Since conversing with the brilliant August Kleinzahler on stage a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco, a number of people have asked why he and I were paired together. The obvious answer is that I included his poem “Sleeping it off in Rapid City” in the catalog for my traveling exhibition, From Here To There. What’s peculiar is that I’ve never once been asked why that poem is in the book.
My simple answer is (1) I once slept off the most extreme hangover in my life at the very same historic hotel described in the poem (2) the poem is about my favorite subject: “the middle of the middle of the heart of this great land.”
Beyond this interest in place, Kleinzahler and I share an affinity for the imagery produced by the movement through place. Just look at the titles of his collections. Along with Sleeping It Off In Rapid City, there’s The Strange Hours Traveler’s Keep and his new book, Hotel Oneira. So many of the poems are about transportation and transience. Here’s a passage from the title poem of the new book:
Look at them down there by the ferry slip,
the bridal party, organza, chiffon and lace, beside themselves,
being wonderful, desperately wonderful, a pastel foam.
Behind them a tug pushes a rusted barge upriver.
Helicopters, small planes, passenger jets above.
They behave, these girls, as if this is their last chance to be thus.
You can feel the rumble of trains
vibrating up the steel of the hotel’s frame.
They move only very late at night, from three or so until dawn
north along the river and then west.
There is going on just now a vast shifting inventory
from the one place to the another. I can feel it, inside my head.
“Kleinzahler’s thematic framework generally involves exotic travel via eclectic means of conveyance,” Aaron Belz recently wrote in the SFGate, “He takes us on ferries, rumbling trains, jets, “a handcar,” “a black Hupp-Yeats” (electric automobile) to places like Zaragoza, Bockenheim, Lake Toxaway and “the fogbound Ginza.” What’s interesting to me is that Kleinzahler rarely writes about the most commonly romanticized form of transportation, the automobile. “I’m not big on road trips,” Kleinzahler once wrote in an article on Travels with Charley.
As I write this post, I’m in ‘the middle of the middle’ en route to Texas from Minnesota. I’m sometimes embarrassed on my reliance on the road trip as a source for inspiration. All I can say is that it works. For me the act of driving is analogous to the art of photography. While I move through the world in my minivan, I’m simultaneously separated from that world by the lens of the windshield. I’m there, but I’m removed, watching.
In advance of this trip to Texas I grabbed from my bookshelf Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans and Their Cars. There are plenty of clunkers and clichés and Kleinzahler is notably absent. However, the book has a poem by another one of my favorite poets: Russel Edson. This poem manages to evoke my love of driving, and the aesthetics of driving, in a totally fresh way:
A man had just married an automobile.
But I mean to say, said his father, that the automobile is
not a person because it is something different.
For instance, compare it to your mother. Do you see how
it is different from your mother? Somehow it seems wider,
doesn’t it? And besides, your mother wears her hair differently.
You ought to try to find something in the world that looks
I have mother, isn’t that enough of a thing that looks like
mother? Do I have to gather more mothers?
They are all old ladies who do not in the least excite any
wish to procreate, said the son.
But you cannot procreate with an automobile, said father.
The son shows father an ignition key. See, here is a special
penis which does with the automobile as the man with the
woman; and the automobile gives birth to a place far from
this place, dropping its puppy miles as it goes.
Does that make me a grandfather? said father.
That makes you where you are when I am far away, said
Father and mother watch an automobile with a just married
sign on it growing smaller in a road.