Readings in Contemporary Poetry

August Kleinzahler

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

August Kleinzahler's latest book, entitled Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow, received the "Book of Poetry of the Year" Award from the Harvard Review in 1996. Kleinzahler's work manages to be trenchant and pyrotechnic, cosmic and comic. He has an unerring ear yoked to a perceptual instinct. This unbeatable combination is heightened by his ability to compress several levels of diction, as words that don't usually live on the same page are brought into proximity. He creates linguistic frequencies, a festival for the intellect. For example, these opening lines from "After Catullus" -- "Heyho, Loverboy/Is that a radioactive isotope you've got burning through your shirt-front or are you just glad to see me?" These lines exhibit the unlikeliness, the liveliness of his work; there's an element of physicality, of theatricality.

His character sketches also reveal a certain dramatic understanding. This understanding implies sympathy on the part of this somewhat detached observor, who speaks for Jimmy the Lush, the Talker, Gladys and poor Flynn in his urban monologues.

His landscapes, too, are infused with a character of place; "Is NY fierce? The wind, I mean. I dream of you in the shadows, hurt, whimpering. But it's not like that, really, is it? Lots of taxis and brittle fun." You'll notice, in his work, that he doesn't let up: there's a relentless lyric intensity that is by turns parodic then shifts into the sublime. These juxtapositions, these leaps, these jump cuts put the reader in contact with the texture of the abrupt transitions of city life, of the mind at work.

Lately August Kleinzahler has been writing dream poems, subterranean poems of extreme emotional disruption; one of these poems, "Gutierrez," is in your broadside. These latest poems move from landscape to inscape, not idealized cross-sections, but documentations of the vast arsenal that the subconscious warehouses. He gets the illusion of dreaming squarely (as Frank O'Hara says, "lucky-Pierre-style") into the fabric of the poem, and that illusion puts the reader into the poem as a fellow dreamer, as a participant.