I WILL ADMIT THIS: When I first read Michael Klein’s new book of poems The Talking Day, I read it too quickly. It took me in, held my head and my body. The experience was like driving down to Cape Cod on a warm Tuesday afternoon, no traffic, a cool wind, the radio on some station that keeps playing Steely Dan songs over and over. When I first opened the book, not really paying attention, and fell into his poem “Ghosts,” I was hit hard by the first line: “The body is everywhere.” I knew I was in a good place. I want to be completely held by a poem. I do not want to go searching for an open door. Klein’s poems let me in immediately. The line — “The body is everywhere” — is earnest, frank, and allows me, as a reader, to step right inside.
“Ghosts” was the first poem the book offered me, but not the first poem in the book. It comes in the middle of the book, not at the beginning, so I was pretty confident that I would enjoy the poems before and after. That’s how I read the book: forward and backward. I don’t do this for any particular reason other than this is how I have always tried to discover and ascertain whether a book of poems will plant itself in my “interest zone.” When a book does this, takes root, then it does not matter in what order I read the poems. There is a nonlinear thematic line that exists and Klein’s book has it, strong.
After I read that first line, I closed the book. It was enough: “The body is everywhere.” I had no idea what the poem was about but it didn’t matter because it felt whole: the body is everywhere. I closed the book. Tonight, I opened The Talking Day again after a very long week. I read, in succession, “When I Was a Twin,” “Amazable,” “Washing a Corpse” and, finally, in its entirety, “Ghosts.”
These poems are about death. They are, for the most part, about Klein’s dead twin brother Kevin. In “Ghosts,” Klein writes,
I think he comes forward through his death
Anxious to mark a wall.
But I’m wrong. He wants to repeat a thing
So he can live beyond his being taken — a habit, say,
Something faulty, that won’t catch light.
It’s a grieving sublime, these four poems, one after another after another. The living express a desperation that goes something like this: the dead are desperate too. Klein, in these poems wants to live so hard, it seems, he has no choice but to write about death. But who knows? It’s hard to know what really goes on behind the scenes of a poem because it would mean cutting into the human heart, but then, we couldn’t tell it anyway. What I do know is that reading these poems made me want to pinch myself to remind myself I was not dead. And then I thought: if I were dead, I would want Klein to write about my death because he comes so close. That’s the beauty of his voice, his vision, these poems — they express an intimacy with dying that must come from experience. Klein has allowed himself, I will surmise, not only to get close to death but also to express his connectedness to death in these poems. It must be so hard to do such a thing, to be that close to dying, and write about it with such insight and grace. Really, that is what lives at the center of these poems — grace — a compassionate, sometimes angry, yet always enlivened sensibility of life’s precariousness.
Just read these lines from “When I was a twin”:
How could I not know that my
Brother was going to be dead before I was? For every twin
Whose twin is dead, there must be a nagging — or is it
Misplaced? — grief of not being absolutely sure who to
Grieve, which of the two had, in fact, died? But was I was sure.
Kevin was dead. I was alive. When I was a twin, Kevin
The body is everywhere, yes, except perhaps in death. Yet, in these poems, Klein achieves something magical: he gives death a body by writing death. By actualizing, naming, visualizing the unknowable, we are able to see what we can’t touch, to imagine knowing what we can’t know.
There is a passel of poems in this book that resembles a large grove of trees anywhere in the world. I don’t want to extend the metaphor. I just want to say that these poems are beautiful the way trees are beautiful. You can’t really argue with the beauty of trees, any trees, because they are, by nature, organisms that provide sustenance and intrigue. In the same light, you can’t argue with the beauty of Klein’s poetry. In particular: “Florida,” “The Talking Day,” “Movie Rain and Movie Snow,” “A King at the Door,” “The Radiant,” and “Image Results for the Sky.” All these poems share long lines, narrative cohesion (linear and nonlinear), insight, sonic vibration, accessibility. They are bonded by a conversational, plainspoken quality that I find refreshing, that lacks pretense and bravado.
They read like a book within the book, a chapbook within the larger manuscript. There is a different kind of sound that these poems have and I was taken by their longevity and presence. They are stories — like living rooms or bedrooms with people talking inside of them, voices.
