REVIEW: Romps and Send-Offs: a Collection of Smart, Sardonic Literary Essays

Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000—2016 by August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pp.)

By Peter Lewis

I met the arrival of poet August Kleinzahler’s new nonfiction prose collection with the cool detachment I used to exhibit when my mother took me on a pilgrimage to the penny-candy store.  A veteran of his two previous collections—Cutty, One Rock and Music, I-LXXIV—I knew what those glass jars (yes, chapters, but I’m in the moment) held: pleasure—party colors, new savories, and delicious jolts of surprise. (They would hold the kind of goods that walked off with both the Lannan Literary Award and the NBCC Award for his volume of poetry Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, as well as this year’s Arthur Rense Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, too.) One can do a lot worse than be compared to a penny-candy store.

Sallies, Romps, Portraits and Send-Offs is a selected gathering of Kleinzahler’s journalism between 2000 and 2016. The sallies are his atmospheric place portraits—a living-rough stint in Alaska; packing up the family home in Fort Lee, New Jersey; three sparkling mind-geographies, fogs and reminiscences of San Francisco—while the portraits are smart, affectionate profiles of friends (as well as formal, celebratory probes into their poetry): Thom Gunn, Leonard Michaels, Basil Bunting, Christopher Middleton. These are complemented with meat-on-the-bone investigations of people he has only known of the page, poets all: James Merrill, Lorine Niedecker, Lucia Berlin, Louis Zukofsky (along with more of those formal, celebratory probes), plus a couple of long book reviews, and a spooky (could just be me) lunch with Allen Ginsburg. The salutes are to the departed, not always dearly: James Schuyler, Christopher Logue, e. e. cummings (“mawkish and vacuous”), and Richard Brautigan. Kleinzahler was an early fan of Brautigan’s touch, timing, and pitch-perfect offhandedness, but upon rereading felt “he wasn’t really very good after all . . . pretty thin stuff: precious, self-indulgent fluff.” No one ever said Kleinzahler didn’t speak to his truth.

And the romps are just the way Kleinzahler lives. From reading these pieces, it is possible to imagine Kleinzahler working at his desk, having caught the fragment of an idea and now in the act of genesis. But it is easier still to fancy him out and about, accumulating what Antonio Gramsci described as the “infinity of traces” that will mark Kleinzahler’s passage through life and find their way into his poetry. Kleinzahler has been around, far and wide. He has seen and heard things, attentively. He has made fast friendships, and there have been others he has not amused. These experiences have left their impress, their traces: poetry and music, conversation and arguments and journeys.

To our good fortune, he has distilled these experiences not only into poetry—Farrar, Straus and Giroux has concurrently released Before Dawn on the Bluff Road/Hollyhocks in the Fog, selected collections of New Jersey and San Francisco poems in dos-à-dos format, a fine gleaning as candent as Kleinzahler’s poems ever were—but into intimate short prose works. Comic or sad, they display a vigilance as keen as the knives of the gangsters he grew up around in Fort Lee—Albert Anastasia, the dreaded mobster and founder of Murder Inc., was a neighbor—and the kind of brass it takes to be a full-time poet without being born with a silver spoon. He caves, occasionally, if the side work is temporary and will take him to, say, Dubai. His creative writing classes offer solid advice to young poets. “I tell them, without exception (unless their daddy owns Macy’s), to try to find a rent-controlled apartment.”

Kleinzahler’s brings the kind of attention to making sentences and syntax that a cabinetmaker brings to joints. His promiscuity of registrations—style, tone, attitude—shift direction with the grace of Gene Kelly’s feet. The writing can be bare-knuckled, just as it might be stylish and well tempered. One minute he is reminding us that John Berryman’s drink-addled dissolution brought forth “something lambent and ludic,” then he sharply turns to recommend the singular pleasures of tuba bebop. Speaking of which, there is also a musicality to the words, as though a jazz combo was providing background to his thoughts: music makes “one’s ears grow bigger with each listening,” he writes, an image that, the more you think about it, keeps unfolding like an accordion’s bellows. Read his words aloud in your head and you can’t miss the music. In the process—pretty wonderfully—his writing becomes available and welcoming.

Sallies delivers, starting with the pent-up energy of a racehorse in the starting gate, then the release, then the jockeying for position, then, reaching the stretch, into the cultivated, streetwise, or comic, all depending. Fitting, then, that Kleinzahler responded to an inmate’s question—he was giving a reading at Bonne Terre maximum security prison in Missouri (Kleinzahler gives numerous readings, in widely varied venues)—about a poem’s genesis by saying there were a lot of fragments of uncompleted poems orbiting around in his head at any given time, like space garbage around the earth. “At the end of the reading . . . one particularly large con, older than the others and more than a bit reticent, came up to me and leaned over: ‘You know what?’ ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘I got a lot of that sardonic space garbage floating around in my head, too.’” Kleinzahler nodded, and skipped the advice on rent control.

Peter Lewis is an editor of the Geographical Review, the flagship of The American Geographical Society, established in downtown New York City in 1851. He lives with his family in the Hudson Highlands of New York.  A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Lewis serves on the NBCC committee for the John Leonard Award to honor an author's first book.