August Kleinzahler. The Hotel Oneira. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013. 112 pp. $24.00, hardcover; $15.00, paperback; e-Book, $9.99.
August Kleinzahler’s most recent collection of poetry, The Hotel Oneira, is saturated with images of weather. More particularly, it is saturated with the often discordant prosody of storms and the audial images created through reverberations in the lulling patterns of rain. Kleinzahler’s poems present freakish, operatic movement as well as the gradual revelations of images/objects that wind and rain manifest. In “Rain,” we see and hear this effect, which reveals “M. Francis Ponge, exemplar of phenomenology / and the breathing of things” as if Ponge were a secret object himself, who waits to appear
until sufficiently dark, as if at the beginning of a show,
and with the sound of it the only sound.
might one begin to detect his outline in the rain,
like an image hidden in a picture puzzle,
slipping about, darting like a pike,
over the hoods and under the chassis of parked cars
“M. Francis Ponge” is Kleinzahler’s object through whom we are “watching the entirety of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes, / Vols. I and II over and over for hours on end” in a poem that concludes with the observation that Ponge is attentive to “more than you or I have the capacity to imagine” and “may one day come to be a text entitled ‘Bugs.’” As with Kleinzahler’s last volume, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, his contemplative mode nearly outpaces the compulsive kinetic energy of his language. The sense of contemplation in Kleinzahler’s work is one at odds with what we might normally assume is a slowing down of the mind before its object. However, in a rapid succession of questions, Kleinzahler asks of Ponge’s fascination with “Bug, Bugs Bunny, // Is it the “wascally wabbit’s” outsize incisors? / The rain-colored fur with its white piping? / His buoyant cruelty and its inventive expression? / The resourcefulness, the abrupt sentiment?” Yet, against the tailspins of jets (an image that figures largely in his work), quick-witted cartoon characters, and the unpredictability of something as pedestrian and threatening as the weather, Kleinzahler manages to control what some reviewers and critics find in his poems to be a jittery and agitated poetics.
Precision is not overlooked, nor is the purpose of how weather is de/employed in these poems. The rain that stipples out the image of Ponge is part of Kleinzahler’s imaginative creation. However, what is real about the effects of weather is not lost to Kleinzahler. The “October” section of “Closing it Down on the Palisades” opens with the image of a “garbage truck…grinding / all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, / 1945 Edition, including Index and Atlas, / along with apple cores, bed linen, ashtrays / and all that remains of an ailing begonia.” This is a material recycling and perhaps also a commentary on the indiscriminate discarding of what we claim to know about the world. Immediately following these lines, the speaker recalls “beach homes of Malibu” that “come strangely to mind” and how
after a terrible storm,
the soil beneath washes away, followed
not long after by the house itself, sliding
then crashing to the rocks below, its side tables,
vanities and clocks licked at
by the gathering foam and, finally pulled to sea.
Beyond the opulence of Malibu homes is an arrogance detailed not only in objects like the “vanities,” but in the mere idea that the created thing is permanent. Storms have their own way of reminding us where we fall in the scheme of things (apple cores and ashtrays) and across a span of geologic time. The speaker is not anthropomorphizing weather. Humanity is not condemned, however silly and destructive we are to ourselves, the earth, and the world we catalogue in encyclopedias. The speaker is not among the “disgraced metaphysicians” of “Hollyhocks in the Fog,” nor a Hamlet merely deciding what he sees in the clouds, but putting claims on what he knows. Kleinzahler is well aware of what is precious but also equally attuned to the fact that the world is perishable. He is looking beyond materiality, beyond the inscribed word with the understanding that though “Language is exceedingly scanty & barren,” it is also “infinite & large” and “above ye Rule of Arithmetic.”
In other words, Kleinzahler is testing (and breaking) the bounds of apodictic certainty in our established forms. We are meant to consider what lies beyond the divisible semiotic terms of our language and the assumption that signification is solid, sound, and verifiable. The speaker is at play, serious play, with what Hamlet addresses in the clouds: a camel, a weasel, a whale. This is a serious case of onomatomania. In the section “[Wind/Work]” from the quietly titled poem, “Summer Journal,” the speaker is awakened by the wind.
The gusts seem to arrive in sequences of three
two short, one long—
violent anapests, the last the most protracted
Aside from characterizing the gusts as anapestic in lines that don’t scan as such, the speaker is in the midst of “struggling to remember a word.” In this instance, the word, set off in italics, centered, and attached to no line or punctuation, is “Zamboni.”
Just the word,
not the ice-restoring machine of hockey arenas,
or Mr. Zamboni of Paramount California,
and his ungainly, lucrative invention.
For the speaker, it was simply necessary to “find the word,” sans referents (ironically negated through apophasis). For “Whatever else happens in the course of the day, / the important work has been done.” There is certainly more to consider in why such a word comes to the speaker, “as so many things do in this condition of mind” where influence, sounds, and the accidents of things exist just as solidly as their ontologies do. How many of us see an apple without its tree, a camel without its desert, a red wheelbarrow without its noisy street and racing children? In the same way that we may find this impossible, we still talk about the weather without any real antecedent. It’s common enough to address one in passing and remark, “It’s raining.” Somewhere in that realm of sound and fury, beyond the thing itself, is “just the word” without its attendant gods. There is something impossible in what I think Kleinzahler is after in this collection: creation without a thing created (Ponge sans Ponge), a word outside of the lexicon, the that that has no other.