Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Michael Klein's "then, we were still living"

In his new post-9/11 book of poems then, we were still living, Michael Klein creates the most involving mis-en-scene I’ve seen in a long time. Rich with various intellectual inquiries, the book could arguably be seen as a commentary on the potentialities and limitations of the mediums of film and poetry.

How does one ethically portray unmistakable tragedies and their aftermaths? In fact, you could claim that the poems’ deliberately blurry focus, their poetic abstractions, reject the rigidly staged domestic narrative with its concrete particulars.

It should be no surprise that I find Klein’s obsession with light as playing on the same field Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon. The film—my favorite Kubrick--is known for the director’s choice to use only natural lighting. In an early poem, "The playwright," dedicated to Mara Irene Forbes, Klein writes: “She was talking about the mystery happening to/the artist as necessary light.” Light as poetic process, as an unforced ars poetica. You might even call “Day and Paper,” dedicated to Jean Valentine, a complimentary theory of art. According to this poem, Klein's philosophy was engendered at an artist’s colony in Vermont. As Klein demands: “take that excruciating/collapse of light over day/over paper/and use it/when it feels most useless.”

The book’s closure ends with two poems, both revolving around light. In the final poem, Klein offers what a brilliant poem should: an opening for more. I don’t think too many poets have the courage to offer as much white space, a welcoming of light.

The poem “More light” features the protagonist (oh! How I want to say Michael Klein himself!) engaged in remodeling the kitchen. The banality of the act encourages the narrator to feel ephemeral joy in domesticity. With self-satisfaction, lesser writers would end the poem there—not Klein.

...indiscriminate joy finds us
and enters us

how it however briefly
releases our whole pasts
as a swimmer...

mild astonishment
around the eyes
ready to take the dark

as breath, as if to say
he'd seen the other world
less terrifying and with more light than this one.

The line break between “dark” and “as breath” conjures up several unexpected meanings. The narrator’s generous decision to extend the simile of the swimmer in such a way allows him to transform him into a heroic entity (“ready to take the dark”)—almost like a modest superhero. At the same time, the dark itself morphs into breath, refusing the dark/light dichotomy. This breakdown offers plenitude: breath, “the other world” as well as the maintenance of this one, and yes, even “more light.”

Light figures into a good number of poems in other ways, even unexpected ones. In the fun poem “Five Places for Sex,” which is written with a disproportionate number of end-stopped lines, making the poem look like a crude movie script, emphasizing the action—alas, even this formal strategy does not limit Klein’s gentle, perhaps understandably sentimental, philosophizing:

In the pornos, people don’t think about life

and death as it pertains to sex

They think that life is the empty room between cum shots--

cum shots—ticket shots—like streetlamps that come on

the same time every night.

Almost shocking, they are

if it weren’t for them lighting up the dark boulevard.

The strategically odd syntax and line breaks once again creates possibility: is the mundane—symbolized by the streetlights—sexualized (“that come on”)? If streetlights are alerted with regularity as much as a body against against another body, is Klein normalizing those come shots, and--hence-- porn? Is Klein using the streetlights as a comparison with the cum shots, or the empty room (a metaphor for life, the “empty room”)? Does it matter? Isn't it ultimately significant that sex is being spotlighted, taken out of the night, but not against it either.

The awkwardness of sex (and words) can render figurative language troubled at best, even if enjoyable, providing something like light. Like grace—something that Klein’s book offers in serious quantity.

Michael Klein's then, we were still living is available through GenPop books.


  1. Hi Steve:

    so wonderful to see this post--I check in when I can. Michael's work has been important to me for years. 1990 his first poetry book is also amazing!

    I hope you are well... Peter C

  2. nice article...

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