Hoot n Waddle, 120pp., $16.00
Premeditations is a poet’s ode to poets. With wry nostalgia, klipschutz (the name author Kurt Lipschutz goes by), a San Francisco poet and songwriter (who works closely with the musician Chuck Prophet), opens his paean to poetry by defending the increasingly endangered sacred space where one typically discovers words that fuel the spirit: a bookstore. “North Beach Threnody,” the volume’s opening poem, leads with this stanza:
A landmark, registered, and us inside it,
folded up in folding chairs, with
everything outside moving
fast in another direction.
Looking around from
sign to handmade
sign, I dreamt
the lot of us
an evil hour,
to make our stand,
in the last bookstore in town.
Those (of a certain age) committed to literature might quickly intuit the meaning of the stanza’s inversion. A cultural institution gets eroded from the center inward, enduring an attack on its countercultural tradition while nonetheless taking a stand (even if that stand is pacific and delivered from folding chairs). It’s an act that seems particularly appropriate for the Bay Area, a misty nirvana currently under siege by slick tech giants.
So klipschutz’s ode comes with urgency. It’s an urgency marked by memory and fueled by the terrifying prospect that we might choose not to resist. Books are precarious, loving them more so. Dedicating a life to text is an expression of defiance in a culture that’s increasingly gutted by commerce and intellectual indifference. And so on.
It’s good to be reminded of this truth. Its necessity. The experience of browsing shelves for hidden gems, with the faith that something critical depends on it, stands in empowering contrast to “everything outside moving / fast in another direction.” And thus one pleasure of this volume: klipschutz winks with those of us who know just how subversive this position can feel, a rare and therapeutic empathy we didn’t know we needed, until it came at us, poem after poem.
Charm leavens klipschutz’s nostalgia. He writes poems that remind us how, like most weapons of the weak, great poetry evokes the inner glow of living well, of exploring deeply, and of taking reality neat and straight. This book honors old souls with the fortitude to equate worlds and words, knowing intuitively that language does not represent so much as embody those “regions / scientists will never map.” klipschutz accomplishes all this while reiterating how precarious the space remains between real readers and their increasingly precious, tightly bound, potentially explosive weapons.
. . .
Given this ambition of cultural defense, a klipschutz poem has no problem swaggering on the page when it must. Cultural barbs echoing the beats’ opposition to commercial conformity remind us what’s at stake for those who prefer the ethics of the noonday bar to the corporate cubicle. A klipschutz poem on Richard Brautigan laments how “We live in another age, one of rapid calculation.” Ferlinghetti tempts cultural converts who “sleep it off in live-work spaces / South of Market, where / misconceptions give breech birth / to cubicles . . .” And while Robinson Jeffers warned us otherwise, klipschutz notes how “we tripped the light fantastic / to the stylings of Hewlett & Packard, / in debt up to eyeballs to geeks / turned gods in windowless cells / who code the future and live on diet Pepsi.”
Condemn the wasted appearance of an addled Bukowski at your peril, because here’s klipschutz to bring you down to the level: “Just as there are waitresses and doctors, / professors and shop girls galore / with more pulchritude than movie stars possess / men we look through every other day / are more unsightly than him.” He is, in a way, a poetic guardian of brilliant drunks and misfits. As I said, charming.
The pitfalls of this kind of poetry—so idolatrous and personal—are too numerous to list, but they all involve the challenge of embracing the past while preserving the spirit of experimentation and, through it all, not sinking into syrup. klipschutz pulls it off. He does so primarily through pacing that understands that if you’re going to segue from, say, Dickinson to Larkin, Plath, and Hughes via Hardy, well, you better have a deft touch on the throttle. klipschutz moves the text along through careful shifts in form and content. First, on Dickinson, from a longer poem called “Three for Lavinia’s Sister”:
Her Curiosity sticks best
To pale Teens and Professors;
A burst – a pause – a canted rhyme –
The suddenness of Seizure—
The poem ends with a reminder of how shamelessly we appropriate art:
Public men misquote you
from Alexandria to Redding
Riot Grrls intone your name
on bikes, at wakes, at weddings
Structurally, the poem as a whole has five four-line stanzas, followed by two prose-like paragraphs, and a final return to the four-line stanza quoted above. The heft of the poem makes the point that poor Emily, so weighted to the past and isolated, is defenseless. Everyone from paleface adolescents to an underground punk band has ransacked her treasure chest. Poetry, it seems, is even gutted from within, from those who attend to it.
