Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-60235-585-9
reviewed by Nathaniel A. Schmidt
Augustinian hermeneutics dictate that all language, life, and existence signify to some extent the reality of God’s being; that despite human limitation and perversion, the almost cliché “thumbprint of God” can be witnessed throughout the world with careful discernment. It professes that the heavens truly do “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). A simple understanding of this philosophy might presume that one merely needs an open eye to encounter the divine, revelation an inevitable end, but even a rudimentary observation of our world refutes such a narrow perspective on Augustine. Things remain unnoticed. We do not see God everywhere. Furthermore, Christian doctrine dictates that humanity is limited and fallen. We cannot comprehend all while possessing a propensity for deception and error. Thus, our very existence necessitates a prophet, a truth-teller, who speaks corrective words that diagnose, heal, and restore our perception of the world. However, this prophet is also human, and therefore just as susceptible to misinterpretation as those to whom he speaks. How then can we discover true significance in a predicament so full of quagmires? Can we find hope and meaning in a world where epistemology fails?
The poetry of L.S. Klatt preoccupies itself with these questions, compelling its readers to wonder about the nature of truth as we strive to construct meaning in our lives. We see this in Klatt’s first collection, where after describing Darwinian evolution in his poem “Blunders,” using the language, tone, and verse-numeration of Genesis, the poet questions “How then do we prophecy?” In Klatt’s third and newest book, Sunshine Wound, this question grows in intensity, not a facetious spiral into despair or sophistry, but a genuine petition to language, humanity, and God for revelation. In this quest, Klatt’s syntax borders on the absurd. “My eyes are on the see-through cows standing in a petticoat of moonshine” (Night, Idaho, Faraway Meadow) and “This is a good day. No 8, with her honeysuckle / machine gun, has mowed down the avalanche” (No 8 Strafes the White-Out). Though these lines strike us as incredibly bizarre, by intentionally working with elastic and opaque imagery, Klatt’s poems suggest to our imaginations the validity of the Christian mythos. His work operates from the principle that if truth does exist, no matter how elusive, then it can be found. He demands something of the word (Word?), thereby granting his verse vivacity.
Sunshine Wound’s epigram from Emily Dickinson frames expertly the collection’s ethos: “not admitting of the wound/ until it grew so wide…”. The poems both imaginatively and empirically demand their audience confront the darker, more painful, attributes of life (Suicide, self-righteousness, exploitation, greed) until, desiring some respite, we recall another of Emily Dickinson’s maxims to “dwell in possibility.” In their particular situations, the poems suggest various options: light as viable as dark, life as real as death. Such possibilities allow the verses to grow from clinical observations into prophetic injunctions. Poems like “The Hydrangea,” which sees a dying woman reflect on her youth while being compared to a wilting plant beside her hospital bed, and “The Physician,” a wild lyric juxtaposing the trauma of an aneurism with a curious fox seeking “the blank check / of the prescription pad,” simultaneously affirm the tangible pain of death and the beautiful perception of life, making the heart groan to see these two realities brought into harmony. The emotional impacts of these poems stimulate our imaginations and prod the mind to discover fresh, redemptive, possibilities.
The poems themselves are hardly dogmatic, for so strange is their language, that though they are incredibly self-aware, none would criticize them for being preachy. The collection’s first poem, “Intrepid Pilot,” proves a legend for Klatt’s poetic. Utilizing a highly-referential style (lovers of Eliot and Pound will be comfortable here), Klatt opens with the words “Dear Stranger,” mirroring Charlotte Bronte’s famous “Dear Reader” from the final chapter of Jane Eyre. Whereas Bronte’s direct address reflects familiarity, acknowledging a persistent companion through her narrator’s sufferings, joys, and ultimate satisfaction, Klatt’s “stranger” professes a stark lack of knowledge regarding his readers. He knows almost nothing of us, and we know almost nothing of him, and yet, despite this alien quality, Klatt speaks to us. Remembering the title, we are not two ships passing in the night, but pilots hailing each other. Though bound by the laws of nature, we wield a power to direct our existence, and thus while we undertake our journeys through life, Klatt’s words encourage us to be “intrepid,” to adventure further into what we encounter. Unlike Bronte, whose readers are familiar with Jane Eyre’s particular odyssey by the end of her book, we are unaware of whom or what we will meet in Sunshine Wound. Thus, Klatt calls us as “stranger” and provides guidance for the various circumstances we might encounter in our time together.
