‘The Talking Day’ by Michael Klein
“Kevin was dead. I was alive.”
Michael Klein’s new poetry collection, The Talking Day, begins with a dedication to the poet Adrienne Rich, who died in 2012; the subsequent poems discuss the death of the poet’s grandmother, mother, twin brother, friend, and beloved dog, as well as the unnamed victims of AIDS and a mass shooting in upstate New York. Along the way, the poet meditates on his own mortality via signs of his physical deterioration: a numbness in his hand, a “sparking pain” in his knee, an unidentified “clicking thing” that he discovers in his body during a yoga class.
In its preoccupation with life and death, The Talking Day poses simple, yet profound questions. How do we reconcile our past lives with our present life? How do we cope with the inevitable process of aging? How do we go on living after the people we love die? How do we live when we know we are going to die? And per the book’s two most recurrent phrases: How do we make sense of “the body” and “the world”?
In the title poem, Klein reflects on a mass shooting at an immigration center in upstate New York, where two of his friends live. The titular phase comes from a “talking day” that occurred after the 2007 mass shootings at Virginia Tech. No one quite grasps the reality of the situation, and everyone spends that first day talking about what happened and reliving it as language—not so much to understand the violence, but to make a kind of recording of it: talking about it, letting go of it, putting it down. Read literally, the process should be familiar to millions of Americans who participated in the national “talking days” after the recent Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing. Read metaphorically, the “talking day” describes the modus operandi of Klein’s poetry.
For Klein, mortality is not a new subject. In 1989, he edited the anthology Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS. His first book of poetry, 1990, also deals with the AIDS crisis; his 2009 book, then, we were still living, reflects on the September 11 terror attacks; his contribution to a 2012 anthology, Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on Their Muses, honors the late musician Laura Nyro. “When Laura Nyro died [in 1997],” Klein wrote, “I was teaching people who’d never heard of her or seen her take the stage and walk to a piano in a black prom dress the way I had seen her so many years before at Fillmore East or Carnegie Hall when the world could still give a troubadour a troubadour’s life.” A similar spirit of wistful nostalgia permeates the poems in The Talking Day.
The poems are most poignant when Klein writes about specific people and concrete events. In “Drinking money,” he recounts how he sold his mother’s autographed photograph of Lorenzo Hart—a gift from the composer—to fuel his alcohol addiction, a subject he has addressed in his memoirs. The poem concludes: “In the museum/of saddest things I’ve ever done that could have been the/saddest. It felt like I was making fun of beauty.” Here, the sin is threefold: addiction, filial impiety, and aesthetic disregard. In “The sun in 1949,” he recounts an evening when his 17-year-old mother and 30-something grandmother battle each other for the attention of a teenage boy at a bar on Fire Island. Written in tercets that reinforce the “love” triangle, the poem turns tragic when Klein links the episode to his grandmother’s suicide. And in one of several poems that refer to his brother’s death, Klein writes: “Kevin was dead. I was alive. When I was a twin, Kevin/was alive.” Such simple and stark lines should resonate with anyone who has ever experienced loss.
Not every aspect of the poetry reaches the same kind of depth. For example, Klein has a fondness cultural references to popular artists (Van Gogh, Matisse), movies (Citizen Kane, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and poets (Rilke, Yeats), and for a poet that works in deceptive simplicity and sudden insight, these allusions frequently seem like shorthand for ideas he might have explored with more originality.
But for pretty much all of this collection, you will love ruminating with the poet. And while much of the it is elegiac and melancholy, it ends on a note of hope. The final poem (“Image results from the sky”) recounts a bizarre, beautiful beach fantasy dream of sex and poetry in which the poet loses track of his lover; when the poet awakens, his lover declares: “I will always be there, behind the tree looking/out for you.” The cure for existential dread, it seems, is nothing more—and nothing less—than love.