The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzahler
[Faber and Faber]
I'm going to save you the hassle of glancing at the bottom paragraph for my flat out opinion of this book. It's the finest collection so far from one of America's most important living poets. Fans of Kleinzahler's detailed, high velocity, conversational poetry will find more of the same here. The found poems, gritty urban landscapes, grounded romances, sly cultural references are all present and correct, yet here they resound louder and deeper than ever.
Kleinzahler's poetry seems to be always on the move, each one buzzing with the full intensity and vitality of every slice of life that he serves us. While many poets aim for measured meditations on the world we live in from calm distant standpoints, Kleinzahler dives right in and gets dirty with the rest of us. A great example are the fragments of Montreal, where he describes the dust within the mattress he shags on as a miserable monster containing cat jism and perfume, while outside,
A shriek hits the membrane/ that canopies the street, falls, / and the trough gets it. Sediment thickens with it, / the dust of voices, / the smoky penumbra around streetlights, / finally settling to the ground. Here is a poet shirking comfortable ideals and sentimental forms for the mess of particles, soundwaves, earth and orgasms. Hallelujah.
The sentiment of the title has already been broached in his previous collection Green Sees Things in Waves, where he wrote:
The beauties of travel are due to / The strange hours we keep to see them. In the title poem he hitches a ride on an electron beamed by satellite from stock market to stock market and catches a city in its sleeping hours. The opening stanzas detail the rapidly travelling digital beams of information
Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat / Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons / ...Nebulae, incandescent frogspawn of information / Trembling in the claw of Scorpio/ Not an instant, then shooting away/ Like an enormous cloud of starlings.What I like about these opening verses is how, with the metaphors of starlings and frogspawn, Kleinzahler treats the stock market as a force of nature. We have no sentimental or moralistic sermons on the evils or benefits of capitalism, simply a depiction of an entity whose movements can never be predicted, though sometimes patterns emerge. This is demonstrated beautifully by the city scenes at the end of the poem as the reticent epistemologist parallel parks her car,
Her ruminative frown / Ambiguity and Reason / Locked in a slow, ferocious tango / Of if not, why not.
I was not surprised to recently find out that Kleinzahler writes a regular music column. The Strange Hours Travelers Keep is threaded together by a sequence of poems called A History of Western Music. The first recalls a rowdy gathering of artists, their patrons and hangers on drinking outside a restaurant in Italy. Among them a sleazy English poet referred to as the Badger trying it on with a young mezzo soprano, and a horn player blowing a heavenly riff unruffled by everyone's awareness of his humungous hard-on. Kleinzahler sums this sorry bunch up with the lines:
those orphans, those sorry deracinated ghosts– / the lot of them in the ruins of black tie. Suddenly, the mezzo starts singing and the whole group fall silent, ending their parlour games and come-ons to become hypnotised by the music. It's a beautiful way of expressing the power of art even though the artists that produce it can be flawed and base individuals. Throughout the subsequent poems in the sequence we witness a private beatification of Liberace, we enter the imagination of a man imagining himself dancing to an accompanying jazz band in Paris even though he's probably sitting on a train, or waiting at a bus stop while imagining it, we never learn where he actually is. Of course, this is an important part of Kleinzahler's poetry; the places in which we stand are not always as important as the times and places our imaginations travel to when we are standing there. In one of the poems we are placed in an elevator but listening to a 1950's jazz recording played through an overhead speaker
as if poured through history's electrified sieve. He goes on to blur the boundaries even more at the end of the poem when he describes a photograph in a gallery of some jazz musicians and their entourage,
They are waving to a photographer, / probably to a small crowd of fans, / and , unwittingly, even to us, / who stare back at them impassively/ from behind our screens.
By reading this book, the reader will find themselves embarking on many journeys; to foreign cities and townships that are more often hinted at than directly named, to moments dredged back from the attic of the past in all their unfiltered grit and detail. Some poems will strike out immediately because of their wit and urgency. Others tend to grow on the reader with repeated readings. The best ones seem to simply change with every reading. That's why I'm going to recommend that if this review convinces you to head out and by The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, it's worth shelling out a few extra quid on the hardback. These poems demand to be read more than once and may take quite a pummelling in your travel bag.