Despite the discrepancy between their works, these two writers, like their vocabulary, are not completely dissimilar. As we move through “Intrepid Pilot,” we realize that both demonstrate steps that lead to a place of community, harmony, and peace. Neither narrator is lost, both having found a personal type of home. Dwelling in possibility, Klatt advises on how to find this home with a hypothetical:
If a lark chased by birdshot
seeks asylum where things are hidden, go
to it with armloads of chameleons &
Klatt revels in making strange the familiar, and familiar, the strange. Here we encounter a lark (itself a type of pilot) fleeing from a hunter’s birdshot. Like this bird, we are naïve about death (the wages of sin from a Christian perspective) and are afraid it might crash into our lives like birdshot. Seeking salvation, the lark then takes to the sky, revealing a latent hope that something, somewhere, hidden, mysterious, will provide both peace and sanctuary. Klatt’s word for sanctuary, “asylum,” proves incredibly telling. The fear of death that can drive one person to sanctuary can drive another insane. This renders the poem’s setting anxious, the lark’s separation from its exaltation (the extremely significant name for a group of larks) leading the creature into birdshot just as easily as refuge.
Now if we encounter such a situation, Klatt advises we
to it with an armload of chameleons &
Not exactly the council we expected to hear. Like the lark, these creatures are intensely metaphoric. The lark seeks asylum where things are hidden, believing there is a special place where life can be kept safe. Instead of producing a map to some safe-haven, Klatt presents a creature that can hide itself, the chameleon, and one that encases itself in armor, the armadillo. For the lark to find refuge, it must first learn to be like the chameleon, present but unseen, or the armadillo, slow-moving but steadfast. With death closing in, presumably the lark, and by association we as humans, do not desire Klatt’s generous “armload” of animals. We desire something more pragmatic than foreign creatures (or the bizarre verse that conveys them), and yet, by accepting these creatures and their lessons, a lifetime of sanctuary, not momentary shelter, can be found according to Klatt.
To experience this peace, however, the lark must be transfigured, converted, from one type of creature into another. For such evolution to occur, an outside entity must remake the lark, rebirthing it into a chameleon or armadillo. Thus, we move to a baptismal image:
And if, in the flooded glades
of the Orinoco, you discover a woman
bathing a panther with lilac oils, go to her.
Transported to a climate as strange to the lark as the chameleon or armadillo, we witness another animal, a panther, not under human threat, but human care. A woman, who does not hide her whereabouts to bathe an animal in blood, enters the panther’s presence to wash this hunter with water and perfume. This image resonates with Isaiah 11:6’s “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” and its famous paraphrase, the “lion shall lie down with the lamb.” The woman’s actions are both nurturing and preparatory, intimating for the panther not a violent, but luxurious, existence. A life more tranquil and plentiful than what it (and definitely the lark) could have imagined awaits this creature, if it but permits the woman to do her work. Thus, Klatt recommends we go to this woman (Mother Church? Klatt’s second collection Cloud of Ink mentions the “female Christ”). While seeking shelter, if we “discover” a person who will take us out of our violent climate, and prepare us for some sort of peaceful valley, Klatt encourages us to be “intrepid.” We should show no fear and go to this woman. Her subtly erotic nature reinforces this idea. She enraptures us, and we should enjoy her embrace, submitting our very bodies to her.
In this environment, altogether different from where we first encountered the lark
if you eavesdrop on certain light
bearing insects, take a bicycle that will wheel
you into dark space.
Notice the word “eavesdrop.” These are words intended for others, overheard. Upon recalling the “Dear Strangers” from Klatt’s opening line, we realize we are the eavesdroppers encouraged to listen and respond despite our alien-ness. Despite the subjectivity of interpretation, words can maintain their relevance even when their audience changes, a subtle endorsement for objective truth. Following the poem’s syntax to the line-break, we learn what makes this possible, a “certain light:” a particular, assured, revelation. This illuminating essence, either spoken directly or overheard “slant” (in the words of Emily Dickinson), is what an Augustinian hermeneutic would call God, and more specifically, the Holy Spirit. Language’s revelatory characteristic enables this possibility for divinity.
