2008 Poetry Finalist Sleeping It Off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected, by August Kleinzahler

by Kevin Prufer | Feb-10-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Kevin Prufer discusses August Kleinzahler’s Sleeping it Off in Rapid City: Poems, New and Selected (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

When August Kleinzahler writes a love poem, it goes something like this: first, there’s Evel Knievel, “trying to clear thirteen Pepsi trucks in Yakima.” Then he’s contemplating a jump over the Snake River Canyon “with nothing underneath his ass but a two-wheeled, fin-stabilized X-1 Skycycle.” Eleven lines in, though, the scene (if not the reckless tone) shifts, Kleinzahler now addressing his love. “Darling,” he says, “I’ve walked away from a wreck or two myself…. But let’s take off this one last time: no net, / no harness, no nothing underneath to break our fall… C’mon, luv, let’s give the punters a show.”

Kleinzahler’s poems often make these kinds of moves. They’re generally populated by travelers and showmen, world-weary professional men waking in quiet hotel rooms, hung over men walking through nearly deserted museums, old poets dying in hospitals. Or they are janitors and drinkers and musicians, frayed tough guys like Jimmy the Lush and The Talker, nursing Pepsis by the Interstate. Kleinzahler’s mind always turns in the direction of clutter and travel, contemplating the pulsing lights of the airport in the morning darkness, “food trucks, propane, tortured hearts.”

As Stephen Burt has aptly pointed out, Kleinzahler’s “poems of guyhood, like his poems of travel (they are often the same poems), make fun of the very qualities they admire.” And for all the sodium-lit airports and street corners, the highways and boardwalks, there lives beneath these hard-edged, free-verse poems both a knowing wink and an earnest longing for something better, for transcendence and beauty, even if they are only momentary. Take, for example, “Watching Dogwood Blossoms Fall in a Parking Lot Off Route 46”:

Dogwood blossoms drift down at evening
                as semis pound past Phoenix Seafood

and the Savarin plant, west to the Turnpike,
                Paterson or hills beyond.

The adulterated, pearly light and bleak perfume
                of benzene and exhaust

make this solitary tree and the last of its bloom
                as stirring somehow after another day

at the hospital with Mother and the ashen old ladies
                lost to TV reruns flickering overhead

as that shower of peach blossoms Tu Fu watched
                fall on the riverbank

from the shadows of the Jade Pavilion,
                while ghosts and the music

of yellow orioles found out the seam of him
                and slowly cut along it.

Over the years—and this collection spans three decades—August Kleinzahler has created a body of erudite, technically complex, tonally unified work. More than this, however, his poems, while reminiscent, perhaps, of O’Hara or Ginsberg or Seidel, have a voice that is restless and distinct. This is an important collection by one of our very best living poets.

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