Sunday, April 15, 2012

Moments of Delicate Balance by William Kloefkorn and David Lee
(Wings Press, 2011) 

reviewed by Gary Dop 

Poems and poets do not exist in solitude. We often want to believe that each poem stands alone and likewise that each poet is an autonomous voice. We tend to tie the concept of a successful lone-voice to aesthetic mastery. So when I picked up Moments of Delicate Balance, I puzzled over why these two poets, both experienced and established writers, would tie their individual collections to each other’s. Of course the available answer is that they were longtime friends, they shared a poetic sensibility, and their voices complemented one another, but none of this really answers what the reader gains from a two-author collection.

The sheer volume and quality of the poems in this collection, which are divided into two sections, one for each author, is easily worth the price of admission. This generous heap of language fits alongside the very best of Lee, former poet Laureate of Utah, and Kloefkorn, the long-time State Poet of Nebraska until his death prior to this book’s publication in 2011. These poets share an honest, accessible, and rustic perspective. Their impressive body of work, here and elsewhere, celebrates life, inimitable people, and common speech.

But it’s the differences between the authors that enhances this collection, like the way a film can thrive with two distinct protagonists—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example. Kloefkorn and Lee, like Butch and Sundance, want the same thing but each approaches it in his own way. Perhaps it’s Lee who is the better gun slinger, à la Sundance, spraying his bulleted colloquial speech across the page, mesmerizing the reader. But it’s Kloefkorn, like Butch, who never lets hope slip too far away; even in death’s doorway, he’s still dreaming.

Kloefkorn’s appreciation for life and people is at the forefront of all his poetry. We know from him that the world matters because we feel it mattering through him. In “At Risky’s Bar & Lounge,” we don’t stop to wonder, as we might with other poets, if we’re to assume that Kloefkorn is the speaker of the poem. It doesn’t matter. We’re sitting with him, seeing the “lean and young and moonfaced and clear-eyed” waitress tell him that her cancer is in remission, and we’re wanting, with Kloefkorn, not to look too much at the hair on her head, which he tells us looks “to be fur, young rabbit fur.” We need, as Kloefkorn constantly shows us—his need—to be in communion with his wonderful world:

                  […] And when
         our waitress returns I’ll ask her to remove
         her apron and join us. I want to give her
         the keys to the kingdom. O somebody, please,
         attend me! I want to touch her hair.

Kloefkorn’s poems attend their subjects with such compassion and pleasure that we sense he’s honored to have been allowed to write them. We hear this even in “Almost Spring,” where Kloefkorn exults in the beautiful mess of our bumbling individuality and connectivity:

                  […] Hope
         wearing only her
         birthday apparel appears and
         kisses me full on the mouth and
         the moment like a curtain
         rises and all the world is a stage
         and we are on it acting
         singly and collectively and gloriously
         and god help all of us
         forever the insatiable fool.

Lee’s, on the other hand, do not foreground his appreciation for his characters and life. Instead, he disappears and his characters present themselves to us with all the grotesque joy of a Sherwood Anderson story. His poems pulse with the gravelly, seriocomic voices of rural America, specifically his West Texas. The opening poem of his section follows the investigation of the rumor of the lightning-strike death of Wesley Stevens, “the second sorriest excuse for a human being,” according to R.B. McCravey, who learns that Stevens is alive and was simply lying in a field measuring the dents from the rain. McCravey is disappointed both that the rain didn’t come to his own land and that Stevens is, in fact, alive:

         it was all a dead false issue
         under another clear blue sky
         one way or another
         with not a single next cloud on the horizon
         nothing to celebrate or look forward to
         as far as he could see.

I couldn’t help but read this closing of his opening poem as Lee’s ironic wink toward his portion of the collection, which is certainly worthy of celebrating. His poems pop with unique personas, and his various narrative voices and found poems always channel local lingo. In “A Veritable Tale of a Wife, A Porch and a Dog,” the speaker says of Mutt Landry that he “was on the worst luckrun of his whole live life history,” which allows the speaker to both set up the story and to embody Landry’s voice. It’s Lee’s colloquial speech, the envy of all except perhaps Twain, that hooks us into his world, a world of quirky characters, like Harold Rushing, who tells the local preacher about a man who quit studying to be a priest in the “non-true faith” because

         abstinence, poverty and chastity
         aren’t any one ezactly
         all they cracked up to be

We read the poem and laugh. We trust the voice. We know the voice. There’s no lofty poetic message coming through—it’s on the page to celebrate the singular desperate voice, the voice of all of us. At one point in “Odus Millard,” a man speaks about his daughter to his potential son-in-law:

         a woman can only love a thing
         if she can pity it
         and then run over it
         so you might be just what she’s destined for

Lee writes from deep within the West Texas world he’s never escaped, even after all his years in Utah, and as a result, we hear our own community’s peculiar voices.

Several of Lee and Kloefkorn’s poems seem to be speaking for more than the poem’s surface context. In “God’s Lion, God’s Lyre,” a town bristles when one of its deviants becomes a Pentecostal preacher, and Lee writes through one of his characters:

         if we search long and hard enough
         through the mental pages of our own self-invention
         and whoever’s face we find
         will just flat not be the one we expected
         whether it’s in the mirror or in front of us smirking
         we are all of us of the same ilk and in this together
         we best learn to live with it and each other

Similarly, in “Ashokan Farewell,” Kloefkorn’s words seem to portend more than enjoying his grandaughter’s gift for playing the violin. Here Kloefkorn embodies the unaware, prophetic voice of the poet writing of his own gift, of the gift that he and Lee have given all of us—the important reminder that poetry is a communion between writers and readers and writers and writers, as Lee writes, “we best learn to live with it and each other,” and that as Kloefkorn says:

         Just now it is no more farewell
         than hello, hello to the gift
         unwrapping itself in sound

The initial question—why do two authors share a book?—has its better answer: two authors bind their books together because they have moved beyond the petty, youthful posturing of individuality, and they know their poems were bound together, with their readers and the writers to come, long before their poems were ever written. Through Moments of a Delicate Balance we celebrate with Kloefkorn and Lee the life lived sharing life, our “whole live life history.”

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