On our journey through the poem, however, we do not encounter this light in its purest form. Instead, it is carried within an insect; a miniscule creature often deemed a pest, plague, or harbinger of disease. If light does denote the infinite divine, then scale alone permits us to interpret the insect as humanity, again referenced in bestial vocabulary like lark or panther. When considering humanity, we often can see ourselves as unwelcome and invasive neighbors, gluttonously, mindlessly, eating through house and home, and bringing death at our worst. Reflection on our race’s history should repulse us like a roach afraid of the light, bringing to mind T.S. Eliot’s famous quote from Burnt Norton: “human kind / cannot bear very much reality.” Like the lark fleeing birdshot, we try to hide from our situation, and, unexpectedly, Klatt encourages us to do so, urging us to utilize the inventions of our age by “tak[ing] a bicycle that will wheel / you into dark space.” It is good to experience the dark night of the soul for, by bearing even a sliver of reality before turning away, we gain knowledge of what is real, perhaps only by its absence. Our lives become more truthful. Yes, we can choose to remain in this darkness, but if we continue to grind the gears of our metaphysical bicycle, the machine that brought us here, then like a wheel this process will revolve, re-evolving us into a different creatures altogether. The lark can become a chameleon in the dark, hidden, places of the soul.
Acknowledging the Christological ramifications of this image (the Truth, Light, incarnated in a limited being), we realize we too are “light bearing insects,” tiny creatures housing an illuminating truth. In theological terms, this is the imago dei, the image of God. Like fireflies, we must not forget this truth, lest we dwell in darkness forever. Indeed, the poem continues to say we “must not / blot out, but rather imagine.” Klatt comments on how we often use our perception to darken what was once illumined. He calls us not to erase, but instead preserve, the light’s existence though our mind’s creative powers. One thinks of C.S. Lewis’s “baptized imagination.” Our imagined reality affects how we perceive the physical. We keep the light by imagining a world in which it exists, actions preventing the light from being blotted out. Internally perceiving a light enables us to behold it outside of ourselves.
To help preserve the light, Klatt instructs us to imagine “your cloak is a lifeboat.” Klatt is no Gnostic, rejecting the body for intellectual enlightenment, for immediately after commenting on the power of imagination, he endorses the body. We must imagine our “cloak,” what covers us, our flesh, is the vessel that transports us and protects us from the elements (darkness, blindness, birdshot, etc). It harbors the mind and its imagination, and can lead us down the Orinoco to the lady by its shore. As intrepid pilots, this vessel conveys us to safety and delivers us unto salvation. Through the flesh’s desire for sanctuary, we discover the lark’s hidden place existing already within us. Therefore, Klatt concludes,
Into midnight then fall backward
because, weightless there, you phosphoresce
in a slipstream of transit.
Like an ancient jeremiad, the poem advises we turn back into our soul’s hidden space, for here burdens will fall off, and weightless, we will be transformed into light, unbound from the animal; the lark free to travel where it may. Salvation is achieved by seeking after revelation.
Tragically, both in life and in this collection, not everyone beholds this light. Flames extinguish routinely. Throughout Sunshine Wound, various “larks” misperceive their condition and blot out their imagination, seeking “hidden places” that do not save them from death. Utilizing his avant-garde style, Klatt resonates with Dylan Thomas’s “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” His words, perhaps as strange as cherubim fire, stimulate our imaginations to discover the light. “Sanctuary,” the collection’s second poem, witnesses a man encounter a burning bush. Upon realizing a “Ulysses S. Grant is folded / in my wallet,” he turns “intrepidly into thicket; / for U.S has engulfed me / but not consumed me.” Though surrounded by American culture and its distractions, identified here by its pragmatic, war-hero-emblazoned currency, the consumer is not consumed. The poet finds another light to live by. He goes to the burning bush’s thicket, and not the marketplace of the world.
