Wandering Around

Sleeping it off in Rapid City: new and selected poems, August Kleinzahler (256pp, 12.99, Faber)
Berlin Bursts
, Robert Sheppard (96pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

Reading August Kleinzahler is about as necessary as having regular bowel movements. Sleeping It Off in Rapid City gathers work from some of his previous collections to accompany the new poems, but please note: this is not a greatest hits compilation with a couple of exclusive singles. This is a text to be first marveled at, then studied and finally incorporated into daily life.

Kleinzahler's restless narrator explains the situation in the opening, eponymous piece:

     This is a sacred place
     I have come here from far away
     After many years of wandering

We depart from South Dakota and are shown Vancouver, San Francisco and several other major North American cities filtered through Kleinzahler's vision, which is sometimes sarcastic, but never unjustifiably judgmental. As his narrators travel from place to place by foot, car, airplane, etc., it becomes more difficult for them to relate to something, someone and somewhere. The centerpiece, 'I Went to See McCarthy', takes this fluidity furthest. Not only is it the standout piece in this collection, but it is certainly one of the best American poems in recent years. It has the rare advantage of being both entertaining and deeply thoughtful in its longevity, forcing you to pick it up again, because you can't stop thinking about it. Part dream, McCarthy's conversation with the narrator, whose name he keeps changing at his leisure, turns into a condensed storytelling fiasco that includes singing, ghosts and lots of good butter:

-- If butter can't cure what ails you
      no cure is there to be found, ha ha,
     no cure is there to be found.

By the end of the poem, the entire episode is beginning to feel muddled, although the narrator is quick to point out:

     But two things I'll not forget;
     two things planted in my mind will stay:

     One is that if something's worth saying,
     and sounds good once it's said,
     you may just as well just say it twice,
     it costs no more or less;
     good once, better twice, go ahead.

Sagely advice. The second thing you'll have to find out yourself. I couldn't help but think I had just finished reading one of those poems, such as 'Sailing to Byzantium' or 'Ode to a Nightingale', that you don't have to be told is good or important. You just know.

The rest of the collection hardly misses a beat. Followers of Kleinzahler will see most of their favorite work in the selected poems. A personal favorite, 'Who Stole the Horses from the Indians?', shows how effortlessly Kleinzahler shifts tones. From lighthearted humor:

     Then there was another game:
Where are you going?

To China, I'd announce,
     Asbury Park, Hollywood.

     Say hello to Dorothy Lamour. Don't forget
     to write.

                     And off I'd spring,
     but never fast enough.
     He'd catch me by the arm and haul me in.

To sharp melancholia:

Where are you going?
     my father asks,
                                and now he's old.

Vancouver, I tell him,
San Francisco, Idaho.

     He just smiles sadly,
     and says hardly anything at all.

At over 250 pages, it's both ridiculous and depressing to realize that every page is at least worth reading. You won't want to leave
Rapid City, but if you've learned anything from it, you'll know that you have to.

Robert Sheppard doesn't fare quite as well in his most recent collection, Berlin Bursts. I often find it difficult getting into Sheppard's poems, and all but the stalwart poetry critics and scholars will have to rely heavily on referencing Wikipedia to get the most out of Berlin Bursts. This can't and shouldn't be seen as a fault on the author's part, though. I simply hold accessibility as a major quality in poetry, and if I can't sit down away from my laptop to read something, it's hard to avoid feeling stupid and enjoy it.

These issues are only exacerbated by the fact that Sheppard is obviously a major talent. At the core of
Berlin Bursts is probably the most precise use of the couplet I've ever seen:

     You're ready to split and
     Spill but we tremble as one
           [from 'Erotic Elegy']

     Shadow shaves across a white
     Sheet of street trash
           [from 'Poem']

     Hello poem, it's me again. You
     ran away with yourself to

     stage your new self's forming. I am
     the silence that inhabits your zero.
           [from 'The Hello Poem']

     The circuit is thrown open like a circus,
     a confliction of tubes coiled into stress.
           [from 'On the Buses']

     Now you sink, I look at a blind eye.
     It looks back, tight with song.
           [from 'Song']

Both tricky wordplay and concise storytelling are packed into Sheppard's couplets, creating some unavoidably startling imagery. The wordplay is sometimes over-the-top, bordering on unintentional humor, but it's mostly intelligent and memorable.

Berlin Bursts are several series of poem, the most notable of which are the ones that comprise the title poem, 'Berlin Bursts', 'Six Poems Against Death' and entries from the 'Burnt Journals'. The latter of which begins with two poems dedicated to the poet's mother and father and feel appropriately more personal than the other series. But it's 'Berlin Bursts' which really shines. The eye of Sheppard's narrator is pervasive, offering some of the best lines in the collection:

     Watchtowers constrict the
     Horizon granite slabs

     Polyp'd with pebbles bodies

     From carts down basement chute no
     Body speaks tiled room

     In shivering chill of doctors
     Too scared to descend
           [from 'Sachsenhausen']

Though most Sheppard's poems in this collection don't offer a concrete view of the cities they take place in, it's hard to ask for more when they enter into the very air hanging on the streets to extract the stories they tell.

It's just a shame that it takes as much effort as it does to penetrate the cores of some of these poems. The sparse use of punctuation and inclusion of several meta-poems strip down a good portion of the fancy stuff, providing great inlets. But I was ultimately left feeling lost amongst the syntax and allusions. Not for everyone, but inarguably skillful enough to warrant a read.

      Sean Colletti 2011