rev. of Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow by August Kleinzahler

Issue #70
Fall 1996

Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow 
Poems by August Kleinzahler. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $19.00 cloth. Reviewed by David Rivard.

August Kleinzahler is a poet whose freshness provokes other poets and critics into describing him as the offspring of unlikely matings. In one book blurb, Thom Gunn brings together Frank O’Hara and Basil Bunting. Helen Vendler, in a recent
New Yorker piece, weds Berryman and William Carlos Williams for the same purpose. Maybe Kleinzahler is really the love-child of a
ménage à trois starring Popeye, Olive Oyl, and the haiku master Bash¯o. In other words, he is what he is (and, Zen-wise, what he isn’t, as well).

This need to trace the family tree is a reaction to a voice so seemingly out of tune with contemporary poetry’s mannerisms that it sounds mutant. The buzz around Kleinzahler certainly makes him seem “the next new thing,” and something of a poster boy for Bay Area poetry. In fact,
Red Sauce, Whiskey and Snow is his fourth book. It is evidence not so much of a departure in style as a deepening. Inspiration in poetry is often a matter of confidence if you’ve got the skills and gifts, and you believe you can say whatever you want to, in whatever way you want to, then you will probably submit more fully to the momentum of composition. That’s where Kleinzahler is now.

These poems do one of the hardest of all things. They combine an impulse toward improvisatory speech with a terrific ear for clarified structures. The voice jumps off the page, alive, with the poems often beginning in the oddest spots (two snails crawling into a discarded potato chip bag, the “bummy” smell that greets one coming out of a subway station, a headline about John Tower). They arc into equally unexpected places and feelings.

The full flavor of this arcing is hard to give in short passages, but the liveliness a playful gravity comes across immediately. Take this cheerful bit of bad news at the start of “A Glass of Claret on a Difficult Morning”: “The snip-snap worm has made eggs / and worse / in the night / six crucial bolts spent their threads / holding fast / your cargo of antibodies.” Kleinzahler uses his syntactical swerviness to constantly redirect and shift diction, flashing along segues of weird idiom. One drunk on the street is described “flogging his rotors,” another is “sore as the dickens.” The sly, almost collaged movement from image to image, combined with a sculptural sense of line and musical effect, makes for a great deal of surprise. But amidst all the music and the tonal verve Kleinzahler owns a focused, enviable equanimity of spirit. Here’s his brief portrait of a troubled acquaintance: “His face furrows from the inside out. / The arduousness of it all, / intent and appearance at cross-purposes. / Poor
guy, you’d think he was on the ropes / the way he covers and ducks, / / Macho Camacho digging at his kidneys.”

The speaker of these poems is often invisible, off to the side, so the voice will sound somewhat impersonal to many readers. Better to say Kleinzahler is attuned to
sensibility rather than personality. Something Zen, an immediacy of spirit, comes across here. Not the affected “I’m-down-with-Basho” manner of most Americans influenced by Japanese and Chinese poetics, but an alertness to the ambiguity of the moment. By and large, Kleinzahler unlike most mainstream poets eschews the narcissistic drama of the psychological. But unlike most post-modern, language-influenced writers (with whom he sometimes shows a glancing affinity), he’s interested in rendering the feel of living into accessible speech.

Mostly what August Kleinzahler does is give pleasure. In the current scene that’s a real gift, and it makes him a subversive.

David Rivard’s new book, Wise Poison,
has won the 1996 James Laughlin Award (formerly the Lamont Prize) of the Academy of American Poets, and is due from Graywolf in November. He will be teaching this fall at Tufts University and Sarah Lawrence College.