BY SHANNON C. WALSH
[This bombastic poetry collection is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Ish Klein
2011, Canarium Press
Filed under: Literary, Poetry
I am a narrative poet, and as such, I glom onto a storyline. This can be difficult with poetry books, as they’re often populated by poems that have nothing in common but the author. Ish Klein’s poems also resist simple storytelling, but for a different reason. Most of the poems in this book seem to be told in the voice of a single speaker. This is a safe assumption because of the recurrence of certain themes and details throughout the book: protons/electrons, battlefields/veterans, actors, family, shape-shifting, identity perception, etc. But Klein isn’t really a narrative poet. While her poems tell a story, the story is not forefront and it’s not linear. Instead, like some of the best novels, Klein’s poems are character-driven. Her poems tell the story of what it’s like to be inside her speaker’s head. I’ll talk more about this later.
What I want to discuss first—what delights me—is Klein’s voice, which has remained consistent since her first book, Union! First of all, Klein is able to succeed where a lesser writer could not. Take, for instance, Klein’s use of exclamation points. Since the fall of the Romantics, it is difficult to use an exclamation point in literature without irony. A friend of mine can’t read a book without saying “exclamation point” aloud every time she sees one. And, I’ll admit, when I saw Union! I thought, ‘Really?’ (Union! answered, “Really!”) The “!” is just not doing its job anymore. But Klein has reclaimed it. Her exclamations really are exclamations. The “!” conveys her passion for life. For life! (It’s addictive.)
Take “Warrior One,” from Moving Day, which opens with an allusion to Yeats’s famous line, “The center cannot hold,” from “Second Coming,” a poem about the fall of civilization.
No center. I hold
every action’s reaction and again:
consequences beyond my neck.
This quiet stanza speaks to the individual’s responsibility to and interference from the outside world. But instead of the Yeatsian distress at the world’s chaos, we continue:
One life: to feel!
In every way!
For Klein, holding the world is a joy, not a punishment. Klein’s speaker is no Atlas, weighted down, earth digging into his shoulder. Klein’s speaker exalts in Warrior One yoga pose: legs strong, supportive, arms reaching to the sky.
If exclamations were not enough, Klein also uses all caps. Again, not something the average writer of anything but a text message can get away with. Klein uses all caps sometimes as emphasis, sometimes as stage direction, and sometimes as prop. In “Be Here Hamlet!” the speaker postulates on what Hamlet would think and say in the modern age. Specifically:
…he’d be like:
My father’s gone but replaced,
I don’t have to worry about being king.
If this new guy eyes me hungrily, that’s on him,
I’m not gay for guys my mother likes
and my mother seems happy. DIRTY GERTY,
what did that mean? On the basement wall, knee level.
I hate to think she wrote that in a “moment.”
This use of all caps works as a prop: something literally written on the wall. But it also works as an emphasis. DIRTY GERTY is read so much differently than Dirty Gerty, dirty Gerty, even Dirty Gerty. Of those readings the first two are boring, and the last seems couched in anger. Using all caps creates the sense that each letter is equally important and so the words are read slowly, emphatically. Try it with me, aloud, “DIRTY GERTY.” Coupled with this language, the tone teases. I imagine a best friend hearing about Gerty’s “moments” in the basement might smirk, “Oh my, DIRTY GERTY, you are so naughty!” The caps direct the reader to experience the irreverence. (Note also the slang, “he was like,” which I learned not to use in third grade and which perfectly sets up the monologue’s casual tone.)
These are minor things that add to Klein’s voice. But more than punctuation or grammar, I’m drawn to Klein’s rambling, energetic style. (This is not a book to read before bed. Though maybe you’d have crazy Fear and Loathing-type dreams.) Reading this book feels like eavesdropping on a thinking brain. It’s at once intimate and unexpected, chatty and surreal. Images come out of nowhere and you try to keep up. From “For My Fellow Manchurians”:
I am another Manchurian, broken to be
the great ape in this outfit.
Yes! An ape, an animal captive.
You give me a crayon and a surface and I will depict
the bars to my cage.
I’ve looked inside and begged my father for a favor.
He said what I say, that he is alone and incapable;
thank God for his wife, though.
The woman who wanted to kill me.
These are the keys to my cage; I do not like
to touch them but
someone’s got to push the button.
Here are the nouns in those first 12 lines: Manchurian; ape; outfit; captive; crayon; surface; bars; cage; father; favor; God; wife; woman; keys; someone; button. Looking from one noun to the next offers surprising transitions. OK, captive, bars, cage, and keys are not shocking combinations. However, Manchurian to ape to outfit to captive to crayon (crayon!) is strange. And the nouns aren’t employed in typical ways: father and his wife—traditionally comforting people—are captors, one apathetic and the other murderous. And what the hell is this button?
The reader cannot anticipate how Klein’s speaker will move through images, ideas, and feelings. The reader follows and tries to keep up. Why would the father not help? Why are the speaker and the father of the same mind? Why would his wife want to kill the speaker? Why doesn’t the speaker want to touch the keys, to get out of the cage? If the speaker has access to the keys, is the speaker really a captive? Why is the speaker broken—because she (or he) too is “alone and incapable”? What’s this button—nuclear destruction? Listening to the speaker think is as often sad or scary as it is funny or joyous. It is always rewarding.
I’ve been reading Helen Vendler’s Coming of Age as a Poet. She writes about Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath and their first perfect poems. Vendler says perfect poems display “confidence, mastery, and above all ease…. they manifest a coherent and well-managed idiosyncratic style voiced in memorable lines; one would not wish them other than they are.” I won’t say that Moving Day is a book of perfect poems, but it’s pretty damn close. Klein’s voice is natural, effortless. I could never write poems like hers. Her voice is entirely her own: funny without being light, surreal without being incomprehensible, conversational without being boring. And this voice makes Moving Day a terrific read.
Similar reads: Union!, by Ish Klein; Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, for his exalting tone.