But there is another characteristic these poems share that wins me over most. My seven-year-old daughter could pick up The Talking Day and read the title poem. It would freak her out because she is seven but she would understand the language, the story, which is the center of these longer poems. Klein wants us inside. He wants us inside the poems. He wants us inside the body of the world that mesmerizes him. Doesn’t every poet? I suppose the answer is yes. I could speak about the state of American poetry here but that would be useless and tasteless. One comes to a poem and, I think, either falls into it or away from it. I believe in my body and heart, that Klein’s poems bring you close to the moment when the muscle splits from the bone and then stops. He brings you right to the edge of ripping but spares the reader from that intense visceral pain by retreating back to the soft tissue. These longer poems do this successfully because they contain a narrative element: there is a story at the center and stories always pull us close. At the beginning of “A King at the Door,” Klein writes:
It was 6:00 p.m. when I took the picture and I go back every day around the same time to see if it’s still there — which, of course, it is, but I mean really there — inside the frequency of world that happens purely for the imagination: a blue doorway with a man standing up against the door (is he playing a horn? waiting for his date? Going over the reservation list?).
Something is beginning. Immediately, 6:00 p.m. locates us as readers in time and place. He gives us an object, a photograph, describes it beautifully and then bounces beyond it: “And since I took the picture and have gone back to the picture day after day it isn’t there anymore in the actual.” The world of ideas seeps inside him. It’s smart. No sentimental crap. It could be sentimental, but Klein knows better. The body is always the most sentimental object because it can kiss and break down and plant flowers and paint pictures. But because the poet pries open the sensual, working in specific details rather than skimming an abstract surface, sentimentality falls away.
“Movie rain and movie snow” is about New York City because New York City is all about the weather yet the weather makes no sense in New York City. The weather makes sense in Wyoming, but Klein lives in New York City where everything and everyone tries to push the weather away, bury it somewhere in the concrete, in the buildings and the artwork of Museums.
Rain is strange and kind. Vincent van Gogh has a painting about rain. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a huge painting — probably the largest canvas Van Gogh ever put paint on, and its aspect — the way Van Gogh has painted the rain — as ethereal as it physical… Van Gogh has made a kind of still life of motion that backs up against the thing it has to absorb to be seen. But back in New York, where I live outside of Van Gogh, rains doesn’t look like this. It looks, most of the time, like the rain from the last scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn is looking through a torrential episode of the stuff for the cat named Cat she just threw away.
Klein sees into a thing and then back out the other end. He plants an idea in an image and then lets it root and flourish. Here, it’s rain. The idea in the image. The idea out of the image.
A digression, if you will. Let me say something about Michael Klein and Jean Valentine.
Mr. Klein’s language has absorbed a certain sonic wisdom from Jean Valentine. I can’t help but mention the music of Valentine’s lute when I consider Klein’s oboe; both voices are robust and delicate at the same time. Yet, tonally, there is a vast difference. In a poem entitled “Happiness (3),” Valentine writes:
light on the right hand side of your face
The light on the Buddha’s eyelids
I knelt to my parents
Their suffering How
much sleep there was in sleep […]
There is deep tenderness in the voice. The open space of her breath in the lines, “How / much sleep there was in sleep” is palpable. It unfolds out of itself like a big Chinese fan. Klein does a most similar thing in his poem, “What He Was Reading.” He writes:
The wind stops on the page
You were reading before it came down to turn the rest of everything
— suspended, like a trick, as if
the book’s secret isn’t what you
already know, but looking down
what you already knows in the light of what you already know.
There is a magnanimous nod to Ms. Valentine’s music, and Klein seems to up the ante of the unfolding with the repetitive grace of “already know.” The phrase falls three times at our feet to soothe the spirit.