This message demands a response, one that comes in the two short but satisfying poetic bursts that follow (both quoted in full below). The first, wherein a poet listens to a poet, is called “Lesson, Plan”:
Hardy burnt his dead wife Emma’s manuscript
What I thought of My Husband.
Larkin stirred his morning tea,
deciding not to be one.
The progression is complete when the poets inflict themselves on us, as we find in “Remaindered Romance”:
Side by side in the bargain table,
still competing, still exposed
her Complete his New & Selected.
(She goes for twice as much.)
Remarried in the public mind,
they hang their dirty laundry
on lines intersecting each other.
Note the thematic progression—and try to sense its effect. From the opportunistically cherry-picked but committed spinster Dickinson, delivered patiently in a two-page stretch, klipschutz transitions with a sharp click to a rapid-fire dialogue of sorts between Hardy and Larkin over the perils of marriage, and then one more click to a famously scarred marriage where that lesson wasn’t learned, resulting in the rest of us having to sniff dirty laundry flapping in the winds of poetic time.
. . .
klipschutz identifies as a “post beat” poet, and indeed the Bay Area has a centripetal effect on klipschutz’s sensibility. But the geographic range of his reverence is expansive, and perhaps particularly welcoming of the American South. In 2016 klipschutz wrote an important critical piece on the life and work of the neglected Arkansas poet Frank Stanford (1948-1978) for Toad Suck Review. His extensive research for that article finds poetic expression in Premeditations—
With rivers, knives, and moons,
With jazz-laced cheerful lies,
He sated her, another her, another.
Thrice-blessed by his own hand,
He made a sudden exit,
Leaving strangers, snakes, and a theolodite.
His John the Baptist, Brother Mike,
Came after—exegesis, explanation.
In the ruins of a once great love,
Ignorant of Werther,
I spent a twelvemonth cataloging relics.
This poem is noteworthy for how well it nails down the defining features of Stanford’s life. His work indeed teemed with references to the moon, rivers, and knives; he lied like hell and loved jazz and slept around a lot; his “sudden exit” was three self-inflicted shots to the chest; he was friends with a Benedictine monk and he had worked for years as a land surveyor (hence the theolodite). The fidelity to Stanford’s real experience reminds us of the depth of biographical knowledge that klipschutz brings to this book, and how the poems we love and return to do not exist in some new critical vacuum but rather are entwined with the dramas of real lives lived, in Stanford’s case, from Mississippi to Memphis to northwest Arkansas. klipschutz is a sort of emotional historicist.
To drive home his consideration of things southern, klipschutz titles two poems “2-Cool 2 B 4-Gotten.” For students of southern culture, this is a phrase that penetrates the South like a loblolly taproot. It will likely ring most familiar as a Lucinda Williams song (an interesting connection given that her father Miller Williams was a professor who briefly mentored Frank Stanford at the University of Arkansas). But the phrase’s southern connection goes deeper. In a photograph that folklorist William Ferris took in a Mississippi juke joint in the 1970s, three African American teenagers stand in a room with a red wall behind them, upon which is thin white graffiti that reads, “2-Cool 2 B 4-gotten.” It sits there as if to say, do something with me. Take me. Use me. People have.
And that’s perfectly appropriate, as klipschutz sees poetry as an act of recovery, and his poetic heroes as Robin Hoods of language. In “Extra! Extra!”—a prose peom—he writes, “The other arts have long since appropriated the lexicon of text / Viewers read paintings. Shutterbugs quote sculptors . . .” Through well arranged, if experimental mash-ups, juxtapositions, and references, klipschutz takes it back, and even if we know the effect is temporary — poets never actually win — he fulfills Philip Larkin’s dictum that “the business of a poet is to move the reader’s heart by showing his own.”
James McWilliams is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. His books include The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne Books), Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writings have appeared in The Paris Review daily, The New Yorker.com, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The American Scholar, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a contributing writer at Pacific Standard, and his literary non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Quarterly Conversation, The New York Times Book Review, and The Hedgehog Review.