The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 20, 2008

Sleeping It Off In Rapid City (Part 1)

Dear God, do I love the poetry of August Kleinzahler. So I was thrilled when Maureen McLane (author of the upcoming FSG collection Same Life) offered to write a post about his new book of selected poems, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City. I've separated it into three chunks for you, so be sure to come back for all of them. Here's the first:

Funky tunings! Lots of gongs! Thanks to iTunes and August Kleinzahler, I am sitting here listening to ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee’s transcriptions for two pianos of the Balinese Gamelan, played by McPhee and Benjamin Britten. Here are some of the first auditory-consumer fruits of reading August’s “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City,” one of whose poems. “A History of Western Music: Chapter 49,” draws on excerpts from McPhee’s memoir, “A House in Bali.” 

AK has “big ears” and there’s enormous sonic vroom but also delicacy here—“Chopin floats; Schubert, as well./What is it exactly?”  The nervy, fascinatingly inventive music of the new poems in this new-and-selected volume take off from some previously established motifs: the “History of Western Music” series, installments of which appeared in his last book, “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep,” are wonderfully, episodically continued here (and torqued to non-Western musics in the case of the gamelan). There’s a lot of talk out there, for those who like poetry-talk, about poetry and/or information, and what’s amazing to me is how this poet processes the most apparently diverse data-bits into propelled, simultaneously attitudinal and elegant poems. AK’s poems land somewhere between a blow and a caress.  It’s been argued that when you read a poem you meet a person, and not in some dopey “confessional poetry” way; whatever is going into these poems, the peculiar, distinctive neurological dance we might call “voice” is always signaling here a governing, wily, sensitive intelligence. I don’t know how AK manages to get a “9-cyclohetadecenone-addled marionette/Mewing” in a poem “(Secondary Sexual Characteristics”), but he does.  Nothing—and certainly no register of style or diction—is alien to him. Let’s pivot from “Kill me, fuck me, write me bad checks” to “Hold on, the jacaranda’s gone missing” to “Downstairs, Sol, of Sol’s Paradise Club,/mixes a fizz drink for a mummy blonde./--Thanks, Sol.” And on to “You’d figure the hawk for an isolate thing,/commanding the empyrean.”  There’s a lot of rain in this book, as well as clouds, airplanes, music, drinks, love, wiseguys, motorcycles, birds, jets, and precisely named chemicals and geologic strata.

--Maureen McLane


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I think I could read Maureen McLane talk about poetry for hours on end.

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