Cloud of InkBy L.S. Klatt University of Iowa Press, 2011
Review by Les Hunter
It’s possible that the best way to describe L.S. Klatt’s illusory Cloud of Ink is by talking around it. Stephen Burt’s admonition in Close Calls with Nonsense to “look for a persona and a world, not for an argument or a plot” may be sound advice when reading this dense book. Like Burt’s description of “elliptical” poetry, these poems are difficult and tell “almost stories,” whose linguistic turns and repetition of words invites a reading of a certain kind of plot, albeit one made up more of word association than of a traditional pattern of events.
Take “Liquefaction” for instance: “I found an octopus in the snow” confused, the narrator “gutted it as if a hunter” only to have its ink cover his hands “like opera gloves in the moonlight” which, in an instant, leads the narrator to an orchestra pit where, “As the house lights came down, the audience lost their places. / They were swimming in a maelstrom of inklings.” The narrative of this poem, as in others in Cloud of Ink, attaches itself to words and their ability to be used to set different scenes. The sense is constructed through the words’ various meanings and figurative usage. In “Liquefication,” the narrator’s “opera gloves” made of ink, reposition him from a field to an opera house, where, in turn, the lights go out, leaving the audience in the poem both physically and mentally in the dark. In these murky clouds of ink, words, not people, are the protagonists. Their adaptability in performing various parts on diverse stages offers only an inkling of a traditional narrative. These poems are plays, specifically plays on words.
The result of these quick changing juxtapositions border at times on the surreal; nonetheless, the tone of many of these short poems manages to maintain a quiet, almost folksy Midwestern stoicism. We see both these seemingly incongruous strains in, “Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91” where:
A weathered barn on a hilltop; a nude woman sprawled on the slope below.
A giant squid rises out of a hayfield, & the barn is compassed in tentacles then a cloud of ink.
Unlike a more traditional strain of surrealism, as seen in say, Buñuel’s films, where the unnatural is heightened through its association with the quotidian, Klatt’s surreal tendencies comes out of a choice of topics to pursue. Here, instead of focusing on the monstrosity engulfing the scene, the poem concentrates on a detail: “A man with fountain pen in his hand / & a pitchfork / in his back / walks the cow-path around the barn.” Despite the fact that the man has a pitchfork in his back, his nonplussed amble is less notable than the rise of a giant squid on the horizon. Whether it’s the man walking down the path, or a cockroach caught in an empty teacup while a woman commits suicide in an adjacent room, these poems glorify the background; they focus on the subplot.
This kind of off-center perspective is no surprise to those familiar with Klatt. Things have changed and they have not since his last book, Interloper, in which the poet shows a penchant for pictographic quirkiness, literary and historical allusions, and a breezy joy for the sound of words, as in his poem, “Provincetown”: “Yokefellow how steep our swoop / what coastline what distance?” While the more mature poems in Cloud of Ink still foray into word play, they no longer contain the pictographic hangmen, price tags, and magic eight balls of his first collection. They also still show some of the same word-shifting narrative composition, as well as a persistent interest in Emerson, ampersands, and flight.
In Cloud of Ink, add to this somewhat random list another interest: liquid. These are poems alive with ever-changing images that bleed into each other. The result can be confusing, though it also serves as a productive font of creativity, as the author himself admits in his final poem, “For Lack of a Better Word,” by saying, “If you could speak plainly / out in the open / you would never paint your tongue.” This poem serves as a kind of perverse ars poetica, in which the poet divulges his aversion to speaking plainly, instead opting for a painted tongue: a resistance to easy reading created through stories that are not-quite stories with dense language and shifting imagery. These hemorrhaging images indeed keep the reader on his toes. In one poem, the sun becomes a baseball that illuminates the joy and misery of the inconsequentialities of daily rituals, while in another, an aimless canoe adrift in the cosmos of a pond is reimagined in its original state: a straight birch, narrow and “made swift.” Both of these images demonstrate how Klatt pictures the physical world as a stand-in for the self, world-weary and resigned, but not without curiosity and an active imagination.
The collection of images in Could of Ink seamlessly merge, combine and disintegrate not only within the poems, but between the poems as well, with small-winged insects from one poem managing to flit their way into the next, giving the overall shape of the book a well curated feel. Their persistence is curious; it is as if these winged creatures, ever-conspiring, want to tell the reader something, and while it is not always clear what it is that they say, that doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to listen.
L. S. Klatt teaches American literature and creative writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His poems have appeared in such journals as the Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Notre Dame Review, Chicago Review, FIELD, Cincinnati Review, jubilat, Colorado Review, the Iowa Review, Eleven Eleven, and Verse. His first book, Interloper, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry.
Les Hunter has an MFA from Boston University and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in 20th century American literature at Stony Brook University. He has recent work published in American Theatre Magazine and Comparative Drama as well as a play, Cyrano de Bergen County, New Jersey, published by Playscripts. His plays have received over twenty-five productions, mostly in New York City, where he lives with Spike, Jr., a barrel cactus.