‘then, we were still living’ by Michael Klein
Author: Jason Schneiderman
October 6, 2010
Michael Klein’s second book of poems arrives seventeen years after his first poetry collection, 1990.
There were two memoirs in the intervening years and as you might expect, Klein’s return to poetry finds him less interested in narrative.
He’s still a consummate storyteller, but there’s more play with sound and language—a willingness not to explain. Here he speaks with a kind of reticence; these poems don’t break the silence as much as they interweave silence into themselves.
Klein’s modulation of line is similar to the first collection, but now he seems confident of his reader, confident that he is being heard as he wants to be heard.
The book opens with a sly reference to William Carlos Williams, shifting repeated language into different lines:
As real as, as real
as, as real as N.Y.C. (3)
The poem is half prayer, half establishing shot. He sets up his main concerns. Nothing is “real,” and yet, there is less and more “real.”
The poem ends “Dear Lord, / unlit, we’re made of bread.” Klein has found the sustenance that he needs is himself, his loves, and his city.
New York City is particularly important to this book. AIDS was the tragedy that grounded 1990. The attacks of September 11th are the backdrop of the new collection, setting up a new tension between public and private.
Klein’s poems about September 11th are fascinatingly well-wrought, approaching the edges of the experience and tracing it as one might a missing tooth or a scar. There’s a soreness, but also something tough. His poem “2001” opens:
But wasn’t it always a scene
in a movie to delay it in the world?
The always movie?
The use of questions here gives Klein some distance from the event. He doesn’t have to be heavy-handed; he allows himself to investigate and hypothesize. The questions invite readers to check his ideas against their own.
It’s been long enough that “2001” initially evoked the Stanley Kubrick film for me, though I quickly realized that Klein was talking directly about September 11th. Still, the Kubrick film is not jettisoned; Kubrick’s film is about what it means to be human, and what it would mean to leave humanity for something larger.
The poem continues:
In America, we make movies
before anything really happens.
It wasn’t like the movies and it wasn’t real.
Klein then makes an uncharacteristic move to the abstract, as he moves into his conclusion:
It was our entirety emptying into the fully realized emptiness.
Then, we were still dead,
Then, we were still lost on our own soil.
Then, we were still living. (7)
What I find so effective about this poem is how Klein traces the way we should have been prepared for 9-11. As Americans, we watch movie after movie about the destruction of New York City (and other urban landscapes), and yet when two buildings went down in flames, we were far from prepared.
Our fictions failed us because of their sensationalism, even as we aren’t ready to give them up—the trauma reinvented us, binding up life and death in a single instant.
Did we die that day? Or did that day make us realize we were alive?
Klein’s calibration is subtle and moving, tugging on the strings of our culture to remind us of how deeply that day transformed us, for better and for worse.
Klein can be wonderfully bawdy, and “Five Places for Sex” is a brilliant sex poem. The first section about seducing a boy on a train is truly exciting, and the description of their climax is stunning:
It was okay to take my slightly shaky hand and put it under the book
where I found his cock and the rest of his mind and I said
until the panther rested—down so much—in the springy hills. (32)
The second section of the poem takes place in a movie theatre at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It is an extremely funny account of not wanting to swallow a trick’s cum, but also not wanting to offend the trick by spitting it out. It’s an Almodovar-worthy scene of our closed-lipped hero, unable to spit or swallow as he politely tries to take his leave. Each of the five sections strikes a slightly different note, but all of them approach sex in all its complexity.
While Klein never forgets what makes sex worthwhile, he doesn’t leave out the awkward, the dangerous, the gross, or the humorous.
The book is wide ranging, and returns to familiar themes of family; one of the most moving poems addresses the loss of his twin brother.
But one of the main themes of the book is finding happiness. Sober and in love, Klein’s peace is carefully limned. In a poem about watching his partner Andrew passing through dark moods, he concludes: “Listen to me: Andrew didn’t exactly teach me/ how to be happy, but he showed me why it is so” (22).
The peculiar syntax suggests the slant quality of Klein’s happiness. Klein’s happiness is never a sentimental or easy state. It comes as a combination of revelation and achievement, partly the discovery that toxic behaviors can be avoided, partly the joy of sustained love. But Klein’s happiness always comes in the context of all he has seen and endured, and for that reason, it feels honest and hard won.
It might be silly to speak of an author’s fourth book as a sophomore effort, but in terms of poetry, Klein has achieved what every author strives for in a second book of poems.
His voice is recognizable, while his craft has sharpened, and his inquiries have grown more complex. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has waited seventeen years for this book will be disappointed.
then, we were still living
GenPop Books, October 2010
$15.00, 63 pages