Scenes from Rapid City

No matter how cold it gets outside, the lecture room on Rosenwald’s fourth floor exudes warmth. Sofas lean against wood-paneled walls, and the light is always soft and welcoming. Outside, the hallway is lit by halogen, and the bright white walls always seem strange and austere. Before his reading last Thursday, poet August Kleinzahler paced the bright hallway, while his audience–mostly students and faculty in the University of Chicago English Department, who chattered about their current work, or lack thereof–waited for him to begin.

Professor Robert von Hallberg introduced Kleinzahler, whom he fondly called “Augie.” He read the titles of the Kleinzahler books he owns personally: eleven evocative names like “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City” and “Red Sauce, Whiskey & Snow.” Von Hallberg noted Kleinzahler’s use of strange chemical names in his work–the titles of drugs we take trip weirdly from our tongues, and create a sense of the bizarre, even in the vernacular poetry for which Kleinzahler has become known. He’s been writing for decades, following in the exuberant yet wry footsteps of the post-Beat Generation poets, publishing both the sarcastic and the sincere.

In the reading, the crowd sat silent as Kleinzahler’s strong voice echoed across the rows. The strange became familiar, and the familiar strange. The poem “Retard Spoilage” features a couple sleeping even as the long, arch list of food in their refrigerator rots away: “mephitic flora” in a “fetor of broken proteins.” But Kleinzahler is not just darkly whimsical–his poems can travel far away to reach something that seems close. “Sleeping it off in Rapid City,” the title poem in a recent retrospective collection, details the big and the small of the city where the U.S. used to house their missile defense operations. “There are all these empty silos everywhere,” he explained. “It’s a weird town.” He began the poem, and after detailing the contents of trucks passing through the city–“toothpaste, wheels of Muenster, rapeseed oil”–Kleinzahler paused to explain that Rapid City claims to be thirty miles south of the center of America (including Alaska, but not Hawaii).

Originally from New Jersey, Kleinzahler now resides in San Francisco, and his poetry reflects the whole span of America, whatever that still manages to be. His repertoire is broad. He read a poem describing his aging mother and her house in January, but also an ode to the twenty- and thirtysomethings getting on the black corporate bus bound for the Googleplex (he extols their interest in the Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, and hoodies). It is the delicate balance that persists–between the warmth of the lecture hall and the austere hallways, and between the edges of America and its weird, uncertain center.