Monday’s Poems: ‘Hearsay’ and ‘First Frost on Windshield,’ by L.S. Klatt

HEARSAY

The mailman sent piecemeal a rare donkey
to the city of waters; to the city of waters
a rare donkey was sent, swaddled
in blueprint.

And it came to pass that the waters
were troubled. Woe
in the great city.

Nothing is more beautiful than to admit
the truth, or more difficult.

The head & tail & all that is in between.

When piecemeal the beast was sent,
the engineers knew their place.

For if disassembled like a boat
the rare donkey could be
put together.

But to separate the members of a living
thing, to cast dispersions on it,
this is to create a question
unanswerable.

 

 

FIRST FROST ON WINDSHIELD

Perfect stitches suture the glass, & if patient enough
watch them disappear.

Like the dead dog in the middle of the road, the invisible
dog that an ice cream truck hit & the rest of us
skirted. Was the last thing tasted
the last thing?

It whimpers, the muzzle of the dog head; the hackles
become rimed with diamante. I say:
here are lucent things.

When frost arrives, it has the soul of famine,
but also catatonic the headlights as the crow flies.

 

© by L. S. Klatt.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

L. S. Klatt teaches creative writing and American literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Recent poems of his have apppeared or will appear in Boston Review, The Believer, West Branch, Sycamore Review, and Best American Poetry 2011. His latest collection, Cloud of Ink, won the Iowa Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011.

 

Notes from The Chronicle Review’s Poetry Editor Lisa Russ Spaar, of the University of Virginia:

What Helen Vendler called, in relation to John Keats and Wallace Stevens, “the taming of mind to the season,” is something poets often do, and November—the tail end of autumn, the harbinger of winter—has a particular way of taking ahold of and a hold in poets.  Merwin called November a “debt.”  Plath considered it her “property” (“Two times a day / I pace it, sniffing / The barbarous holly with its viridian / Scallops, pure iron, // And the wall of old corpses”).  Stevens named it a region (“It is like a critic of God, the world // And human nature, pensively seated / On the waste throne of his own wilderness” from “The Region November”), Williams a design:

Let confusion be the design
and all my thoughts go,
swallowed by desire: recess
from promises in
the November of your arms.
Release from the rose: broken
reeds, strawpale,
through which, from easy
branches that mock the blood
a few leaves fall. There
the mind is cradled,
stripped also and returned
to the ground, a trivial
and momentary clatter. Sleep
and be brought down, and so
condone the world, eased of
the jagged sky and all
its petty imageries, flying
birds, its fogs and windy
phalanxes . . .

(from “Design for November”)

Though not specifically about November, two recent poems by L.S. Klatt, in their different ways, seem to grow out of what Stevens has elsewhere called the “exhilaration of changes.”  “Hearsay” (which in its fabular imaginings, disturbed logic, and philosophical figuration reminds me very much of Stevens and his notion of “the malady of the quotidian”) possesses what the poet and critic Ron Slate called Klatt’s “domesticated wildness.” It relays a tale that feels like a parable, mixing ordinary details (the mailman, the engineers) with Biblical syntax (“And it came to pass”) and a cryptic, aphorisitic, philosophically charged sense of mastery/mystery (“Nothing is more beautiful than to admit / the truth, or more difficult”).  It’s clear that Klatt means us to read his poem as more than just “hearsay.” Everything about the poem is charged with symbolic resonance.  Perhaps we’re meant to read the poem as a definition of “Hearsay” or rumor, and to feel the consequences of what happens when something rare is taken apart and disseminated and then partially or inaccurately reassembled in a way that is dissembling and “unanswerable.”

It is hard for me not to read “Hearsay” as a political poem, a comment on what can happen to something, say, like the democratic party (with its donkey mascot) if, “piecemeal,”  it is sent in shards (“The head & tail & all that is in between”) to “the great city.”  The poem gives us much to contemplate in this month of election and at the start of the upcoming presidential election year.  When the donkey was in pieces, the speaker tells us, “the engineers knew their place. // For if disassembled like a boat / the rare donkey could be / put together.” There are clear echoes here of another provocatively riddling poem, “Humpty Dumpty,” which can be read, on the one hand, nonsensically, but which also suggests political interpretations, as well.  What happens, Klatt’s poem warns, when “the members of a living / thing” are separated and cast with dispersions?  Can such a broken body ever be reassembled? Restored to meaning? Is there an answer to such a riddle?

If “Hearsay” seems a nod to the “region November” of the body politic, “First Frost on the Windshield” is more forthright in its engagement with the changing season.  But there is nothing immediately transparent about this poem, which, like “Hearsay,” is concerned with things (like a country, a body, a year) that are broken and must be “sutured,” reassembled in the mind of the reader.  With characteristic word-play (the way “patient,” for example, works with a kind of implied imperative—“If you are patient enough you can watch the stitches of frost disappear”—as well as evokes the body of a patient requiring repair),  rhetorical elision,  and disjunction, Klatt moves with an undiscursive, figurative forcefulness from his initial image of a frosted windowglass to what Harold Bloom, again in relation to Stevens (and Dickinson), calls an antithetical image “that disrupt[s] the realm of bodily eye”:

Like the dead dog in the middle of the road, the invisible
dog that an ice cream truck hit & the rest of us
skirted. Was the last thing tasted
the last thing?

A “dead dog”? What? And not one most likely struck, say, yesterday, but a while back, in the season of ice cream trucks. And an invisible dog, a dog no one saw. And a dog which, perhaps because “skirted,” continues to haunt, whimpering still (not the whole dog, mind you, but just its muzzle, part of its head)? Through the lenses of memory, guilt, and remorse, the hackles of the dog, the speaker says, “become rimed with diamante,” with the first frost of conscience, the consciousness of cowardice, of avoidance, of avoidance of death. Klatt concludes his lyric, again, with a vatic, aphoristic statement that, with its elided, unstable syntax, is not entirely decipherable, at least not through dialectic or ordinary logic or syllogism:

I say:
here are lucent things.

When frost arrives, it has the soul of famine,
but also catatonic the headlights as the crow flies.

 

This kind of language has an almost nonsensical feel on first reading, but if we allow its juxtaposed figures (“[frost] has the soul of famine”) and idiomatic phrases (“as the crow flies”) to conflate (the experience of doing so is akin to looking at Magic Eye®  images), we emerge from the poem with a new sense of the interconnectedness of the fierce, implacable motions of the natural world, the seasons, and the human capacity either to be numb or alive to these truths.  “Surprise,” Bloom writes, “is the American poetic stance.” Just as November surprises us, with its inklings, frosts, shearings, and beheaded blooms, Klatt’s poems startle us with their imaginative negative capabilities,  their choice of lucent vision over any form of personal, political, or artistic numbness.

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