Inclinations, Preoccupations, and Obsessions: A Review of Klipschutz’s THIS DRAWN AND QUARTERED MOON (Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press Publishers, 2013, $18.00, 96 Pages) Review by Bill Neumire

In an interview with Canadian poet Jon Cone, Klipschutz (the pen name of poet Kurt Lipschutz) confessed, “I’m a frustrated playwright, essayist, short story writer, pundit, Casanova, cultural anthropologist…the list goes on. Which leads to a crazy quilt of approaches and subject matter: it all gets poured into poems. There are no conscious themes, just inclinations, preoccupations, obsessions.” This assessment is pretty quickly confirmed as one reads his latest poetry collection, This Drawn & Quartered Moon. It’s a real buffet of form: erasure, rhymed quatrains of iambic tetrameter, ghazal, free verse lyric, epistle, prose poem. There are nonce forms and flash-fiction-esque pieces, and sometimes, as in ‘Elvis the First,’ the poet changes forms within a single poem.

This Drawn & Quartered Moon charts the collision of a nostalgic American past with the personal ‘eternal present’ of the speaker (a speaker who, in most cases, seems to be the autobiographical lyric I of the poet) and the complex comingling that follows. The poet’s father was apparently Elvis’ doctor, a point that serves as his portal to cultural commentary, sketches of characters from his life and times, and riddling songs of interior monologue. Klipschutz centers his book on a poem titled ‘Elvis the First,’ about which the poet explained, “The poem is ‘about’ Elvis Presley, but also about my family, and reaches back to some rough times, when the ’60s were just kicking into high gear, when my siblings and I were starting to do drugs, and my parents didn’t have a clue how to handle us. Then my dad became Elvis’s doctor. … the poem gave me a way to write about family.” Indeed, the collection mixes a sense of history and nostalgia with the eternal present of the speaker’s self, his running interior monologue, even as the markers of his past fall away and his anxiety heightens: “Don’t mention the old days. / You’re talking to yourself again”.

The boo’s most engaging moments are in its formal amusements and its profiles and vignettes of quirky characters. Take, for example, Oliver Othello King, Jr., a Viet Nam vet the speaker met on public transportation:

Double O. King, that’s what they call me … Airborne Rangers, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. How many people you suppose you can kill in two years? … Death from the sky. Just so you can stand here.

When these poems fail, they come across as nothing more than reportage, a workshop word wielded when a writer writes without depth and craft to transform an event or experience into something more, but when they succeed the “reportage” serves to erase the speaker and transport the reader into different eyes; this happens no doubt most frighteningly so in “Slab of Consciousness,” a poem for which the form emanates naturally from the content: it’s stilted, with periods after every word or couple words. It’s truncated life. It cuts out the speaker, makes the experience blunter, sharper, more painful:

The facts. It’s gone: Her future. Bright. The town. On it. At the Bubble Lounge. Outside. A fare like any other. Dumped. The body. Him. Her ATM … Results. Still inconclusive. Weeks away. Semen. And if so? … Breathing. She stopped breathing. People do.

It’s like the coldly clinical diction and syntax of an autopsy. The language can be fresh and arresting, witty and satirical, as in “I shall not want / for the Lord is my Home Shopping Network” or poignantly discomforting, as in “Winter passes like a meal / that sits and hardens in this sewer of stopwatch light”. In another impressive moment from ‘The Red Wheelbarrow of Fortune,’ we get expected language and the slogans of contemporary poetry, but the language is then deployed unexpectedly such that it creates tension between the lazy comfort of the phrases and the crafty new rearrangement and juxtaposition of them, all of it preceded by that image—an impactful discomfort and surprise—of the children:

Children cheer a flag of fire
A car commercial ends
Hearts of darkness fill with light
The wind is up—so much depends…

One can almost hear that “depends” slip into “deepens” at the end of the stanza, which is exactly what this strategy does: it deepens the shallow catch phrases by juxtaposing them in intriguing ways and adding that sonically pleasing yet topically disturbing “Children cheer a flag of fire.”

Alas, this self-amused collection frequently provokes a groan like a bad pun. The speaker actually verbalizes an anxiety about this cheeky cleverness (the contradictory self-referential anxiety can admittedly be funny and interesting at times), which creates a sense of self-criticism that makes this a bit of a therapy session as the voice can even get defensive: “Okay, so my ad libs are scripted. / Like you’re never wrong. / Try running a 10k in my teeth. / Go drown your lawn” (88). But sometimes the language downright slips into abstraction and sentimentality, as in “Love lusted for Itself, pent up inside the prison of the heart”. The poems are formally diverse, but as often as individual pieces feel well-formed, the whole ends up feeling purposelessly diverse and perhaps unprofitably too long.

These poems as independent units are not Steven’s poems that “resist the intelligence almost successfully,” but rather they are, to use the controversial term, accessible. That may be part of the poet’s “street sage” mission, as Klipschutz has been in the news for such public displays of poetry as reading poems to taxi cab passengers. Like most choices, though, this one to be a sort of self-proclaimed laureate of San Francisco carries a price, the price of coming across as watering down the poetry to make it easier to understand. The flipside is that it is a poetry that is approachable, that invites a broader audience than stuffy, draconian reviewers like me, a poetry that laughs and shudders, reminisces and opines. It’s a poetry that swallows history into its eternal present, the speaker’s consummate offering to the reader.

Bill Neumire‘s reviews regularly appear in Vallum, and his poems have recently appeared in American Poetry Journal, Istanbul Review, and The Laurel Review. His first book of poems, Estrus, was published last year. He lives in New York with his wife and two daughters.

This review was published in issue 11:1 Thresholds. To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

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