Reviewed By Molly Spencer
- University of Chicago Press (2015)
- 64 pages
I think of a book of poems as a kind of seduction, the poet enticing a reader to come inside their book, to move through portals and down pathways that individual poems reveal, and to arrive, eventually, in a world built of the way the poems combine. There are many ways to seduce a reader: arresting language and image, an irresistible speaker, a compelling narrative, a fervor for justice. Nate Klug’s Anyone is a seduction by way of small astonishments revealed by a mind in the act of observation and inquiry.
The seduction begins with the title: Anyone. There is enormous room to move in the non-specificity of the word, and the concept, of anyone. It lends a sense of spacious anonymity to the world these poems create. This sense of anonymity is enhanced by the fact that Klug has created a subtle speaker, one who does not impose himself on the poems. This is not to say we don’t sense the poet behind the poems—Klug’s mind and his way of perceiving the world are ever-present—but these modes of anonymity combine to make Anyone a book of invitation, not conscription, into the act of seeking.
Klug undertakes his investigations in spare, musical poems that claim a lineage in the classics (e.g., through translations of Catullus, Virgil, and Horace), but that are also rooted in the domestic, religious, and social realms of contemporary American life. His poems are small glimpses of a mind interrogating the world, itself, and at times, both, as in the opening poem, “Work,” which offers a map to the reader for navigating the book. In the motion of a saw moving through concrete, we begin to understand the author’s take on the work of inquiry: “every time / he thinks he knows // it closely enough… direction changes.” Later in the poem, the phrase “the need to keep // breaking what we make / to keep making” is both a comment on our world, and a description of the mind in the act of investigation.
Most often, Klug’s poems begin as small scenes that move into the realm of the philosophical. “Dusk in Jasper County” begins with four stanzas of description—“Silos and the animals slowing / almost stumbling / among their shadows”— before a turn in the last lines delivers the metaphysical concern behind the images: “your desire / sick for several lives / and each at once.” What might have been a pastoral, or the speaker’s memory of a particular landscape becomes a meditation on the self, the possible lives one might have had (those stumbling shadows), and the yearning for each possible life when all we have is one.
These are meditative poems, made so by Klug’s preference for short lines, spare language, and steady music. Subtle decisions of craft, such as point of view or verb tense, communicate stance and emotion. Much of what Klug’s work invites us to consider emerges as much from what is not said than what is. These traits are on display in “Advent,” a poem that marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the Christian tradition:
In the middle of December
to start over
to assume again
at the end
and then to keep
slow dirty sleet
within its streetlight
The poem’s near rhymes and assonance amplify each line, while the use of the infinitive quietly enacts the sense of possibility we feel at the beginnings of things. The ending image of “slow dirty sleet / within its streetlight” is countered by the tacit presence of all that is not illuminated; the darkness, though not explicitly addressed, makes itself felt at the edges of the poem. Each of these traits, here and elsewhere, make Klug’s small poems larger than they would be without this exacting attention to craft.
Throughout the collection, Klug engages his reader by distilling small moments of astonishment from everyday scenes. In “Conjugations,” he invites us into amazement at the array of forms existence can take, as the speaker observes people walking through a bare garden looking at the names of plants and trees, “each particular / ridiculous to be.” Later, in “Errand” we encounter “mid-May’s incessant blooming, / shedding, how each eyed thing / refuses sameness.” For Klug, one of the ways to probe the world, and existence itself is to be amazed by it.
Of its many strengths, perhaps the most important gesture of this book is to engage with the limitations of inquiry. “The Choice” contemplates the nature of faith: whether to “stand sometime / outside my faith // to steady it / caught and squirming on a stick” in order to name it, or to “keep waiting // to be claimed in it.” A meaningful faith requires both, of course—a willingness to examine and proclaim it, and a willingness to surrender to it—but these are fundamentally different stances: one is an intellectual posture, the other is a spiritual posture. In this and other poems in this collection, Klug signals his willingness to examine the bounds of intellectual inquiry. This, as well as occasional moments of humanity and humor, such as a translation of Catullus, “To Egnatius, Who Won’t Stop Smiling,” keep the book from becoming dry or taxing to the reader despite its intellectual thrust.
If there is anything missing from Anyone, it is the body, that blunt instrument by which we are so often pulled out of our minds and into the physical world. In fact, even when the body enters the book, it is not as a body experienced, but a body in thought. In “Trail” the speaker “could think only”:
of the trail down,
hidden by winter layers,
along your belly skin
so palpable in its distance
like this visibly writhing wind.
Certainly these poems are undertaken at something of a remove: they are the workings of a mind, and not re-enactments of experience.
The final seduction of Anyone arrives in the book’s last lines, in which Klug reaffirms that inquiry can go only so far. In “Observer,” he writes:
There has to be a kind of speech
beyond naming, or even praise,
that locates light and lets it go.
In that moment of letting go, Klug ends the book on a note of wonder and astonishment, and embraces a certain silence in the face of mystery. After observing a mind at work throughout the book, I find it rewarding that the book ends on this gesture, as if to say that while it’s necessary to interrogate the world and our lives—that locating of light—at some point we must stop thinking and live.
Molly Spencer’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, The Missouri Review poem-of-the-week web feature, New England Review, ZYZZYVA, and other journals. Her book reviews have appeared here and at The Rumpus.