, the man who is keeping score.
In the role of the poet, Kleinzahler is concerned about being honest in his observations, and he does...
(The entire section is 1505 words.)