MY MISSION WAS KINDNESS: Nick Demske on Union! by Ish Klein


Union!, Ish Klein, Canarium Books

**the quoted passages in this review were originally center justified**

With so much variation currently inhabiting the landscape of American poetry, it’s hard to believe a review which claims that one poet or another “stands out.” Part of this is surely due to the fact that every back cover blurb of every slim volume released now claims just that: “This poet stands out in the landscape of American poetry.” Wolf has been cried so many times, were there a poet to emerge who truly stood out among the others, we would have no idiom to express it in that’s not bankrupt. Perhaps, for this reason, the back of Ish Klein’s first book bares no text.

It’s not that the lines in Klein’s collection, Union!, couldn’t be found in any other poetry volume out today. They could be found in every volume. That’s what’s so remarkable about Union! As its title suggests, an equal representation is sought in the book’s pages. Union! was one of the first two titles published by Canarium books, a new press edited by four poets with four diverse experimental bents. But Klein’s experiment is a socialistic one. Her book can’t be pigeonholed into any one aesthetic or school. Nor does the reader get an immediate sense of Klein’s influences—or, at least, not her contemporary influences. However, with a deranged fervor coloring every page and, beyond that, a reckless sense of compassion, Klein resembles an updated Whitman in the best possible ways. Aside from the fervor and compassion, one of the ways in which it’s most obvious is in her employment of really common language. Even in the age of Flarf and other poetries designed to bring “non-poetic” language into poetry, Klein’s poems manage over and over to surprise a reader with their language. This may be because the informal, non-poetic language is always scattered in between regal declarations, the language of nature and lofty, righteous dictions, much easier to identify in the traditions of poetry:

“That I dream and that I am a dream and that without my love
my soul runs into the sun. Hey, wait for me! But no. it is a crazy mofo.”
(My love has left me, I have no home)

“I see you on the moon with your mirror

catching action on the parallax.
Some kind of wise guy.”
(An Institute is closing)

“The sun is like an omen.
The moon, a variable drip.
My heart is like a tire fire.
You who read this are like a beautiful drug.

And I LOVE drugs!”
(For You I Will Make Myself Useful)

This balance between harkening back to ancient gospel and conjuring contemporary informalities is just one of the dualities characteristic of Union!’s whole. The book teeters between lyric:

“One in Dust begun.

One chased out to perceptivity from mum.

This made an in as such that could close

over after outreach which comes back with something to say.”
(Where Everything Waits)

and narrative:

“I’m up in the ducts. Ventilation, I guess.
Listen to the tinny way
it makes sound the things I say.
Plus it’s like a catacomb in here.
Skeletons wearing berets,
two clutching each other
wearing floppy leather hats.”
(The Stuff of Gov’t)

This last excerpt, from “The Stuff of Gov’t” is part of a weird, dreamlike tale in which the speaker hunts down the president. While this may sound like the foundation of a high school rant or something equally ridiculous, Klein actually manages so much weirdness into the plot that the result goes beyond a cliché,

“…looking around at the man-child’s detritus:
silver sporks and steaks abound,
a Heimlich sign, La-Z-Boys, and such.
Mostly, though, there were video game versions
of the 50 states, Asia, the former Soviet Union,
things-we-know-are-Evil, and fuel cells.

This litany of demonized American paraphernalia is so excessively cliché that a reader is forced to reckon with the silliness of demonization at large. No wonder the very next line leads “How does one proceed nonviolently?” After the speaker realizes her prey is not a one dimensional devil, but a human demoted to “poor wretch,” pity erupts in her heart,

‘I do not want to destroy this guy.’
Really my mission was kindness; a show of love.

Now, few sentiments ring more cliché than love. But this expression of love is aimed at the president (Klein’s president)–a sentiment nearly unfathomable in experimental poetry today. This is the reckless compassion—a compassion too inclusive to be cliché. No one is left out of Ish Klein’s Union! Like Whitman maddened with pleasure at the flames of a burning house, Ish Klein explodes with incessant optimism. Her compassion outranks her craft even—uncompromising to the point where Union! Is unconcerned with following conventions or regarding poetic taboos (take the centered justification of all the poems as one evidence). Referring to the book itself, one poem ends:

“Okay, enjoy this flat mechanism which is maybe in your hand.
Save it until you find a use for it.
Love, Love, Love,
Ish Klein”
(For You I will Make Myself Useful)

Union! Surprises again and again. Just when you think you’ve got Klein figured out—maybe a school you associate her with or an aesthetic to fit her in—her poems do something that defy whatever category applied. Union! is collective—the influences it allows itself excludes no genre or expression. It announces a notably unique voice in the current poetry landscape but, far more importantly, announces the voice of a human being, first, who simply happens to be using poetry as a vehicle for human connection. Ish Klein, in Union!, radiates love, obeys no one aesthetic conduct and is on fire, through every line, with the world’s overwhelming glory. She says: “I sympathize with all creatures in this story.” (The End of the Road); she says: “I love everyone, potentially.” (The Garden); she says:

“I’m a flame

I’m a card, a king!

A burning king card with a heart!

With many hearts.”

(I’m Amazing, I’m a Fireman)