Review of Looking Askance, by Laura Klinkon
Stesichorus Publications, Rochester, NY. 2017
Available at Amazon.com
Pungent, not biting
Laura Klinkon’s chapbook, Looking Askance, suggests its tone in the title itself. The work glimpses into the narrator’s relationships to mother, neighbors, self, and others with an ironic but usually gentle attitude. The cover art, a Byzantine portrait bust, goes a long way to suggest this tone. As described by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “this sensitively carved portrait bust presents a mature woman with a thoughtful expression and piercing gaze; the scroll held in her right hand signals an appreciation for classical learning and marks her as a member of the elite.”
Perhaps not a member of the elite, but Klinkon reveals herself as definitely schooled in classical learning. The front matter of her little book is a little intimidating at first, beginning with an epigraph from Juvenal, followed by an introduction in which she ponders to what extent the satires she intends “fall under the classical Horatian, Juvenalian, or Menippean categories.”
I prepared to feel quite stupid as I read her poems, but I needn’t have feared. The first poem reveals itself to be quite approachable in its diction and subject matter, as its easygoing title, “I went to the city today,” suggests. Though the poem employs a few top-shelf words and concepts (“contingency realms,” and a brief philosophical debate on will versus desire), it poignantly evokes a situation of modern loneliness. Although we don’t learn the specific circumstances of the event—Klinkon often explores the philosophical underpinnings of events more than the physical details—the poem peruses the “bones” of the event, an image used in the poem itself to suggest the lack of substance in the conversations she was a party to. “‘What is your weight in bone?’” is the “one thing / I hadn’t dared say,” she writes.
The loneliness engendered by feeling somewhat estranged from the company of others even while in their company is a theme that runs throughout the work. The four-line “People may look” finds the speaker being looked at “askance” by others, while “Some tides rise” explores “various projects / incomplete,” which appear to include the project of identity as well.
“Scattered clouds” suggests that this feeling of incompleteness is the loneliness of the introverted and introspective artist who, given the complications of relationship with anyone, might finally resolve to stay in bed and “not even / pick up the phone.” This is echoed in a later poem, “Today you liked my shirt,” in which a hole in the front represents “solitude” and “a shroud hung / on the bones of a mazurka-stepping / apparition.”
In fact, I don’t find these pieces that satirical, though there is certainly irony in them; and though they suggest criticism of both society and self, I find the tone more sympathetic than mocking. “After the concert” certainly conveys a criticism of social manners, as the speaker “correctly used no fingers / for my food, my weaving / through the klatsches ruffled / no one.” But this is about as critical towards others as Klinkon gets. And certainly she is self-deprecating a little later in the poem when she admits an awkward moment leaving the party, “my head nearly thumping the banister” in her haste or distraction to get the hell out of there. Yet, rather than the ire or caricature of satire, the poem ends with a poignant admission: “I saw / all I was, done, knew…could be entwined / in a bundle and trundled as a bien vivante, / bon voyagée courante.”
Diction and Form
I must admit, there were many times I had to run to the online dictionary for some of the terms Klinkon chooses, sometimes perhaps unnecessarily taxing the reader’s resources (making me research “annelid,” when she had already used the word “worm,” which sufficed). In the above case, Google did not give a precise translation of the two French terms. But I got the idea (I hope).
The loneliness I sense in these poems gets more specific than grand existential pathos. As the chapbook develops, Klinkon introduces a relationship with a neighbor who is useful as a plowman in winter, but whom “I liked better before you had your / colonoscopy.” True, there’s a sting to that statement, though it seems pretty direct; ironic, rather than sarcastic, only in the social expectation that we should love our neighbor, even if sometimes he expects too much.
Klinkon doesn’t employ traditional forms, though she uses plenty of internal rhyme, as in the first poem discussed.
I went to the city today where
others awaited not me, but it was
okay, I had little to say, so they
made some space for me.
The last line of the poem highlights the conjunction between form and content: “Today, I was keenly all ears.”
The last time I chatted with Laura, she mentioned that she had published The Silent Lyre, a collection of translations of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets from English into Italian, so it’s clear she’s well-acquainted with formal poetry. These poems mix form and a conversational tone to make them sad but sharp little songs.
Maybe next time we chat Laura can clear up my misconceptions about satire, but it may be a hard sell. There’s a little too much sweetness in these poems, though mixed with bitters, as in the beautiful images of the final poem,
My heart is a pip
poison as an apple seed
slippery as a lemon’s
crimped in a leather rind
As she admits in her Introduction, “the result is pathetic.” I understand that not in the modern sense of “miserably inadequate,” but in its original sense: “evoking pity, sympathetic sadness.” As the description of the Byzantine bust suggested, the speaker in Klinkon’s work is thoughtful, piercing, and sensitive.