reviewed by Simon Turner
The debut poetry collection no longer serves the same function it might once have done. Whereas before, a notable debut - Ted Hughes’ The Hawk in the Rain, for example - signalled the arrival of a major (and heretofore unknown) talent, the contemporary first collection represents the culmination of a slow drip-feed of perpetual emergence. Youthful poets no longer come out of nowhere fully formed. Rather, their apprenticeship occurs in public, with pamphlets, awards and editorial work doing much of the work a debut might traditionally have been expected to shoulder. The resulting debut, then, is less about promise and more about accomplishment.
Klaces’ own poetry is highly mutable and multi-vocal, collaborative in that it draws on a variety of sources, and shifts its perspective from the historical to the personal with remarkable ease and assurance
Caleb Klaces’ first full collection, Bottled Air, certainly fits this pattern. Some of the poems here first appeared in a pamphlet from Flarestack, and he is both the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, and found his way onto the Granta New Poets list, too. Before Bottled Air, however, I knew Klaces’ name chiefly for his work as the impresario behind Likestarlings, an experiment in collaborative writing that’s been gaining steadily in size and reputation. It’s an appropriate association, as Klaces’ own poetry is highly mutable and multi-vocal, collaborative in that it draws on a variety of sources, and shifts its perspective from the historical to the personal with remarkable ease and assurance.
Bottled Air opens with ‘Six Figurines’, which is prefaced with the plain statement: ‘Set in and around a home for orphaned and mentally and physically disabled children in Bulgaria.’ The sequence itself is no less plain-spoken, and is remarkable for its refusal to editorialise, to make moral heavy weather from its subject matter. The powerful conclusion to ‘Music’ is typical of Klaces’ tone here:
The nurses had told us classical music was calming for them. Let’s do that. Yes, this is what they want. This is great. Piano smoothing everything out, slowing everything down. Everything all of a piece now. Voices folding into the music, making a sort-of meaning. It doesn't matter what meaning. Look, she is with us now, together in the music. A different dizziness. All safe. All well. All light. If you popped us you'd be left with a single, immaculate shell of light. Please turn it off, the nurse says, the children are getting upset.
I love the ambiguity here as to what exactly is being deflated: the speaker's romantic spiritualism, or the nurses’ cold adherence to the material facts. Klaces’ control of his material here is very accomplished.
‘Beginning Again’, the second section of the collection, widens the focus to take in poems of travel and history, though coupled to a subdued (and highly self-aware) confessional streak, and it is this self-awareness that elevates Bottled Air above the level of apprentice work. If the starting points for these poems are familiar – the relationship between father and son, snapshots of jaunts overseas, engagements with art and history – Klaces treats these themes in unfamiliar ways. Arguably the strongest poem in this section – certainly the most disturbing – is ‘Cheering the relief boat’. It is also, I think, key to much of the remainder of the book, the hinge upon which Bottled Air swings. It is a species of ekphrastic poem, a response to a photograph by Frank Hurley from the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, also entitled ‘Cheering the Relief Boat’. The poem’s first half is an engagement with the image itself, but it foregoes the purely descriptive, which is a recurring problem of the ekphrastic poem, favouring a more oblique approach to its subject, creating instead a syntactically mobile, musical and darkly absurdist painting in language:
Limpets clamp. Marston weeps in hoosh smoke. The sea slaps itself. The tears loosen the bay. A football is in the air. Furs are loosened. Men aim with their insoles. Toes are white rocks. Lungs clamp. Hoosh hangs in the lungs. Marston hears the sea slap the boat. Marston cuts toward the boat in the bay. Shouts hang in the air. Spray shines Marston's skin. Marston is in the sea. Seals shine the rocks.
The poem’s second portion, meanwhile, is a species of footnote, but one shot through with moral and aesthetic ambiguity. Here, we learn that the poem’s originating image was doctored to become “a portrait of rescue” (it was actually taken on the day of Shackleton’s departure for South Georgia). Klaces, then, is interested both in the image’s gaps and fissures, and in the artist’s ambiguous relationship to tragedy or horror. The poem concludes with the speaker – a stand in for Klaces the poet – being told by a woman at the bus stop that she is planning to “throw herself into the road in front of the double-decker”. Rather than intervene, the speaker chooses instead to re-enact Schrödinger’s feline thought experiment: “Rather than talk her out of it, or wait and see, I turned around, walked away and didn’t look back. In my memory, she is always mid-jump, neither alive nor dead.”
The poem is a complex web of erasure and uncertainty: the photograph is not what it purports to be, and the artist’s relationship to his material (and the world around him) might at some level make him an amoral monster. This is difficult, unflinching stuff, and colours (deliberately, I would argue) much of what follows. Many other poems here take similar swerves from the expected tracks. ‘My line’ begins with a father and son’s shared memory, but uses that subject as a launch pad for the more complex subject of memory’s troublesome relationship with actuality (it is also, like ‘Cheering the relief boat’, a very successful experiment in form). ‘Sky, after all, meets nothing’, meanwhile, takes on the ‘foreign travels’ genre with aplomb, bringing an unsparing, ironically inflected imagination to proceedings.
Klaces’ refusal of the obvious comes to a head in Bottled Air’s concluding sequences, ‘Cats on Fire’ and ‘16 Airs’, which both provide an ambitious admixture of the confessional and the political. ‘16 Airs’, in particular, radically opens up Klaces’ palette in terms of style and subject, sustaining a restless, almost breathless narrative voice as it sweeps across continents and historical moments, absorbing T S Eliot, Thomas Browne and the archaeologist Aurel Stein (whose work in Central Asia underpins the sequence) along the way. If there is a complaint to be made here, it is that some of the clarity and control of the earlier pieces is surrendered, but it more than succeeds in capping a remarkable collection. One final note: Klaces’ footnotes are well worth reading in their own right, and include two poems and a host of other informational snippets. It would be unfortunate to skip them.Simon Turner was born in Birmingham in 1980, and has published two collections of poetry to date; his most recent, Difficult Second Album, appeared with Nine Arches in 2010. His poems have also featured (or are forthcoming) in a variety of publications, including Tears in the Fence, The Wolf and PN Review; and the anthologies Lung Jazz and Dear World and Everyone In It. With George Ttoouli, he co-edits the poetry blogzine Gists and Piths. He lives and works in Warwickshire.