Paul Scott Stanfield reviews a work of poetry that sees the world in powerful detail(s).
Ish Klein, The New Sun Time (Canarium, 2020), 96 pp.
It may be only the phonetic similarity of their names, but Ish Klein has always put me a little in mind of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. Not that she seems simple-minded or naïve – for that matter, the prince does not seem simple-minded or naïve to me, either. Neither is merely a holy fool. But both do see the world from closer-up than most of us, or from farther away, or at an angle oblique to our own. They are not visionaries exactly. They see not another world, but the same one we all see, only with a different idea of what ranks as important or unimportant, of what should be commanding our attention. There is an unguardedness and honesty about them that could be mocked – but the mockery would tell you much more about the mocker than it would about the prince, or about Klein. We can sometimes hear the same note in Thomas Traherne, or in Blake’s poems from the Pickering manuscript, or the poems Fernando Pessoa wrote as Alberto Caeiro.
The New Sun Time is Klein’s fourth collection, and her longtime readers will recognize several characteristic gestures. For instance, there are the poems that begin with a bump, a feeling of mild disorientation – “I live in a room. / How this happened? Look, / I know I’m lucky. Nose.” – but then settle into a steady flight, and at the end make a turn as sudden and graceful as a swift’s into another dimension, as in this instance:
D. Bowie came to a thing I was in. He laughed like a kid. I’m lucky for that. I’ll come to your show. I will love your nose.
Klein has always been deft with endings, as demonstrated repeatedly in The New Sun Time. She sometimes uses the imperative mood: “See that opening? Rise and / go through,” we are told in “Lost People Here and Further on Out in the Fog” and “Please tell the court and be clear,” in “Trials.” Other poems land with the finality of a proverb while retaining an aura of mystery, such as “It’s like they play hide and seek with us, / old lands do on their way to the new” or “A problem I must notice: / how intensely a dog cares.” Dogs do care intensely, we might immediately think, acknowledging a truth we have probably often seen without really noticing. But in the same moment this truth about dogs is called to our attention, we are asked to grasp it as a problem. How, we have to ponder, is it a problem? Is it that dogs care more than we do?
Amid the familiar, we have the new. Klein works with short lines more often in this book than in its predecessors, even taking a trial spin with syllabic verse in “How to Run A-/mok with Pictures.” Nor is there anything in her earlier books quite like the double-voiced 14-page final poem, “Every Animal Is Your Mother.” One voice, in 36 stanzas (each of six six-syllable lines), recounts what specific animals eat, and what they are eaten by. This voice rolls along with the ingenuous enthusiasm and sometimes the slightly unbuttoned grammar of a school report:
Cutthroat Trout eats small fish, Fish, eggs, algae, insects, Frog and small rodents which Got delivered, I guess. They’re et by bald eagles, Lake trout, otters, osprey—
The second voice falls in single lines (usually of seven syllables) in the interstices between stanzas, sometimes seemingly philosophizing on the food chain (“Completion for every being”), sometimes preoccupied with its own existence (“I must only move towards life”), sometimes hoping for something larger than and outside of itself (“Trust. Trust? Trust! Trust—Trust…”). The second voice seems grounded or rooted in the first, while at the same time trying to pull away from it into something of its own, or something other than eat-and-be-eaten. On the final page, the school-report voice falls silent; the more reflective voice, finding it has sole possession of the floor, rises to another of those wonderful Klein endings:
And something beyond the feed corn planted there. Comes up and comes around: grass and seed in the earth are forces born to birth you As you are born a force of birth.
We recognize the Whitman note but it rings differently having worked its way through a catalog of what eats what.
This is not to say that Klein is a mystic. Like Dostoevsky’s prince, she is too funny, too down-to-earth, too aware of her own foibles to go in for that sort of thing. Even so, she reminds me of what Michel Henry said of the Beatitudes: “It is as if behind this mass of unlikely propositions, a different Reason was at work, another Logos that, in order to run counter to everything humans say or think themselves, nevertheless reaches at the core of their being.” Klein’s voice, in all its otherness, nonetheless corresponds to something deeply our own.
Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.