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Poets are at a disadvantage when it comes to medium. A painter or photographer isolates content within the parameters of the frame, manipulating color, texture and viewpoint, while a poet must deal with a culture that constantly bombards us with language. More than ever, words are squeezed into every conceivable space whether it be a billboard, a cell phone, a shopping cart, or a Facebook margin. So the poet, whose palette is confined to language and all that implies (meaning, music, texture, implication, colloquial value) must hold the attention of a populace already inured to words. Michael Klein has intriguing ways of addressing this challenge. Some of his poems feel fragmented and oracular, as if he were nonchalantly and earnestly supplying us with blurry snapshots, or aspects of a conundrum. Yet they feel solid and direct. Forthright. The technique forces us to keep returning to the text, to listen for semiotic resonance, to consider subtext. Like Emily Dickinson’s famous quote suggesting the writer examines a subject from a slant, Klein teases the language, using an intuitive, associative logic that often resists linear reason.
It’s not easy to describe Klein’s graceful, quirky, pensive sorcery with words, so matter-of-fact and chatty, yet so gripping and powerful. Haunting. Like Gertrude Stein he sometimes turns to anaphora : “…he will be in the alone of the alone – the alone that is the same as where people are when they are alone…” but his use of repetition is less stylized, more casual and therefore, subtle. There’s something about the way he wields language that is quite palpable, and apparent, yet avoids the pyrotechnics we often find in poetry. Klein is pursuing something far more enigmatic, more elusive (the spirit of his departed twin brother, an incident involving a mother and daughter that leads to catastrophe, an x-ray that evinces his mortality), depicting shadows of shadows and light so pervasive it obscures: “…and a moment of sunlight brightening more of the branches and making the scene hard to see…” He takes everyday experiences and transforms them into something sacramental or chilling, as if he were transposing molecules.
Consider the short poem, “The bed.”
Night for him is whatever that was in Jekyll’s
beaker to bring on Hyde: alcohol, a student of
classics will tell you.
Or was it just
all day dropping all the scenes on his heart?
There’ll be intimacy,
every man says in bed.
It’s a seemingly simple progression. Like the congenial and intelligent Dr. Jekyll, men get drunk to access their nocturnal, bestial nature, far better equipped to handle the culmination of rage and sorrow that lingers at the end of the day. How much easier to be genuine with one’s sex partner, when liquor strips away our inhibitions. And yet, is regressing in the act of coitus necessarily the path to intimacy? Is the id unleashed truly interested in profound connection or personal exorcism?
In the title poem, The Talking Day, Klein describes how married friends of his, living in a small town, must help Lily, their adopted daughter from China, understand the ordeal of an insane gunman randomly killing people at an immigration center. “Lily was fine, but Liz wanted to move her outside the question of / how to make sense of the broken pieces of “someone” with a /gun…” He explains “talking day” is the day when you discuss the situation therapeutically, after horrific violence stuns us out of our complacency. He then concludes, “We live in a talking day world. ”
On the page it resembles a prose poem, until you ascertain he’s manipulating line breaks. Klein often breaks at contingencies or equivocations like : “or, if, and, but” creating anticipation. He extols the healing power of processing a calamity through the sieve of language, yet the mother doesn’t want Lily to surmise too much, referring to the perpetrator as “someone.” Klein suggests the irony of using communication for navigating nightmares, when the tacit rule seems to be : close, but not too close. So many difficult questions in The Talking Day are seething beneath the surface, the idea of distance and outsiders when Klein observes everyone in a hamlet is “close to the action” and the socialized Lily, from a country where civil liberties are diminished, but probably, incidents like this don’t happen.
The Talking Day is a nuanced, poignant, humane and absorbing collection, making supple use of the intricacies and exquisite radiance of language. Michael Klein challenges us to listen for the gentle, lyrical, even hypnotic aspects of words, intertwined with a kind of elemental, agile frankness; working out a balance between the conscious, the preconscious and palpable, diaphanous emotion.
The Talking Day
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420277, 70 pp.