“Our little life / is rounded with a sleep,” Shakespeare writes in The Tempest, and August Kleinzahler’s The Hotel Oneira sketches a similar view of existence. Reality comes in and out of focus, approaching hypnagogia, as the subject matter swings from the poet’s residence in San Francisco to his native New Jersey and beyond, crisscrossing time and carrying references to nursery rhymes and Vachel Lindsay alike. Hanging over many of the scenes presented is a buoyant haze, a cheery confusion amplified by the sudden shifts in perspective, putting the reader adrift between sometimes-conflicting states of consciousness. As the speaker in the title poem admits, “There is going on just now a vast shifting of inventory / from one place to another. I can feel it, inside my head.”
Highlighting the delight that arrives from the poet’s play of words, Kleinzahler has chosen an apt discourse with the literary essayist Kenneth Cox as an epigraph:
. . .all I cared for was the play of words. I would go round savouring a phrase to test it, taste it, till I could decide if it was ‘good’ or had to be spat out. That word taste is not a metaphor. People talk about the sound of language but the real thing is its taste, in the mouth, harsh crisp sweet pungent, produced by the movement of sound.
Taken from correspondence between Kleinzahler and Cox, it prepares readers well for the succulent ride that the collection has in store. Indeed, the poet’s skilled syllabic prance—he trots the verse out for show, as it were—arrives with an air of enormous ease, a regular hand like any proven piano cocktail lounge player. In these stanzas from the poem “Tuq-Tuq,” for example, Kleinzahler hints at naughty play with innocent glee:
Know what? She was almost like me, but human and seldom found up trees.
She just kept on nodding as I spoke—or jibber-jibber-jabber’d, no matter.
What a marvel, the mess of riffs, tales&complyent that spilled forth.
Then because or in spite of, perhaps even by custom, she lifted her skirts
and proffered unto me—mercy—the loveliest basket of warm deserts.
I once knew a lady wot lived in a shoe
Had so many laces she didn’t wot to do
So many laces, faces, places…Wot’s a girl to do?
I jibber-jabber’d, jibber-jibber-jabber’d myself to a proper lather
and whipped that lather into a nice thick batter and baked up a waffle for you.
A-monk-a-mee-monk-a-you, I baked up a waffle for yoo
Accomplished verse that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Kleinzahler seems to insist, is what grown up boys and girls should expose themselves. The poet asserts a prominent place for enjoyment, at least on par with literary merit. But Kleinzahler is not a poet prone to banging readers over the head with advice. He’s a humbler sort, or simply disinterested in didacticism—perhaps he’s too busy chasing the “real thing” of Cox’s superb epigraph.
Of course, there is perfectly functional or mundane verse to be found within the poems too. The book is dedicated to the poet’s two cats, Patrick and William, after all. Kleinzahler’s a devout poet of the domestic, his concern often returning the poems to that sphere. In “Hollyhocks in the Fog,” Kleinzahler writes of carpetbagger Google employees, whose recent arrival to San Francisco has driven up the rent:
And every evening the black bus arrives,
the black Information bus from down the Peninsula,
unloading the workers at the foot of the block.
They wander off, this way and that, into the fog.
Young, impassive, islanded within their tunes:
Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade fire…
From this distance they seem almost suspended,
extirpated, floating creatures of exile,
as they walk past the Victorian facades
and hollyhocks in their fenced-in plots,
red purple apricot
solitary as widows or disgraced metaphysicians.
There is also the diaristic “Summer Journal.” Its apparently sequential entries marking off a single month of August (“my name on everyone’s lips”) with daily ponderings:
The same, and the same again…
The oboist upstairs—
why does he insist on practicing during my afternoon nap?
Why does it always have to be Ravel?
The dead zone—
headlights catch the fog pooling round the tires
of oncoming traffic.
Personal idiosyncratic insistences:
It was necessary that I find the word.
Whatever else happens in the course of the day,
the important work has been done.
And the speaker’s (or perhaps the poet’s) ritual practices:
I draw my bath,
as I do every morning this time of year
with the world outside having disappeared
but for the greenery out back, foregrounded,
bobbing and trembling in the stiff sea wind.
I shall have my chord,
even if I have to sit here soaking in this dark room
the entire morning.
Schmelzer, Biber, Kapsberger—
it’s in there somewhere
This poems-for-the-everyman sort of tone is less prevalent than the quirk and flash, though. The Hotel Oneira is full of adventures in jubilant versification that Kleinzahler dishes out in generous heaps. His originality and talent is a rare thing among poets, and his out-of-date concerns—rhyme, meter, etc.—no doubt require some effort on the part of some readers. The greatest pleasures found in his work result from having already acquired a taste for such stuff.
Yet even in the most intricate displays of craftsmanship, Kleinzahler’s light touch conveys the feeling that the poet, much like the reader, is only a passing observer. While it’s difficult to know how many of these poems exhibit thoughts of the poet August Kleinzahler, there’s little direction to worry about such meta-concerns—the poems are not interested. The identity of the speaker in any poem is a mere passing phenomenon. The closing of “A Wine Tale (for Lee Harwood)” instructs us to find answers in the asking:
Who is to say if our friend is an epicure, a wastrel,
or but a simple man, a paysan,
of no particular ambition, wit or aptitude,
whose destiny has been to lift things up, clean them off,
and put them back down again where they belong
* In an earlier version of this essay, Kenneth Cox was mistakenly identified as the jazz pianist. That mistake has been corrected in this iteration.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at USF. His latest book is There Are People Who Think That Painter's Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011). Other writings appear (or expected) in 1913, A Journal of Forms, Amerarcana, Greetings, House Organ, Lightning'd Press House Mag, and elsewhere.