Review: ‘The Hotel Oneira,’ poems by August Kleinzahler

December 31, 2013

The Hotel Oneira” is August Kleinzahler’s first full-length collection of new poetry since “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep” (2003). In between came a couple of very entertaining prose works and a retrospective collection called “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City.” The titles of these books gesture toward what have become Kleinzahler’s characteristic themes: dislocation, movement, transition, exile. “My ideal reader is a taxi driver in Karachi,” he said upon receiving the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2004.

The title poem of “The Hotel Oneira” is spoken by an unidentified figure who ruminates on what he observes from the balcony of a hotel room by the Hudson River. The poem manifests that characteristic hotel feeling of being caught in a perpetual present, an endlessly repeating moment:

At first, only the late afternoon sunlight,

glinting off windows as the sun lowers in the skies,

but not long after, that’s when the lights begin to come on;

that is when she gathers herself and leaves.

There is a story here, but one I choose not to know.

The sense of time in “1975” is similar, although in this poem, which finds its speaker living in his parents’ home again after some unspecified adventures, the sensation of being caught is unpleasant:

Home again, from points north, west,

a suitcase full of useless books and no prospects.

There’s a folk song that goes like that:

Insipid — pathetic, really — without the music.

This appears to be a condition I shall not escape,

a gravitational field to be suffered through all my days.

“1975” is a perfect poem, and it concludes with a perfect image, the sort Robert Lowell used to come up with to clinch his miniature portraits of despair: “Mother’s bought new bed linen for the occasion,/ described on the package as ‘duck egg blue,’/ so clean and cool I could be afloat on a lake.”

That particular discomfort of being caught between places and stuck where you don’t really belong surfaces again and again in Kleinzahler’s recent work. He does not ignore the comic potential of such situations. “Exiles” and “Rose Exile” explore the plights of European intellectuals and Jews who fled Nazi Germany and came to Los Angeles. The weird confrontations and juxtapositions that resulted from the displacement of European high culture into sunny California provide a stage set for Kleinzahler’s loopy, sometimes sardonic sense of humor.

“Rose Exile” reimagines the Tournament of Roses parade as a parade of transplanted German culture through Pasadena, in which “a bungalow-sized replica of the Vienna Court Opera,/ is followed by yet another float, the Café Griensteidl, also from ‘Old Wien,’/ with its Jugendstil lamps and marble-topped tables.” Kleinzahler glories in this weird collision of worlds. The poem culminates in a pair of dreamy, slightly surrealistic stanzas. Here is the penultimate one, possibly my favorite stanza in the book:

At this moment bombers are assembling into their formations over Europe.

Dishes on their rubber racks are almost now completely dry.

Someone is inventing color TV.

Millions of cans of corn niblets sit in the darkness on shelves across the Midwest.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did not relocate to L.A., but what if he had? Kleinzahler’s restless, eccentric imagination cannot keep from asking such questions — or answering them, as in the last section of “Exiles,” which concludes with Nietzsche on the golf course at Bel-Air, “knocking a bee off his plus fours with an antique mashie.” Lines such as this remind us that Kleinzahler’s music is not like anyone else’s. His ear seems at times to have been shipped in from one of the moons of Saturn, and he hears possibilities in our daily language to which the rest of us remain incorrigibly deaf.

The book’s final poem, the strangely moving “Traveler’s Tales: Chapter 12,” begins with a cruise ship, but it soon becomes apparent that the speaker is not on board. Once again, he is observing from the balcony, this time accompanied by a friend: “A couple of worthless graybeards/ catching sunset from the balcony, sipping a noble tempranillo,/ remembering: Are we not virtuous, as well?” If the virtues in question are those that all poets should aspire to — a discerning and idiosyncratic eye, an astonishing inventiveness with language, and a bottomless curiosity regarding the world in all its glorious absurdity and unpredictability — then the answer can be only a resounding “yes.”

Jollimore teaches philosophy in California. He is the author of “At Lake Scugog: Poems” and is a 2013 Guggenheim scholar.

THE HOTEL ONEIRA

Poems

By August Kleinzahler

Farrar Straus Giroux. 89 pp. $24

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