The Hotel Oneira is, indisputably, technically brilliant. August Kleinzahler demonstrates exceptional linguistic skill throughout, flitting between dialects and frequently employing words both obscure and invented. “A History of Western Music: Chaper 44 (Bebop)” appears to function purely as an exercise in capturing the rhythms of that genre:
A ramp’d up dance call it cha-cha-faux-bocci
And so on.
Initially, one may need only to absorb the surface sounds of Kleinzhaler’s poetry to find entertainment, which is fortunate because that surface has been made so tough to penetrate that the reader is likely to spend quite some time there. Winner of the International Griffin Poetry Prize and the National Critics Circle Award, Kleinzhaler can, at times, feel a little intellectually showy. Perseverance is required. Once broken into, however, these poems reveal themselves to be both playful and profound, united in their focus on the dreamlike (or “oneiric” – thanks dictionary.com) state that comes through disconnection – from reality, from family, from society.
The collection’s eponymous opener sees its narrator “back, / settled in again by the Hudson”, watching a wedding party from his hotel window and puzzling over memories of a long-dead uncle that flash “unaccountably” into his mind. The poem ends:
… she gathers herself and leaves.
There is a story there, but one I choose not to know.
Lo Mein recounts a detailed anecdote before confessing:
You don’t remember all that, do you?
How could you? I’m making it up,
the two of us both there at the same time.
It might easily have been true.
If I made it up it’s because it pleases me to.
Naturally, for a poet so adept with sound, music contributes much to Kleinzhaler’s work. “A History of Western Music: Chapter 63 (Whitney Houston)” ruminates on the life of the songwriter (not the singer) proposed to be responsible for crafting the popular power ballads that often
soundtrack big-chain supermarket shopping – an “almost perpetually
somber brunette / in her LA studio, two cats”. Further on, however, the narrator’s own “alternative lifestyle” becomes the focus and Kleinzhaler’s talent for skimming the surface of the sentimental – just enough to elicit a pang, but never so much as to wallow – is palpable:
What sort of life have you led
that you find yourself, an adult male of late middle age,
about to weep among the avocados and citrus fruits…
It’s good that your parents are no longer alive.
As well as Whitney Houston, Bach and Strauss also make appearances, and this mingling of high and low cultures manifests itself in other forms. The disconnect that can come with intellect is a predominant theme, and in several poems Kleinzhaler gleefully places some of history’s great minds in modern-day American culture. “Rain II” describes Francis Ponge, French surrealist essayist and poet (thanks Wikipedia), rapt in Looney Tunes cartoons, while “Exiles IV” imagines Frederick Nietzsche playing golf: “knocking a bee off his plus fours with an antique mashie”.
However, the strongest poems in the collection are those that feel more honest. “1975” sees its narrator back in his parents’ home after some great adventure. “My woolens will outlast me” he observes, pensive in his self-pity;
The stomach knows, when the clams are bad, or worse.
Perhaps that is truly the site for love,
or where love takes root, finally, and sets up shop.
I had imagined something much less uncomfortable.
A sleeve quote from the New York Times compares Kleinzahler and his “jazzy backbeat” with Allen Ginsberg – and it’s not wrong. In fact, the whole collection feels like the work of an ageing scene kid, grown wise to the romanticised ideal of the rootless life of the Beat Poet. Though at times infuriating in its apparent obsession with the intellectual, this collection is also deeply satisfying once cracked.