"Memory Foam Day on Price-Drop TV." "El Caminos, Acuras, Cabriolets." "Spellcheck." "Bisquick Jimmy's." Just some examples of the sort of language we're frequently assured poetry eschews in favor of the recondite, taken from two new poetry collections that are often anything but: Nick Laird's "Go Giants" (the first and third examples) and August Kleinzahler's "The Hotel Oneira" (the second and fourth). The mere inclusion of such pop consumerism tells us nothing about the value of the poetry, of course, but it would seem at least to indicate the poet's willingness to grapple with the world we live in rather than with some patinaed Arcady.
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About half of "Go Giants," Irish transplant Laird's third collection of verse, is a happy marriage of intellect and economy. Laird's observations in these precision-tooled poems are deft and graceful, whether he's writing about the cosmos ("We do as we are told. / The stars are hard and deaf and cold") or a trip to the zoo:
Nothing but admiration for that polar bear lying there flat out
as if he's punctured, and sea lions we also love who, like us,
suffer from that tic of always applauding their own tricks …
He has an ear for aperçu — "Not hard to get blood / from a stone if it's smashed in someone's face"; the Cookstown of his childhood is "90% cement and 10% meat." And when he's tapped into English as she is spoke, his rhythms are unbeatable: "Me and a single mosquito / spend the evening in"; "all the ruins of Quintana Roo / slide in and out of lit bamboo" (and yes, he knows "Roo" doesn't rhyme with "bamboo").
But some of these poems are frustratingly convoluted and airless. The six pages of "The Mark" are like a grim docent's tour of preciousness and pseudo-insight. The Bunyan-inspired structure of the long concluding poem, "Progress," seems forced. Laird repeats the canard that Galileo provided "proof … indisputable / That Not Everything Revolves Around You."
In fact, geocentrism was motivated by humility, not hubris: the earth was located at the lowest and most flawed level of the Ptolemaic system; and, to be pedantic about it, Galileo didn't prove the Copernican system true, having no explanation for the lack of observed stellar parallax. Also, someone should tell Laird (and Norton's copy editor) that Spider-Man has a hyphen.
Still, when it comes to contemporary poetry, I'll take ambition that crashes occasionally over pious bird-watching and recycled experimentation any day, especially if it contains such lip-smacking formulations as "the same unfamiliar / green Sierra parked up by the piggeries" or "It is a tiny interstice / but I am persistent, and it fits."
August Kleinzahler is "an adult male of late middle age, // about to weep among the avocados and citrus fruits / in a vast, overlit room next to a bosomy Cuban grandma." He might be the best poet in America, I don't know — I can't trust my judgment after I finish one of his too infrequent collections, high on its cartoon-jazz fumes. It's been five years since the astonishment of "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2008 (and should have won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer), and, well, he's back:
The garbage truck compactor is grinding
all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
1945 edition, including Index and Atlas,
along with apple cores, bed linen, ashtrays
and all that remains of an ailing begonia.
Kleinzahler is a more artful version of that compactor, a ventriloquist with one ear on supermarket speakers dribbling Whitney Houston and one on the real language of waiters and baseball and commercials and Ethel Merman and macaques and Vachel Lindsay.
I'm not sure how many ears he has, actually. One poem he's all, "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," and then he's hushed and exquisite as a Ming tapestry of an immortal holding a peach:
The dirty aureole across the Hudson is New York.
Jets sink into it. Here, on the cliffs opposite,
trees whisk themselves. The wind freshens for rain.
Even George Washington, on the lam from Howe,
hid out here. He ate and ran
south. Ask any ghost along the Hackensack.
Kleinzahler possesses the patience to choose what is worth observing and describe it well, a habit of mind learned, it would seem, from the Japanese: "Issa much taken with the yellow banana slugs: / Readers will well know how he feels about gastropods, / 54 haiku devoted to the snail alone." The poet's cat is the "Furhead simulacrum of my restive heart." "The breeze is doing something in the leaves / it hasn't been, not at this hour. / The light, as well."
"The Hotel Oneira" is something less than a triumph only by the standards of Kleinzahler's masterpieces, "Green Sees Things in Waves" (1999) and "The Strange Hours Travelers Keep" (2004). If you're unfamiliar with his work, start with one of those collections, or, better, with "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City."
But start somewhere, for God's sake — you're missing out on one hell of a racket.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
"The Hotel Oneira"
By August Kleinzahler, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 91 pages, $24
By Nick Laird, Norton, 80 pages, $15.95