Intimating Moses’s “Let my people go,” Klatt speaks into situations consumed by darkness throughout Sunshine Wound, literally applying with his lexicon color to places devoid of light. The poem “St. Francis” sees the evangelist conclude after meditating before a sermon that “there is always / the chance of a blue sky.” This “blue” sky, situated between the sun’s intensity and the night’s bleakness, becomes highly significant for Klatt. It becomes “a moral color.” Like Mary’s robes, it provides a glimpse of hope to a world suspended between heaven and hell. This blue imagery proves instrumental in one of Sunshine Wound’s most powerful poems, “The Interpreter,” a retelling of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Set in a Neanderthal’s cavern, the caveman’s existence is “insipid & flavorless,” predominantly because of his “forgone conclusion” (death?). Even his prehistoric paintings lack vigor because “Blue is not present to him.” As the poem identifies, the reason for this is “He does not yet dream,” his imagination stuck within his skull’s shadows. However, all is not hopeless, despite the Neanderthal’s bleak, myopic, vision. While he does not yet dream, there is the chance he might someday. Within the context of Plato’s allegory of the cave, the caveman can be freed from his colorless existence to learn how to paint with blue, a transfiguring, evolving, experience that can alter his worldview like a lark into a chameleon.
Klatt himself does not put himself beyond this need for transfiguration. Until this point, one could read Klatt as somewhat judgmental and self-righteous, but in the poem “Blowing My Horn,” we see Klatt following his own advice, turning introspective. “It was a time when Jesus wanted me to be more / than Little Boy Blue” he begins. Though good for “The Interpreter”’s caveman to dream in color, simply musing on blue keeps him a monochromatic child, shades of grey simply exchanged for a different hue. He still requires more growth to abandon the cave of his foregone conclusions. Klatt identifies himself with this unconscious caveman and his insipid and flavorless existence, saying,
I had an unfortunate middle-of-the-road
attitude that led me to sleepwalk
with an ax. A history
The caveman’s past is Klatt’s past, and thus both men require the same antidote. Klatt is aware of the color blue, and therefore is more developed than the Neanderthal, but like so many Christians, he becomes content with a simple understanding of the truth. He even celebrates himself by “Blowing” his own “horn.” (do not dismiss the fellatio imagery here, Klatt’s title a self-condemning jeremiad against the indulgently narcissistic behavior within the evangelical movement). This situation leaves the poet in just as much darkness as the caveman. Despite this situation, and because “Jesus wanted me to be more,” the poet beholds “a blur, the face of Christ, as I milked/ my horn.” Notice the name change. We first encountered the second person of the trinity by his personal name, Jesus, but after the poet goes astray, he appears to his suckling child under his messianic title, Christ. A savior, not a friend, is needed. Klatt comments on this situation by stating that both he and Christ were “– less moonbeam / than haymaker where the sun don’t shine.” In one sense, the lines reflect the poet’s current situation. His evangelical trumpet blowing does not shine light into the dark night of the soul, but brow-beats those whom, like himself, are in darkness. This accomplishes nothing. Inversely, the face of Christ is not the image of a mystical, comical, man in the moon, but of a potent farmer who comes down to work in the fields: one who makes “hay,” a food source, before the sun rises. Klatt acknowledges how he has not been radically, down to his roots, converted. He is interested only in the veneer, the blue paint, of faith, not genuine transformation. The Christ he sees, however, is a farmer who works in ground. The sun has not yet risen, but this does not prevent someone from preparing Klatt’s soil for the harvest. Klatt responds, desiring to be more than “Little Boy Blue,” by going “around the world in a combine / looking for Jesus.” Though he still searches the world, seeking him who came out of the ground, the poet has woken from his sleepwalk with an ax, the caveman’s foregone conclusion, to work in the fields, hoping to see a harvest. He continues his journey, the “slipstream of transit.”
Ultimately, Sunshine Wound challenges us to constantly seek after the light, until all the prism’s colors reveal themselves to us. Believing this action begins in the imagination, Klatt incarnates his ethic by stimulating our own imaginations with images both strange and bizarre. As we continue to entertain the possibility that Klatt’s language signifies meaning, that it is not nonsense, but instead a strange sense, a new sense, we realize that his words do what Augustine says all creation does: point to the Divine. Thus the collection ends with a “Magnificat,” a glorification of God, complete with “tigers, Maker’s / Mark,” and “ultraviolet stripes.” Sunshine Wound’s journey is a wild as Dante and as rewarding as Eliot, and I believe is, as a cohesive unit, L.S. Klatt’s most impressive work to date. For those desiring a challenge to their faith and what they think is possible with poetry, the avant-garde verse of L.S. Klatt will certainly reward.