October 14, 2015KR OnlineReview

On Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy by Joanna Klink

New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2015. 65 pages. $20.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

In a time where clicks, likes, and retweets are so often the most influential, if not primary, mode of disseminating and gaining attention for published poetry, poets absent from social media can escape notoriety. The self-promotional abilities of those more plugged in have begun to create a climate in which the online presence of the poet is perhaps more important than the poems in shaping the poet’s public figure. Because of this, some of our best midcareer poets sans Facebook or Twitter accounts—Quan Barry, Rosanna Warren, Joanna Klink, for instance—don’t receive the attention or dispersal that their work deserves. The latter of these poets, Klink, despite her prominent teaching position and significant publications, remains less of a public figure than many other poets with her accomplishments. But abstaining from social media certainly isn’t the only reason, as her work in itself has a distinct hermetic quality.

I attribute much of this to her love for, and work on, Paul Celan, a poet whose influence is glaring in the kenning-like compound language that runs throughout Klink’s books. In her most recent collection, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, she yokes together words with a seeming desperation to make sense of solitude, to touch something untouchable. “Island-home,” “ice-white,” “night-flying,” “mineral-lustral,” “pulling-away,” are all present. Also “razor-pressure,” “blood-loved,” “grass-chill,” “flute-dusk,” “flood-dark,” “green-wet,” “half-damp,” “gill-soaked,” “night-trees,” “galaxy-quiet,” “dark-sunned,” “skeleton-sound,” “spring-gray,” “seed-stars,” “hive-in-ivory,” “road-dusted,” “sting-of-salt,” “most-alone-place,” “dust-mooded,” “lead-lights,” “moth-dust,” “breath-task,” “what-you-want,” “homeward-coursed,” “depth-of-warmth,” “land-in-flame,” “night-slowed,” “half-locked.” These almost-kennings bare an inadequacy of language to access experience, especially the experience of isolation. Often accompanying a line break, Klink makes the words’ connectivity, and disjunction, even more apparent, as in this passage from “The Graves”:

        For the dawn-

emotion, a calm-in-vastness
that descends upon
what is. Upon the storm-

        tangle of branches, wing-
        veins and hand-veins
        shadow-shown on that pale

skin of sky.

Such lines seem to enact both a leaning toward and a leaning away from language, from the world. It is as if each word is either half of something—incomplete and awaiting its completion with the next word she fastens to it—or too much—holding an excess of meaning, flooding the boundaries of the solitary word. And this is fitting for the collection, with poems that make a landscape of solitude (or, perhaps, make of solitude a landscape). This book inhabits a liminal space, a space of transition. Language, being a social construct, breaks down when removed from the social realm.

And so follows hermeticism, so often now a dirty word in poetry, yet evoked without that negative connotation here. Traditionally linked to Symbolism, where sound is often just as privileged as meaning in the deliberate rarefication of language, as well as metaphysical poets such as Marvell, Herbert, and Donne in the sense of a hermetic world being a unified world, one linked with the celestial and heavenly bodies, hermeticism is now often associated with Celan, whose poems have been said to be markedly difficult to understand without knowledge of the poet’s personal life and historical moment. This is surely a marker of Klink’s older work, and is present in this new book as well in passages that seem to have far more resonance to the poet than to the reader. Strangely, though, the subject of solitude lends itself, in her hands, toward a more direct, inclusive discourse. Solitude becomes a place the poems almost settle into, more sure-footed and self-aware, which makes them all the more affecting. In the first poem, “Elemental,” the speaker relates a kind of cataloguing of disappointment, of faulty advice and an inadequacy in preparation for heartbreak:

Also I brought what I had learned of love,
an air of swift entrance and exit, a belief in trouble
and desire. It will amount to something
I was told, and I was told to hold fast to decency,
to be spotlit and confident. I was told
next year’s words await another voice.
But you are a hard mouth to speak to
and if I write the list it will be free of constancy.

Here, the bleakness comes from a difficulty to speak toward, or believe in, a future voice, mouth, or self. Later, the poem turns from received advice to assert the speaker’s own doubts: “I don’t look to the robins for solace; neither do I trust / that to make an end is to make a beginning.” This is a speaker weary of platitudes, weary and guilty of “a sleep that permits / utter oblivion from our stranded century.”

The canny gesture outward is necessary in a book that could, in the hands of a lesser poet, lapse into self-pity or uninspired vitriol. But, thankfully, she knows to examine the very specific point of view and privilege of a private solitude versus social isolation. And, in a poem like “The Blizzard,” (which I have loved since it came across my desk at the Sycamore Review) this acknowledgement is frank and bold. The poem begins with a wide shot of a town, in the depths of a winter storm, with two deer in the crosswalk. “Who kept watch over their confusion,” the poem asks. “Who saw the snow vanish / before touching the ground.” The poem then turns from what might seem to be a fairly oblique question-as-statement, untethered address to a startling, and damning, stanza:

Who kept watch when
having not fed its own
    people the town
turned ice-white

The general nod toward hunger materializes with “a man in a cotton jacket / awake under / wet squares of cardboard.” Klink doesn’t stop here, where the poem might seem didactic and obvious, but turns again, this time toward the I-cloaked-as-you, which allows the self to be both exposed and castigated, yet never in the now-popular, expected sense of self-flagellating guilt and confession that seem too easily realized in many poems.

Scarce living in the town that
now skims
    the lake of your
privacy where in summer you loll
on the slats of the jetty

And the long summer dusk
    your feet kicking up waves
A water now fully rock

Klink skillfully navigates us from the homeless man exposed to the harsh elements to an image of a privileged summertime laziness. This self-aware move pivots on the idea of the town that almost seems to be encroaching upon the speaker’s privacy, her inner world, one that might be otherwise shielded from such images of poverty. For the image becomes self-reflexive in what the speaker knows is a problematic way. She chastises herself:

You asked
to live among others
and here you are

A snowflake is unlike a night-flying moth
The cabin by the lake is a shelter
    for your limbs
which are constantly warm

The very human, perhaps humanitarian, impulse to liken disparate worlds and situations is interrogated and the speaker’s own relative safety, both from the blizzard and from the threat of hunger, admitted. In the midst of poems entrenched in such emotionally bleak landscapes, this summer memory, this constant warmth—a moment that would normally appear to be light—doesn’t seem comforting, as it exposes, in a social realm, an antisocial being. The cabin does not shelter the speaker’s self, but “your limbs.” It is a bodily shelter that cannot guard against emotional hardship. The speaker seems to regret finding herself among other people and wishes to escape.

Klink’s awareness of operating within a social contract, one in which a person should presumably feel guilt at her own privileged position not only to find physical comfort in inclement weather but also to enjoy a summer solitude, is especially effective in its lack of apology. The speaker is implicated in having asked to live “among others” and returned unsatisfied. This antisocial quality is one writers might empathize with, as solitude seems an elusive and increasingly rare state. Yet with many turns toward the social in contemporary poetry—both in distribution and subject—it may be déclassé to hone in on a personal solitude. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Joanna Klink remains less popular than her some of her peers. The world—a world of war, disease, and oil spills—is filtered through the self. And the self—in the tragic loneliness of this excellent book—is what one is left with.

Corey Van Landingham
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote. A recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, she is currently a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review.