Prince, that brilliant little quark of a musician, has a song called “Joy In Repetition” on his album Graffiti Bridge, a highly underrated double record, which has a funky spare groove, heavy on bass and drums, so much space in between, all about some lustful (loveful?) situation where a man and woman move from the club to the alley and yearn for each other. The poem/rant/song ends with Prince singing, “There is joy in repetition, joy in repetition, joy in repetition, joy in repetition. Love me. Love me. Love me. Love me.” He proceeds to repeat the word “joy” 31 times in front of that spare but groovy musical landscape. Perhaps it is a nod to Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” in which Mr. Morrison sings, “The loves to love the loves to love the loves to love” for a good 30 to 40 seconds. All this to say that, for both Klein and Valentine, there is joy in repetition, joy that comes out of a spare, quiet space, burying its little orb of color into the center of the chest. It’s a magical orb that makes you feel held, as if something has been imparted to you, something not necessarily important but most certainly beautiful.
Of all the poems in the book, “The Horse Considers His Music” is the orb that bores the biggest Prince-like on-the-back-beat hole into my heart. It begins:
And always, that music: as night or whatever that was rolling
over the daylashes and hitting the windows full flash with a dark mirror.
Night drops its last oat out of its last horse’s mouth.
And always, this other music: in the daylight when no one is close enough
to hear it because of money and the rotting earth
and the other discomforts.
The word “daylashes” brings me to my knees. It’s so gentle, so sweet. Nothing like sweetness to mess up a man. Then, the repetition of, “And always, that music […] And always, this other music,” careen off the image of that “last horse,” and, bam, I am in some whirling kind of mystical space that has me feeling like I don’t know exactly where I am. It’s delicious and dangerous at once: a quietude, innately tender, of mind and body, mostly body, that creates a warm but ominous mood. In these quieter poems of The Talking Day, Klein gives us the body again, always, as the center of things.
In “The Radiant,” Klein writes:
My body has people leaving a theater in it.
My body is of the tribe: not queer, not current, not desirous
except — is this relief? — what comes on be degrees.
I am trying what’s left of my health in a certain temperature.
And trying it again
in another room. Lady Lazarus’ heart comes to me suddenly:
It really goes.
And then, just as suddenly something I would
never say: I am Radiant. I am in radiant’s hand.
Here the repetition works in and around itself, into itself and back out, exuding again how physically oriented mystical and emotional experience can be. There is a self-awareness that something is in decay, and yet Klein is able to salvage a certain redemptive spirit from that decay, a certain hopefulness and illumination in the face of devastation. Really, I think this is where all the beauty in his vision comes from — the hopefulness, the unrelenting sense that no matter how bad it gets, there will be an affirmative, the yes of ongoing life. The speaker-subject of this poem is not only Radiant, but held by radiance. The inside and the outside work together to make for a poetry that celebrates rather than bemoans. There is no whining, no desire to curl up or cower in the face of such unraveling. Klein’s body, whether real or imagined, is one that has to be taken seriously, but of course, always with a touch (or a boat load) of capriciousness.
Again, I think of Valentine:
My old body:
a ladder of sunlight, mercury dust floating through —
how you have learned to love me in my sleep.
The line between the two poets is strong, unmistakable. Or maybe it is mistakable. I do know that Klein’s first book, 1990, is dedicated to Jean Valentine. It’s enough of a nod to call the influence real.
On the front cover of The Talking Day, a naked man stands on his tiptoes on a lawn in front of some bushes. He’s a good-looking fellow with blonde hair, nice calves, a flat stomach, and good eyes. He’s not talking. He’s just, well, being — maybe dancing, frozen in a photograph but clearly in motion. I love the image. I love the image even more when I open the book, this time to Klein’s poem, “Older”:
My knee was having a sparkling feeling and I went to the doctor and found out from looking at the x-rays that my right knee has osteoarthritis. How strange it is to see the inside of your own body.
This book is not about the outside of the body as the cover might suggest. It is about the inside of the body. It is about Michael Klein’s vision of a body — in life and death — that keeps him on his toes, that keeps his body dancing and loving and fueling itself through the days. Klein’s poems teach us that if we are mindful of the body, we will automatically attend to matters of the heart as well.
There is no whimsy here and yet I can’t get over how good the poems in the book made me feel despite the hard truth of the life inside them: that death is everywhere. That’s a pretty good indication of how powerfully these poems move through the ether. Sparkling. Like that knee: alive, even in its breakdown.